Thursday 25 April 2019

Loves and life's lessons from Billy Binns, the oldest man in Europe

Fiction: The Six Loves of Billy Binns

Richard Lumsden

Tinder Press €14.99

The Six Loves of Billy Binns
The Six Loves of Billy Binns

Anne Cunningham

Author, actor, musician and composer Richard Lumsden began writing The Six Loves of Billy Binns more than 25 years ago and after writing 100 pages he abandoned the project. He kept the manuscript, however, and some years later he returned to it, rewriting it as a radio play which was broadcast in 2016 on BBC 4, with Tom Courtenay playing the lead.

Lumsden has reworked the story yet again and it has now been published in its original intended format, a sweeping novel chronicling the 117 years of Billy's long life and reflecting on the lessons - if any - he has learned along the way.

Billy Binns is reputed to be the oldest man in Europe, now a resident in a nursing home run by staff with varying degrees of regard for their elders, ranging from kind to just plain mean. Billy grew up in working class Shepherd's Bush, his father a labourer and a drinker, his mother resigned to her fate like most women of her time.

At 14, Billy takes a job in a fishmongers but when the Great War breaks out he signs up along with his mates, all of them lying about their age. The horrors he witnesses in the Battle of the Somme are among some of the book's most memorable and haunting passages. Of the five boys who enlist, only Billy and one of his friends survive, the others all dead within just days of their arrival.

Years later, back in London, Billy finds himself enmeshed in World War II as well. He's a bus driver in the city by now and after one bombing too many he decides to steal a bus and drive it north towards Durham, out of the danger zone, accompanied by his married girlfriend, Vera. Such a seemingly harmless caper will shape the rest of his life. But since he's more of a foolhardy rogue than a wise man, Billy never learns from this and other big mistakes. And perhaps this is part of his huge appeal. How many of us learn from our mistakes, really?

Five of the loves of his life are listed in the first chapter. Part of the hook here is, of course, who will be the sixth, and how Billy might play out his last love story, with him living as he does in a care facility for the elderly and enduring a very advanced state of decrepitude.

His first "love" is in fact the woman he lost his virginity to as a boy, and the mother of his friend Harry. His second love, Evie, is the love of his life, but Billy has not yet learned at this point to… um… keep his powder dry. His son Archie is his third love and probably his most poignant story. Vera of the bus caper follows and then his neighbour, Mrs Jackson. That's real, gritty love.

Billy's somewhat limited vocabulary makes for hard going at times, even though he makes for an authentic protagonist. And his loves are far from conventional. In many ways it's his sixth love that is his most authentic encounter, yet it can hardly be described as love at all. Maybe Lumsden is attempting to define the great indefinable. What is love?

This is a big, assured, accomplished work and its scenes of war and poverty tend to linger. The "loves", however, are less prominent than the title might suggest.

It's been described as a life-affirming, warm, fuzzy novel by the PR squads, which I find truly baffling. I wonder if they've read it at all.

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