Bill Wyman

The qualities that made Bill Wyman ‘the boring one’ in the Rolling Stones have served him well in his other role – as the group’s archivist. But his new scrapbook is far from dull, finds Nigel Farndale.

It is midmorning and Bill Wyman’s Sticky Fingers burger restaurant in Kensington is empty. Almost. Then a tourist walks in and takes a photograph of a photograph that is hanging on the wall. It is of the Rolling Stones, circa 1968. The man hasn’t realised that one of the rock stars in the picture is sitting a few feet away, watching him. It’s a scene that can only be described as postmodern.

Apart from the black-rimmed glasses he is wearing today, Wyman doesn’t look that different from how he did back then. He was never a tall man (5ft 7in) and his hair is still collar length, if greying now. But he is older: 76.

Indeed, when he orders a vodka and tonic which seems quite rock and roll, given the time of day, he explains that it is, in fact, because he has backache.

The photograph is one of hundreds of items of memorabilia exhibited here in the restaurant, including gold discs, Brian Jones’s guitar and Wyman’s bass (the two instruments together are worth about half a million pounds).

“The stuff here is only a fraction of my collection,” Wyman says. “I’ve got trunks of it at home.” Indeed he is about to publish Scrapbook, a limited-edition volume presented in a clamshell box. It features tickets, posters, programmes, letters, photographs, and much more besides. There’s Wyman’s birth certificate, letters to – and from – fans, a list of expenses for the Stones’ accountant, and even his Japanese work visa application form. In another life he would have loved to have been a librarian, he says, what with all that indexing and cross-referencing. The next best thing was to become the band’s archivist.

Did the other Stones think he was eccentric for collecting all the time?

“Oh yeah, they thought I was mad, they’d say, ‘Why are you bothering to – excuse my language – collect that crap?’ It was quite hard to collect anything because you had to leave a venue so quickly, what with the kids attacking you and jumping over police vans.”

Wyman’s letter to a UK fan. 17th January 1965

Wyman’s letter to a UK fan. 17th January 1965

He says the Stones always went out of their way to be nice to their fans – which must be difficult when, as regularly happened, they attack your car and force you to be helicoptered away under police escort. “There was always stacks of mail waiting for us at venues and we would sit down and start answering it,” says Wyman. “Me, Brian, Charlie and Keith took turns doing the autographs and we learnt to do each others’, because there were so many to do. When the autographs come up at Sotheby’s these days I can often tell they aren’t real.”

But it wasn’t just autographs the female fans were after, was it, Bill?

A grin. “Well, that was Brian and me mostly, the others weren’t that interested, really. But we are digressing.”

Are we? In a way, we are still on the subject of collecting. By Wyman’s own estimates he slept with around 1,000 women. Yes, he says, but it wasn’t how people think. “Before I joined the Stones, a workmate gave me a piece of advice. Always treat a woman like a lady, and I always did that, even when I broke up with one. There are some who I still write to, a friend in Australia who I used to go out with in ’63, ’64. She has grandchildren now. And I’m still in touch with a girl I used to go out with in ’64, ’65. I never treated them like s— and threw their clothes out.”

Presumably he couldn’t remember all their names. “It was a bit of a blur at times. But I can remember a lot of them. I was married so I couldn’t write about them in my diaries. I had to remember when and where. They weren’t one-night stands, though, because I would see the same ones again. Whenever I went to New York there were two black girls I would see. Every tour.” Bill Wyman’s address book: it should be in a glass case in the British Museum. “Yes,” he agrees with a laugh. “But I had it stolen in Spain in 1999. It was in a suitcase they nicked. Never seen again.” What does he make of the current trend for celebrities such as Russell Brand to put their promiscuity down to “sex addiction” and book themselves into clinics for treatment? “Don’t know who that is,” he says.

Michael Douglas, then. “Oh yes, I know Michael. OK, I suppose I didn’t have a sex addiction in that case. I always thought of it as having company when I was lonely and bored on the road. Touring is not a romantic life. It’s exciting for two hours every other night when you’re on stage, the rest is a nightmare of packing and unpacking. So female company helped to pass the time. I didn’t go searching for women, they came to me and were very nice and sweet.

“I was always very careful who I went with. Didn’t go with groupies or anything. Never had any problems with sexually transmitted diseases, as a lot of people did in those days,” He trails off. Looks uncomfortable. “But come on, we shouldn’t be talking about girls all the time.”

Guests Gina Lollobrigida and Suzanne Accosta at the Sticky Fingers Cafe’s 4th Birthday Party. 6th July 1993

Guests Gina Lollobrigida and Suzanne Accosta at the Sticky Fingers Cafe’s 4th Birthday Party. 6th July 1993 Credit: Alan

It’s obvious why not. He says he usually stayed in touch with his old flames, but not with his second wife Mandy Smith, presumably? “Not after we broke up, no. Since the settlement I haven’t spoken to her.” I’m 48 and it is sobering to think that Wyman was my age when he first slept with her. That was in 1985, when she was 14. They married in 1989 when she was 18 and he was 52. With no irony whatsoever, Hello! magazine called it a “fairy-tale” wedding, a headline it would not get away with in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. In the past year, indeed, Wyman’s name has been cited in several newspaper reports as an example of a celebrity who had sex with a minor.

Brave of him to include a snapshot of Mandy Smith in his Scrapbook, I note. “Yes, that was before we broke up. I have many wonderful pictures of her, but I didn’t want to dwell on it because it’s a sore point in my life. People have always treated it badly, when it wasn’t bad. I don’t want to talk about it because it upsets my [third] wife and my [three] daughters, who are the age she was.” He trails off again.

“We all have a skeleton in the cupboard, it’s just if you’re a taxi driver in Halifax no one ever hears about it. But if you are a celebrity everyone does. In my case it was publicised to the world and that wasn’t really fair, I don’t think. No, it’s a tough one. Thirty years ago.”

Does he still feel nervous about prosecution? “There was never a complaint so…” Again, the trailing off. Then he says, “I went to the police and I went to the public prosecutor and said, ‘Do you want to talk to me? Do you want to meet up with me, or anything like that?’ and I got a message back, ‘No’. I was totally open about it.”

His affair with Mandy Smith was “a heart thing”, not “a lust thing”. “It was very emotional and special at the time. It wasn’t how it was reported, and the only time it ever happened in my life. A lot of people understood, but a lot didn’t. The media certainly didn’t. They treated me like crap.”

The heart can make a fool of a middle-aged man, is that how he sees it? “That was why I married her, but it didn’t work out, by then she was changed, but we mustn’t talk about this any more because my wife will get upset.”

OK, let’s talk about the Stones, then. I know he has said he has no regrets about leaving the band in 1993, but when he sees the kind of money they are still making from touring it must give him pause for thought. “When I said I wanted to leave they told me I was probably giving up £20 million for the next two years. But I had three great houses and some nice cars.” He felt he had enough? “Yes, and I got married again and worked on books, and started a band to subsidise my living expenses. And I don’t regret it because I’ve never been happier.” He looks over my shoulder at something.“I’m sure I’m happier than they are in their lives, I really do.”

Wyman seems a likeable man, about as far removed from a one-time rock legend as you can imagine. He was, after all, always characterised as “the boring one” in the Rolling Stones. Indeed, when he left the band Mick Jagger claimed not to have noticed. “How hard can it be to play bass?” he said. “I’ll do it myself.” Certainly Wyman didn’t do drugs; his main requirement on the road was Marmite and Branston pickle. In conversation he uses quaint expressions such as “hark at me”, and when he swears he apologises. His main passion these days is metal detecting.

And his comments can seem quite Eeyorish. It still rankles with him, for example, that his contributions to the Stones were unacknowledged with writing credits. “None of us got them, Brian, Mick Taylor. If you came up with a riff that turned an ordinary song into something special it was never acknowledged.” Would Mick and Keith acknowledge the riffs privately? “No, not really. The riff on Miss You was mine. And the one for Jumping Jack Flash. There was one interview where Keith acknowledged that ‘that was Bill’s song’. Then about 10 years later he denied he’d said it.”

He sighs. “I don’t push it. You have to swallow your pride and let it go, otherwise you get knotted up. I went away and had the biggest solo success of anyone in the band with (Si, si) Je Suis Un Rock Star. A world hit.” You get the feeling there is little love lost between him and Jagger: “He can start a sentence by saying Yes and by the end of it you realise he has said No.”

But they do have a passion for cricket in common, I say, trying to act as go-between. “Except I play it and he only watches it.”

He’s feeling distracted now, he says, because he keeps noticing that a picture of Jagger on the wall behind me is on a skew. “I’m a bit OCD,” he explains. “Have you noticed I’ve been straightening these serviettes and forks as we’ve been talking.” As I get up to straighten the picture for him, he asks the waiter if the music can to be turned down “because it’s a bit ’orrible”. His wife Suzanne arrives.

Time for one last question. He played bass on Satisfaction and Brown Sugar. He was on stage at the legendary Hyde Park concert in 1969. For some fans, the Stones without Bill Wyman are not really the Stones at all. Do people still think he is in the band? “Yes, taxi drivers still say after all these years, ‘When are you touring with the Stones again?’”

Actually, he did rejoin them briefly on stage at the O2 last November for their 50th anniversary. What was it like?

“Bit disappointing, really,” he deadpans. “They only let me do two songs.”


Grayson Perry

As he unveils his biggest exhibition yet, the ‘transvestite potter’ seems set to join the art world’s big beasts. But will his ladylike alter ego and childhood teddy bear be joining him?

Being an accommodating man, Grayson Perry has asked if we – that is, the photographer and me – would like him as Claire or as himself. Actually, it was someone from his gallery who asked on his behalf, but still, it is an intriguing distinction, one that I will try to unravel here. He is far from consistent on the subject.

For now, though, it would be as well to remind ourselves, as if we could forget, that not only is 51-year-old Perry a “conceptual artist who works as a craftsman” (his definition) but he is also a transvestite, and that when he dresses as a woman it tends to be as one who wouldn’t look out of place in a pantomime. Indeed, when he won the Turner Prize for his ceramics in 2003, he was wearing a Little Bo Peep outfit. “It’s about time a transvestite potter won this prize,” he quipped.

His pointed sense of humour is one of his defining characteristics, and it runs through his work like the seam of gilt he put in one of his vases to make it obvious it had been broken and repaired (because that was what the ancient Orientals used to do, making a feature of the repair).

We have opted for “as himself” today, which means he is wearing red trousers, pumps and a linen jacket, and his unribboned blond curls reach down to his collar. He has poured himself a coffee, peeled a banana and taken a single bite from it, but the rest of it remains in his hand, which is poised on his knee as if he were an Edwardian posing for a tableau vivant.

We are meeting in the director’s dining room at the British Museum where, from this week until mid February, there will be a major exhibition of his work. And when you approach the columned entrance of the museum and see a long banner announcing it, you do realise what a big name, literally and figuratively, Grayson Perry has become.

Must put a spring in his step when he sees that, I say. “First time I have seen it, actually. But yeah, the big banner outside the British Museum feels pretty good. Oooh!” He talks quickly and fluently in a resonant voice, and though you wouldn’t necessarily work out straight away that he was born and raised in Essex, there are still some traces of the county in his accent.

His exhibition is called Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman and it features his own work alongside objects he has selected from the eight million on display here. The “unknown” in the title seems to be, well, rather knowing on his part, because he himself is far from anonymous as an artist and craftsman.

In the past he’s described Claire as an “alter ego”. Is that still the case?

“I might have done in the past, in my naive pre-therapy days, before I became fully merged. There’s no part of my personality I hive off any more. I’m fully integrated. It’s not an alter ego, it’s a fetish. It’s just me in a frock.”

I ask whether, when he first started cross-dressing in public, the thrill was in passing himself off as a woman. “I never got into dressing as a woman to deceive anyone, so I thought why not embrace it openly? I wanted to say ‘I am Grayson in a dress, deal with it’. There are some trannies who are happy to blend in. If you’re a bank manager, you probably won’t be able to express your transvestism in the same way as an artist can.”

His attitude seems to be that he acknowledges there is something inherently funny about wanting to dress up as a member of the opposite sex, so you may as well be in on the joke and take it further, in his case with baby doll dresses and bonnets. Ritualised humiliation seems to be part of the appeal, too. Can he imagine reaching an age when he will no longer feel the inclination to dress up? “I don’t know. I’ve met trannies who were in their nineties and they said their libidos went years ago. There is a psychological element to it as well as a sexual one, you see.”

Although he has said that his love of pottery may be connected to having to wear a tight rubber smock during his first pottery lesson at school – he became excited by the sensation, broadly speaking – he seems to regard his transvestism as coincidental to his art. But has it, in fact, helped his career? “It hasn’t hurt. It’s a part of me; therefore it must have contributed to my success. In the crowded cultural landscape, it doesn’t hurt to be known for something different.”

He may now deny that Claire is an alter ego, but when he puts a dress on, does he find himself stepping into a character, a public persona that is different to his private one? “I never really use the name any more. I kind of regret it because it came out of me being in a transvestite society when I was younger and they insisted on a fem name for anonymity. If I started in my forties, I would have said ‘call me Grayson’.”

If he were dressed as Claire today, would there be no difference? “I might sit nicer!” He gives an unexpectedly raucous laugh that makes me jump. “Wouldn’t be so casual! I do sit and walk a little more ladylike when I’m dressed up. It’s appropriate to the look.” He says he’s learnt to avoid the places where his appearance might lead to trouble. But can he handle himself? “Never had a fight.” I ask this because his stepfather was an amateur wrestler. Was he a violent man? “He could be very frightening. That sort of person would be someone I would avoid. I still have a reaction to machismo.”

His biological father was a “manly man” too, an engineer who rode motorbikes. “Motorbikes aren’t manly,” he says. “Look at mine.” True, his is pink and turquoise. “If a bloke has to prove his machismo with a motorbike, then he isn’t very macho.” The motorbike and his father, with whom he has little contact, are integral to understanding his new work. They are linked by Alan Measles, his childhood teddy bear, who features heavily in the new exhibition. Perry recently toured Bavaria on his motorbike accompanied by Alan Measles, who sat in a specially constructed shrine on the back. It was, the artist said, a mission of reconciliation with their old enemies, the Germans. In his solitary and unhappy childhood, you see, Perry imagined Alan as a heroic member of the French resistance.

He was also an unbeaten racing driver, and a fighter pilot. He has now taken on the role of a “personal God” and “the embodiment of everything that is good about masculinity”. In the exhibition catalogue, Perry describes Alan as “the benign dictator of my fantasy worlds. He was my prime candidate for deification and I set about making works that celebrated his heroism.”

Presumably, by giving a teddy bear all these manly characteristics, his intention was to mock them? “No, in my childhood, Alan was a transference mechanism to help me survive emotionally. I needed a reassuring male figure, so I constructed it.” But why not project on to an Action Man? “Well, I’m sure there are kids who have done it with an Action Man, but for me it happened to be my teddy bear. I never wanted to be in someone else’s imagination. Teddies are universal. They don’t have distinctive characteristics. That’s why he’s like a god.”

People project on to God what they would like Him to be. Alan struggles with the whole business of religion. There is a piece in the show called Hold Your Beliefs Lightly in which Alan says to the world’s religions: “Calm down, dear, it’s only a belief system.’’ What Alan Measles is most, as Perry discovered when he had therapy, is a surrogate father. He is also his male psyche. Indeed, on one of Perry’s vases there is a scene in which Claire is marrying Alan. “Many problems in society come from an imbalance in the way these two sides of our personality are dealt with,” he has written.

Perry’s wife Philippa is a psychotherapist and they have a 19-year-old daughter, Florence. He denies that he gets free sessions, although “We talk about therapy all the time… there are still a lot of people who are suspicious about it because people see it as a fluffy, middle-class indulgence. I think it will become more popular in the future because it is a b——-free zone. Therapists tell it like it is. They peel back layers.” In conversation, he often seems to refer to emotions. And as much as anything, his new exhibition seems to be an exploration of public emotion.

The Unknown Craftsman is, of course, a reference to the Unknown Soldier who became the focus for national grief after the First World War. “I found it very moving reading up about the Unknown Soldier,” he says, “because public displays of emotion intrigue me. I found the Diana funeral moving in a way a lot of middle-class commentators dismissed. Yucky working-class people being vulgar and emotional.” Would he say he’s now part of the art establishment? “No. There is an art elite which meets in Venice and it is partly a class thing because they prefer intellectual difficulty to emotional. They sneer at anything accessible because they think accessibility means dumb.”

Perry has broad appeal and I think it’s because people find him accessible, engaging and witty. “I’m sure there are people in the art world who struggle to like me because they have an academic, insular version of art. Difficult art is collected by galleries rather than individual patrons and it’s a kind of closed system. The public aren’t paying for it and their attention isn’t sought. The elites don’t realise they are a little village.” Is there rivalry between the big beasts, by which I mean him, Tracey Emin, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, Gilbert & George and the Chapman brothers?

“I’m the littlest of the big beasts. They make miles more money than me. Wish I had their money. I don’t do enough work and don’t have a big team of assistants. This exhibition is two years’ work for me. They make the kind of work that they are happy to see expanded and out of their control.” Me-ow! Is there rivalry, though? “I’m glad to meet any of them. We have things that we like and we don’t like about each other’s work. It would be weird if we didn’t. We’re not treading on each other’s toes.” He adds that his ambition is “to make art that is happy and accessible and decorative. The idea that art has to be difficult and solemn is not very English. And I’m very English.”

It is telling that he refers disparagingly to “the middle classes” as if they are not his tribe, when clearly they now are. He listens to Radio 4 all day when he’s working in his studio, for goodness sake. But, for all this, there is something endearingly, and perhaps surprisingly, unpretentious about Perry. The interview done, and the banana now eaten, we wander over to where the exhibition is being constructed. He hasn’t made an appointment to visit the site and the security guard is not convinced he is who he says he is. How much easier it would have been if he had come as Claire.


Terry Jones

Father of a two-year-old, medieval historian, and now champion of church conservation – Terry Jones talks about the unlikely turns his life has taken since the Monty Python years.

Just as an ex-Beatle will always be an ex-Beatle, so an ex-Python will forever be an ex-Python, even one who goes on to have a successful second career as a historian specialising in the Middle Ages, as Terry Jones did. It’s just the way of things.

In his airy study overlooking Hampstead Heath, the shelves of books reflect this duality. The collected Python scripts take up as much space as the volumes of medieval history. And what’s this? Peeping out from behind some taller books is the corner of a blue plaque. It was supposed to go outside the house in Colwyn Bay where Jones grew up, yet here it still is, hidden away.

Such, it seems, is the modesty of the man. As for his famed affability, well, there does seem to be a permanent chuckle just below his surface and, combined with his distracted air, this makes him seem like a don who can’t remember where his next lecture is supposed to be. His croaky voice adds to this impression, and it’s tempting to think this might be caused by years of playing all those screechy Python women, such as the waitress in the Spam sketch.

More prominently displayed is a photograph of Jones with what you might assume is his granddaughter. He is 69, after all. But this is, in fact, his daughter Siri, who has just had her second birthday. Her mother Anna, a 28-year-old Swedish Oxford graduate, greeted me at the door and is now downstairs making an apple crumble. They met six years ago and, when he realised he had fallen in love, Jones confessed all to his wife Alison, a biochemist with whom he has two grown-up children. He clearly still finds the subject of his separation a difficult one. When we discuss it, he becomes even more halting than usual.

Has he always lived round here? “No, 26 years in Camberwell.”

His wife is still there? “Um, yes.”

Must have been hard for both of them, after so many years of marriage. “Yeees, fairly horrible. Harder for her than me, obviously.”

But didn’t they have a fairly “open” marriage anyway? “Um, yeeeah.”

Are they still married? “Yes, but, um, about to get divorced, mainly because it causes tax problems if you don’t.”

And will he re-marry? “Um, yes. Again, there are tax implications if you don’t.”

He is less hesitant on his favourite subject: misconceptions about medieval England. On Thursday, indeed, he will be giving the annual lecture for the Churches Conservation Trust on this subject.

“We think of medieval England as being a place of unbelievable cruelty and darkness and superstition,” he says, pronouncing his r’s as w’s. “We think of it as all being about fair maidens in castles, and witch-burning, and a belief that the world was flat. Yet all these things are wrong.”

What’s behind this negative image, then? “I think it’s because, as a human race, we like to think we’ve progressed. In fact, they were very sophisticated and subtle.”

Isn’t he partly to blame for the misconceptions, though, given the impact of Monty Python and the Holy Grail? “I think we were guilty of perpetuating one myth and that was that everyone had blackened teeth. It was before the opening of the sugar trade with the West Indies, so actually people had very good teeth.”

Has he ever fantasised about going back in time and seeing for himself what life was really like then? “No, it’s more fun speculating. And anyway I don’t think my knowledge of Chaucerian English would be good enough. The funny thing about history is that we imagine that people didn’t laugh in the old days, but of course they did, at stupid things. Henry II’s favourite minstrel was ‘a whistle, a leap and a fart’. And he paid someone a lot of money to fall off his horse.”

His daughter appears at the glass door and he waves at her and says in a high-pitch voice: “Hello, Siri! Hello! What’s that mischievous face?” When he lets her in, she shows him a birthday card and then she heads back downstairs. “She’s such a sweetie. I can’t remember my other two children at this age,” he says, “Because we were in the middle of filming Holy Grail.”

I guess that’s why grandparents often have good if not better relationships with their grandchildren than they did with their children, because they have more time. “It’s the same with Siri and me, actually. Occasionally, I find it hard to get to work. In my old house I had a study at the top, far away from everything. But Siri likes to pop in and see what I’m up to, and with those big eyes it’s hard to say no!”

Does having a child at his age make him feel younger? “I kind of feel about 15 anyway. Probably 20. It takes you a while to catch up with what your real age is, but I’ll be 70 next year. Terry Gilliam [another ex-Python] had his 70th earlier this year at a speedway track.”

And the nights, how does he find them? “When she was younger, we shared the night duties. But now Siri is sleeping through, so it’s not too bad.”

As well as his history books, he’s written some lovely children’s books; he must be great at telling bedtime stories, I say. “Not really. I’ve never been good at improvising. Writing them is a different matter. Anna’s very good with the songs. She knows so many Swedish songs, and she sings them to Siri in the car.”

His relationship with his own father was more distant. “I remember seeing him for the first time when I was four and half. I’d only seen photographs of him before then because he had been based in India during the war, in the postal service. I grew up with women doting on me – my mother and grandmother – and when my father came back he wanted to impose some strict Edwardian values. I suppose I resented the intrusion.”

His mother adored him. “Even more than she did my older brother, I think. She treated me like her little pet. I felt my first duty was to please her, and that could be onerous.”

Was his mother compensating for his father’s absence? “I suppose so, but she was very loving anyway.” He stares out of the window. “My mother always said she had something she wanted to tell me, and she never did. She died suddenly from a heart attack [when he was 30] and didn’t get the chance. It was a mystery.”

Was he conscious of being cleverer at school than his peers? “No, I’m not that clever, actually. This medieval stuff might look academic, but I’m hopeless at academia, really. I could never remember anything. I’d read history books and not remember anything. It was a real strain.”

He and the other gentle ex-Python, Michael Palin, met at Oxford and tended to write together, whereas the other comedy writing team in the group – John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman – met at Cambridge and were always considered more dangerous and provocative. “Mike and I just wanted to be loved,” Jones has said in the past.

Yet he must have been made of pretty strong stuff because he was the one who directed their three cinematic triumphs: The Holy Grail, Life of Brian, and The Meaning of Life. Must have been a hard job having to direct all those big personalities. “Well, you didn’t really need to direct them. With John, you might sometimes have to say, ‘That’s over the top’, and he would tone it down. But, as we had all written the scripts between us, it was more like being a Woody Allen-type of director. You didn’t need to direct because it was so perfectly cast.”

He’s being modest again. As to the question of whether the ex-Pythons will ever come together to be Pythons again, he reckons they are all too comfortable these days. The edginess and hunger has gone. But you never know. Most of them have contributed to A Liar’s Autobiography, an animated film based on the memoir of Graham Chapman, the Python who died in 1989. And the success of Spamalot, the Broadway musical, shows Python fans are still desperate for more.

For now, Jones has the unusual distinction of having three of his films banned in Ireland. Life of Brian may always come top of polls of the funniest film ever, but it is still considered blasphemous in religious circles. And now here he is giving a lecture on behalf of the Churches Conversation Trust! “I hadn’t thought of that!” he says with a chuckle. “It was Michael [Palin’s] son who, um, suggested I do it. He’s very involved in the conservation of old buildings. But actually the thing to remember about Life of Brian is that, er, it wasn’t blasphemous, it was heretical. There is, um, a difference.”