Ben Watt – Romany and Tom
(Bloomsbury, 365pp., £16.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
Ben Watt is probably still most widely celebrated as half of the altpop duo Everything But The Girl (1982-–2002), and for his subsequent international DJing career, but his writing may well, in the long run, constitute his most lasting artistic legacy. He has already garnered rave reviews for his ‘autopathography’ Patient (described by William Boyd as ‘an eye-wateringly harrowing and candid account of his near-death from one of the world’s rarest diseases’); now he has written a moving, perceptive, sensitive yet unflinchingly honest account of his parents’ decline into old age, leavened with a history of their marriage skilfully and uncontrivedly assembled from memories and personal memorabilia (letters, diaries, photographs).
Watt’s father (the ‘Tom’ of the title) was a jazz composer, pianist and arranger whose bandleading heyday (with his own all-star orchestra and a quintet at a leading West End nightspot, Quaglino’s) was all too brief, spanning the decade from the mid-1950s until 1964 (when he led the shortlived Forty-Two Jazz Band, which Benny Green claimed ‘may well turn out to be the most outstanding big band this country has ever possessed’). Thereafter, his music eclipsed by rock’n’roll and his band’s progress stalled by (in his son’s words) ‘odd venue choices and snobbery among British audiences, who had always told themselves “American jazz is better”’, Tommy Watt became a painter-decorator, making only occasional forays into the jazz world in which he had once been a leading light.
Watt’s mother (‘Romany’) was a promising actress (RADA-trained, she acted alongside rising contemporaries such as Robert Shaw and Robert Hardy in Stratford productions starring the likes of John Gielgud, Alan Badel and Harry Andrews) until her first marriage produced triplets and derailed her stage career. Thereafter, she became a first-call showbiz features writer (interviewing everyone from Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Noel Edmonds and James Galway).
Ben Watt’s book begins with an account of a hospital visit to his dying father, and then doubles back to a moment that will be familiar to anyone with ageing parents: his sudden realisation that the poles of responsibility and care have reversed in the parent–child relationship. Interweaving intensely personal family memories with thoughtful (but by no means uncritical) accounts of his parents’ lives and relationships, Watt then sympathetically but scrupulously details his parents’ gradual loss of autonomy, and traces his own (and siblings’) reactions to this decline back to their roots in the lives and personalities of ‘Romany and Tom’.
In this process, Watt simultaneously paints a haunting portrait of a marriage and a vivid (and entirely unsentimental) picture of family life and – it seems almost incidentally, so deft and assured is his writing – portrays not only the jazz world between the 1950s and 1980s, but also the showbiz milieu in which his mother operated. A profoundly moving (and at times downright harrowing) account of the stresses placed upon family love by ageing and death, Romany and Tom is, none the less, an ultimately uplifting book, courtesy of the sheer unblinking humanity of its author’s gaze.