Readers in their 40s or 50s are likely to find themselves smiling, or perhaps grimacing, wryly in recognition within the first few paragraphs of Ben Watt’s poignant memoir of his parents. There’s a point at which roles are reversed and you find yourself worrying about your parents, whether they’re eating enough, drinking too much, living in suitable accommodation. We all tend see our parents as just that, people who only exist in relation to ourselves – in Romany and Tom Watt tries to reconstruct his parents as they once were, attempting to understand them as people in their own right with their own stories to tell.
Romany and Tom Watt’s marriage was the second for both of them. Romany had four children by her theatre critic husband when she met Tom with whom she had a passionate affair. They married in 1962 just a month or so before Watt was born. He remembers growing up with his mother working as a successful freelance writer while his father picked up painting and decorating work, his career as a jazz bandleader petering out. As Tom’s music work dried up the relationship turned fractious with more and more evenings spent seeking out the company of others, first at the pub overlooking Barnes village pond then in Oxford when they moved house. By 2001, the couple’s health was in decline. Watt moved them to a flat close to his own home in London hoping for a new start for all of them. After Romany was hospitalised for surgery, Tom moved to a care home where she joined him in that all too familiar slide into ill-health, isolation and withdrawal from the world.
If you were listening to music in the ’80s you may remember Ben Watt’s name from Everything but the Girl. I was a fan so when Watt published a book in the late ‘90s I was keen to read it. Patient is a fascinating, eloquently expressed account of his experience of a rare debilitating illness which took him to the brink of death. What lifts Romany and Tom above the run-of-the-mill family memoir is both that eloquence and the complexity of its subjects’ relationship – these are two people who have passionately loved each other, a love which became buried under layers of resentment, depression and booze as one career rose and the other plummeted. Theirs is a family of entertainers: Romany is the daughter of a Methodist minister who stole her name when his career took a surprising turn into radio where he became a precursor of David Attenborough: she was a fledgeling Shakespearean actor before having children then turned her hand to freelance writing interviewing the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Tom or ‘Tommy’ Watt was a successful jazz musician playing with the greats until musical tastes changed and he failed to change with them, even turning down an offer from Parlophone to back The Beatles. The book is full of anecdotes, some of them funny, some of them sad. It’s unflinchingly honest – Watt’s descriptions of his own depression and breakdown are particularly raw – and at times perhaps uncomfortably so – the extracts from Romany’s written memories about her relationship with Tom made me feel a little queasily voyeuristic – but Watt’s talent is in making the intensely personal universal. All of our stories are different and yet we will all come to this in the end.