I finished Ben Watt’s second book the other day, “Romany and Tom,” an insightful and intimate account of his parents’ marriage.
Watt is a tremendous writer; I enjoyed his first “Patient,” although with the subject matter being his life-threatening mystery illness it was a more grim read than “R&T.” The later book is redolent of a lot of what I remember of growing up in the sixties and seventies (Watt is a few years younger than I,) although his background is rather different – Dad was a pretty successful jazz musician who eventually became a painter and decorator (possibly cursed and blessed by being a good enough musician to know he wasn’t a good enough musician;) Mum had been a working actor who by the sixties and seventies was writing showbiz columns for a tabloid. They were both keen on a drink, had been in relationships before and sound pretty glamourous.
Not always pretty though. There are a few accounts of domestic rifts and the couple trying each other’s patience as their expectations and perceptions of each other change.
Watt’s success in the book is to capture the personalities of these individuals, whom he clearly worshipped as a child and youth, as they approach old age and disability without turning it into their “misery memoir.” Some of this he achieves through the non-linear structure of his narrative – childhood memories mix with accounts of his attempts to look after Romany and Tom as they are well into senescence – some of it he achieves by making their travails funny (which is different to making fun of them…)
I can’t think I’ve read anything else like this, a biography of a married couple by someone who was literally a part of their relationship; I guess Watt was uniquely well placed to do this and has made excellent use of secondary sources such as all his Dad’s muso pals and the couple’s huge circle of friends.
As an aside – and this may be an accident of having read “Romany and Tom” on the Kindle – I was actually quite pleased that the only picture of the couple (in fact the only picture in the Kindle edition of the book) is the cropped one shown on the cover (below.) The evocativeness of Watt’s writing makes the photographs of which he often speaks superfluous, possibly even anti-climactic, in the wake of his word-pictures.