[31 July 2014]
There isn’t much about Romany and Tom: A Memoir that appeals from a thousand-foot view. A memoir recalling musician Ben Watt’s parents and their life’s struggles with typical parental issues (e.g., waning love, alcohol and other addictions, degradation of health in later years) is a tough start, even for dedicated readers. Theirs is a story that could be applied to most any middle-class couple.
Likewise, Watt must certainly understand that a memoir of such far-reaching commonality will only appeal to a partial audience, mostly comprised of married or divorced, middle-class whites. And it’s difficult to imagine those in their early 20s latching on to the recollection of a bohemian jazz musician and his actor-turned-journalist wife. But Romany and Tom is a quiet, reflective tale, meant to be read carefully and slowly, while being reminded of your own mortality. Indeed, the deeper you go, the more engrossing it becomes.
Watt, best known as a musician, DJ, and one-half of pop duo Everything But the Girl, takes a second foray into memoir with Romany and Tom. His first book, Patient, chronicled his own sickness and scare with a rare auto-immune disease, Churg-Strauss syndrome, with a sharp eye and sharper intellect. Watt is no stranger to hospitals or health issues, and it’s these previous experiences that give Romany and Tom such a measured, holistic approach. Scenes where Watt takes on the role of primary caregiver for his parents are both melancholy and touching; Watt demonstrates through his actions and his words, his understanding of the deficiencies of the human body, a vessel that can give out on us at any time.
But Romany and Tom is not an exercise in sadness or regret, a field it could easily dip into. Despite much of his recollections and his research into his parents’ tangled love lives, he recalls times of joy and freedom with a light touch. Holidays and vacations are remembered fondly, as are performances at clubs from his bandleader father. One Christmas morning drive with his father is captured like a imperfect snapshot of their relationship: tense and fading, but also forgiving and understanding.
Watt’s relationship with his parents is different from that of his four half-siblings; he was the only child born of their marriage. The details of Romany and Tom’s previous marriages were (at the time) illicit and a bit sordid. Watt never exploits these details, however, for personal narrative. Instead, he navigates the murky waters of lost love delicately, treating their affairs as pure matters of the heart, even when its difficult to understand the logical reasonings for dividing families in two.
Much of what Watt uncovers during Romany and Tom (he is as much a discoverer as he is the storyteller) is culled from personal letters and notes that his mother kept labeled in folders. Many of these notes are flinchingly honest; Watt uncovered secrets and letters that his mother likely never expected any one to find until after her death. The effect is jarring and self-reflexive. The most powerful effect Watt has managed in Romany and Tom is to turn the reader’s focus inward, towards their own mortality and their own treatment of loved ones. However many acts of cruelty or selfishness Watt records of his parent’s behavior, we see ourselves a little to clearly in their mannerisms and actions.
The private and personal nature of Watt’s memoir makes it difficult to endure, at times. This is not any fault of Watt’s, however, whose writing style is measured and contemplative. His sentences are sharp, his adjectives sparse, and his emotions are contained within the story. If Watt was ever reticent about displaying such personal and private moments on the page, he doesn’t let them show. He takes each detail as a microscopic element that, over time, builds into its own existence.
His eye for detail and emotion comes easily. Watt’s own music—the records he produces, records, and creates both individually and with his wife, Tracey Thorn—has never shied away from the personal. One of Watt’s best-loved songs, “25th December”, is a biographical sketch of his father’s routine playing the piano for Christmas.
Romany and Tom is heightened by Watt’s own solo release, Hendra, his first in many decades. Hendra doesn’t correspond directly to Romany and Tom, per se, but the influence is certainly there.