Romany and Tom
(Bloomsbury Circus, hardback)
Review by Richard Benson.
Ben Watt’s new book seems born of that time in man’s life that often comes, as in Ben’s case, between the birth of his first children and/or the death of his father, and that starts him thinking about his and his family’s past. For such books to be compelling they need an exceptionally frank and perceptive author, and/or an interesting family. Fortunately Romany and Tom has both. In telling the story of his parents’ marriage Watt ends up with a non-fiction vignette of post-war Britain that challenges and adds to our ideas about the subject, just as it challenged his understanding of his mother and father’s lives. It also has particularly interesting insights into the lost world of British jazz in the 1950s.
Watt’s father Tommy was a working-class Glaswegian jazz pianist who became famous as a band leader and composer/arranger in the 1950s, working with George Martin, winning an Ivor Novello and playing a three-year residency at Quaglino’s when it was a hub of the Soho jazz scene and social circuit. When he met Romany Bain, an actress with the Royal Shakespeare Company, at a party in 1957 they fell madly in love with each other – which would have been fine if a) she hadn’t been married with triplets and b) it hadn’t been the 1950s, with all the old illiberal laws and attitudes governing divorce still in place.
There was a wild, covert affair, a separation for Romany, a drugs bust for Tommy and, in the end, a hasty marriage. They settled down, and had Ben, and Romany began a career as a showbiz journalist that would give her a high public profile and lead to a friendship with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. However, as her star rose in the 1960s, Tommy’s was falling. Jazz bands were being replaced by beat groups, and the composing and arranging work was in television and pop. Tommy refused to compromise, and scorned his contemporaries who gave in (in one brief but brilliant detail, Watt remembers him cursing Ronnie Hazelhurst for selling out by writing his jingly TV theme tunes) which, as Watt says, could either have been out of integrity or a self-destructive bloody mindedness.
Tommy ended up packing in the music to become a painter and decorator. This arc of the talented, perfectionist man who struggles to live with his own success, and seems to take a sort of bitter relief in a principled self-destruction will be recognizable to a lot people I suspect – not necessarily because it applies to themselves but because they have watched in frustration as friends follow it. I have anyway, and Watt’s account of his dad’s career is the best and most insightful description of this kind of decline that I’ve ever read. His descriptions of other jazz musicians his dad takes him to meet and hear are equally moving and poignant, the sort of thing that can only come from a writer who feels himself both inside and outside a distinct milieu.
“I sensed it was like a secret society,” he explains during a description of the famous back room of the Bull’s Head in Barnes. “Language-less men with so much to say, who came alive through music, who understood each other and revealed so much thru beats and notes, each with a common hinterland. When a session ended and the lights came up, it was as if a spell were broken, and as they packed away their instruments they returned to being just quiet, unexceptional men: self protective, self effacing, internalized. I don’t think I ever quite shook this off. Maybe it informed my relationship with my dad.”
Watt’s relationship with his dad is affectionate but difficult. Tommy is extrospective, happiest in men’s company, grumpy and recalcitrant at home, and a sufferer of severe depression. Ben is sensitive and considerate of the needs of other people, while clearly enjoying his dad’s saloon-bar bravado. One of the narratives in the book follows this relationship from Bens’ childhood through to Tommy’s move to a care home, and finally to his death, touching on Ben’s own depression and psychotherapy. It is by turns funny and moving, and is thankfully left open-ended, with no neat tying up of ends and then-I-realised-we-all-just-have-to-be-true-to-ourselves stuff that bedevils weaker writing of this kind.
It should be said that Romany and Tom, follow up to Watt’s memoir Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, is about much more than jazz and the relationship between father and son; most importantly Romany has equal billing here, and the story of her stormy relationship with Tommy, from 1957 right through to old age and his death, is the core story here. There are also some insights into Watt’s own music, memories of growing up in London in the 1960s and 1970s, and restrained, touching passages about his own life as a father. It was just that for me, the music – and the idea of what music is, its strange role of communicating emotion – filled the book like, well, a soundtrack.
There is a moment at the end of the book when Watt plays his mum, now old and struggling to remember things, Frank Sinatra’s You Make Me Feel So Young, from the Songs From Swinging Lovers album, which was released the year she met Tommy. At the end he asks if she wants another one, but she declines. “Is it too sad?” she says.
“For me?” asks Watt.
“A little,” he says.
Romany and Tom comes close to that sadness, but it is never too much nor too mawkish. And it makes the music sound all the better.
Romany and Tom is on sale in the Caught by the River shop at the special price of £15.00
We are hosting the launch of Romany and Tom at Rough Trade East this Thursday, where Ben will be talking about the book with the broadcaster, journalist and ex-NME editor, Andrew Collins. More information on that event can be found here.