Judy Garland et al at Quaglino's in the 1960s, the London restaurant where Tommy Watt's first band played. (Photo: Getty)
Show Hide image

Meet the parents: Romany and Tom by Everything But the Girl’s Ben Watt

The musician’s heart-wrenching memoir of his parents’ long, unhappy marriage.

Romany and Tom
Ben Watt
Bloomsbury Circus, 368pp, £16.99

In April 1958, the BBC screened a documentary called Now We Are Married, which took a “light-hearted look” at the routines of three couples. It was presented by the theatre writer Richard Findlater and his actress wife, Romany Bain, and began at what appeared to be their home, a pebble-dashed suburban house. In the first scene, Findlater was shown leaving for work in his coat and hat, his wife having carefully placed his newspaper in his hand. In the second, viewers saw Bain, elegant in a roll-neck sweater and dark trousers, closing the front door behind him. “I’m an average housewife,” she then said to camera, tilting her chin a little, as if half expecting a fight.

The film spoke of order and contentment: here was a happy couple fulfilling their allotted roles with aplomb and, in the case of Bain, not a little glamour. But nothing was as it seemed. In 1958, Bain was in the throes of a passionate love affair – sometimes it was as debilitating as flu – with Tommy Watt, an immaculately dressed bandleader with exuberant manners and a fondness for the pub. Oh, yes, they had tried to break it off, their respective spouses having found them out. Yet it had been no good. “These last two weeks have been intolerable, unproductive, desolate, blank and quite untenable,” she wrote to him in September 1957. “No work, no love, no nothing.” So, they had continued. It was 1962 before they were free to marry, by which time Bain was carrying her fifth child (her first with Tommy). This baby grew up to be Ben Watt, the musician best known for being half of Everything but the Girl.

In the days after I finished reading Watt’s beautiful, faithful memoir of his parents, Romany and Tom, I pressed it evangelically on friends. It had made me bawl roughly every 30 pages and I predicted it would do the same to them: Watt’s account of his parents’ old age is so full of pity, his slow realisation that he and they had in some sense always been strangers so plangent. As he notes, we know our parents only in the “downhill” stretch of their lives; the golden years happened before we came along.

What tore at my heart, though, was his parents’ relationship with one another. Rom­any and Tom is the story of an increasingly rare thing: a long, unhappy marriage. Forged in the heat of lust and a certain kind of postwar escapism – the Rada-trained Romany is as thwarted a character as you will ever meet, her career having come abruptly to an end when she gave birth to triplets in 1954 – it was doomed from the start by drink and muddled expectations. Yet it survived for more than 40 years. Watt acknowledges the stoicism and devotion in this: his mother stroking his father’s hand as he lies dying. He also understands the fear; she never left her embittered husband, perhaps because she could not bear to fail at marriage twice. He feels the bleakness of it, too, missed opportunities still darkening the room like shadows: “A little murmur escaped from her closed mouth . . . and with it, the tiny moment of tenderness was compromised. . . until it looked more like an evolved tolerance, and on her face was written a faint watermark of disappointment at how it had all turned out.”

How did it curdle, their love? Slowly, Watt tacks back. At first, their lives are full of possibility. Big-band jazz is on its way out but it isn’t so long since Tommy was playing Quaglino’s, recording for George Martin, even picking up an Ivor Novello award (won in 1957, for his composition “Overdrive”). There is hope. As the work dries up, however, the uncompromising Tommy decides he would rather be a decorator than make like Ronnie Hazlehurst, the king of music in the BBC’s light entertainment department, and Romany is left to pick up the financial slack. She works as a journalist, using her theatre contacts – she had been at Stratford with Gielgud – to bag a series of syndicated interviews with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Envious, Tommy returns to drinking. Lonely, Romany joins him. They’re watched by their own one-woman Greek chorus. In the flat downstairs is Eunice, Romany’s mother and, as Watt has it, “her conscience”. His account of his grandmother is very funny indeed.

This is such a rich book, smoky social history – the smog, the strides, the holidays at Pontins – deftly punctuated with some wonderfully unlikely show business vignettes (there are walk-on parts for Romany’s father, the Rev George Bramwell Evens, a children’s broadcaster who stole her name for his nature programme Out With Romany, and to Dick Clement, who gives Watt a preview of the first episode of Porridge). Thanks to the age gap between Watt and his elder half-siblings, he is both an only child and a brother to four, a complex and lonely position, especially once he is marooned with the warring adults. He captures beautifully the unease of the second family – its near-permanent state of truce – without ever passing judgement on its members and connecting his own troubles to their treatment of him.

Most impressive of all is the book’s near-perfect structure. Sly and seamless, its abundant layers offer one of the most complete depictions of a marriage I’ve ever read. Exquisitely restrained, Watt’s technique is to withhold until the right moment. What timing he has! We do not see Romany and Tommy falling in love until the final stages of the book, by which time the drama of their collision feels as necessary as air. Its intensity makes the rest of the story bearable, as it must once also have done for them.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Show Hide image

Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era