Romany and Tom
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.