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

Photo: Hunter Skipworth / Moment
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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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