There’s a segment in Ben Watt’s terrific family memoir in which he recalls, as a 6-year-old, walking through a wheat field with his mother, Romany: “We ran our fingers through the outermost line of the blond crop — rough and smooth, rough and smooth — the heads craning and stretching away to the rise in the field, the leaf blades and stems nicking at my fingers. And then she was calling up ahead, ‘Come and look, come and look! Cow parsley and yarrow.’ I loved to hear the names. . . .” She teaches him “rife,” an older word for “river,” and recites Yeats to encourage him up a hill. In a single scene, it becomes crystal-clear that Watt’s mother, with a heritage rich and strange — hers was one of England’s most prominent Romany families, her father a Methodist minister and a radio star — passed on to Watt her passion for words.
Retracing his family’s footsteps, Watt — musician, DJ, and, alongside wife Tracey Thorn, Everything But the Girl’s other half — approaches his parents’ marriage and later years with an astonishingly unflinching portrayal that never loses its soul: Watt comes to terms with his parents’ frustrations and limitations, their moods, addictions, and snobbery, without once diminishing them as people.
Romany and Tom collided “ardently and dramatically” in 1957. Tom was enjoying his career as London’s youngest jazz bandleader; Romany was finding her writing niche in the city’s newspapers. Unhappy in her first marriage and with a promising acting career stymied by domesticity, Romany produced columns on home life — “no one had written about motherhood as light comedy before,” she told Watt. “It wasn’t just your father who could be funny, you know” — and was soon interviewing Richard Harris, Goldie Hawn, David Frost, Michael Caine, Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. No slouch when it came to sound bites, she described Burton, then in “Henry V,” as “sex in chainmail.”
But as her star rose, Tom’s was waning — at least as a professional musician — lending an underlying tension to family life. Tom was an “aggressively principled man,” though, as Watt writes, “I have to ask myself how much of it was just sheer bloody-mindedness.” Or, as a friend offers, “your father was principled, yes, but sometimes he was just an obstreperous Glaswegian, who liked getting his own way. And the whisky didn’t help.” While Tom’s gumption and ambition ensured musical stardom up to a point, once rock ’n’ roll muscled its way on stage his bandleader career shrank. “Small-scale,” Watt realizes, was not Tom’s style when it came to jazz.
Along with a compassionate eye and ear, Watt has a knack for cannily selected scenes and research: Among the multitude of gems he shares is a letter from Romany’s first husband on the eve of their divorce. I loved Watt’s descriptions of getting himself to school in horrible weather, yelling “into the word-stealing gale”; his hilariously cringe-worthy attempts to talk to a severely laconic football hero; his honest depiction of himself during a crisis, “brimful of tears and as soft as a peeled egg”; and the moment when he came across Tom and Blake, Watt’s 4-year-old son, lying next to each other, “each with their little feet crossed identically at the ankle,” being, as Blake tells Watt, “’two mans together.’”
There are glimpses of Watt taking Thorn home to meet his parents, of early musical discoveries — Joy Division, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Jonathan Richman — but Watt never swerves far from his incisive, gentle take on Romany and Tom: “Mostly, I saw ordinary people trying hard, which is all we can hope to do.”Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic.