Newly available in paperback, Romany and Tom by Ben Watt is a touchingly truthful account of the sad decline of his parents in their later years. Something that many of us will already be familiar with, from our own struggles to provide the correct level of support and care that is needed for our parents. More than that though, it shines a fascinating light on the things that initially drew his parents to each other and the consequences of those actions as time moved forward.
Anyone that has read Patient, Ben Watt’s earlier book which skilfully narrated the terrifying journey through the uncharted territories of experiencing a near fatal disease, will know how well he can write. His skill at capturing the seemingly mundane and simple details, which sharply draw light towards the bigger picture, once again works brilliantly in this book.
Ben’s parents were part of an oddly showbiz world. His mum seemingly more comfortable whilst interviewing the likes of Burton and Taylor than the steady routine of home life. His dad, a jazz musician, left tantalisingly close to a great musical career, as the musical tide subtly turned away from him. The book is very honest about the strain that his parents relationship was under for a long period of time, it also shows the stoic nature of two people, trying to do their best whilst not really being able to fully please either themselves or each other. As the line from Time by Pink Floyd goes, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way” and the book captures the awful dread of those words brilliantly.
There are though many lighter moments, as Ben looks back on his childhood and then later the unintentionally funny moments that elderly parents provide. It’s great at shining a light on the times when the established order turns, the guardian becoming the cared for, the makers of bold and daring decisions suddenly happy to cede responsibility to the next generation. As parents are tasked with the mission of moulding a child’s life, it is often forgotten the when the roles are reversed the challenge is just as great.
The innate complexity of trying to second-guess what will be the best thing for your parents is well covered. How difficult it is, to resist pushing your idea of what your parents should be doing and the sort of life they should be living. It’s an issue that many of us already find ourselves hugely confused by, so it’s strangely comforting that actually, and obviously really, no son or daughter really knows what he or she is doing. Added to the mix in this case are the difficulties that Ben has experienced in his own life and though none of us will go through exactly the same traumas that he experienced, each of us will face something. Sometimes that thing will be so overpowering that you can’t successfully keep all the elements under control, some things may slip. That’s fine; we do our best, because that is all we can do.
The language and style that the book uses is straightforward and restrained. Actually it’s the lack of polemical drama that makes some of the more tender moments, very touching because they are universal yet fundamentally simple. It’s a wise, witty and sensitive look into a future that our aging population will thrust upon more and more of us in the forthcoming years. As such, it is beautiful guide to an uncertain future.