There comes a point in all our lives when, like it or not, we must finally grow up. It might be when we first leave home and get a job, or when we have children of our own. For some, however, real adulthood only arrives when their elderly parents begin to view them as the grown-ups in the equation, figures to be leant on and deferred to.
This unsettling and yet inevitable role reversal is the context in which Ben Watt tells the story of his mother, Romany, a Shakespearean actress-turned-magazine feature writer, and his father Tom, a jazz musician whose career was “barged into the past by rock’n’roll”.
In this elegantly written and clear-sighted memoir, Watt – who is best known as one half of the pop duo Everything But The Girl – juxtaposes memories of growing up in a household of boho, hard-drinking parents, with his later efforts to help them navigate old age, with all the fear, stubbornness and disorientation that comes with it.
Dipping in and out of his family history, it is with unmistakable pride that Watt recalls Romany and Tom’s past escapades: him, the youngest bandleader in London, making the front page of Melody Maker in 1956; her jetting off to Mexico to interview Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Such episodes contrast with a clear sense of melancholy at what they have become – shrunken, meek, bewildered by simple tasks such as operating a dishwasher – and his own discomfort at becoming an authority figure required to monitor their alcohol intake and decide where they should live.
The story begins with the process of moving the elderly pair out of their Oxford home, where they have been struggling to manage, into a flat near his own house in north London. The adjustment is difficult and there is frustration on both sides. His dad largely refuses to leave his bed; his mother can’t be bothered to eat.
Romany and Tom is a tender work infused with the understanding that this is the final chapter of two rich and complex lives. But whether recalling the sight of his father lying in a puddle of blood and urine on the bathroom floor after a night on the brandy, or his mother staring fixedly at her son and asking: “Who are you?”, Watt’s reluctance to sentimentalise the experience makes it that much more powerful, cutting to the heart of the frustrations that come with caring for one’s parents who were, not long ago, just like us.
As Watt remarks at the start: “We only ever see the second half of our parents lives – the downhill part. The golden years we have to piece together.”