It seems almost awkward to read this book at times. But then, what great autobiography is not difficult? You will note, dear reader, that I have chosen to use the word ‘autobiography’, rather than biography. This is because, whilst ostensibly a book about his parents, there is as much of Ben Watt in here as there is of either of his parents.
Watt seems at first a little tentative in his parents’ company, childhood memories mingling throughout the book win them in their frail dotage – even though they may not see it that way! This builds a very good picture for us, as readers, of them then and now, moving from them being the ones raising Watt and his siblings, up to him caring for them. Some scenes are funny, such as the following extract, from early on in the book:
“In his voice I heard just a hint of the Glasgow accent he had shrugged off all those years ago when he left home – a fiery and ambitious teenage jazz musician called up by the wartime RAF – and it reminded me of his mother, Jean, my grandma, and how she visited three times a year from Scot- land when I was a boy. She flew down on BEA. Her clothes smelled alien. Camphor and talcum powder. I pictured her twin-sets, her thick nylon stockings the colour of strong tea, the sugar-dusted travel sweets in her handbag, how she always spread her marmalade to the very outer edges of her toast; she never used butter; that was far too extravagant. I used to be anxious when she embraced me – the perfumes, the rough weave of her skirt, the powdery down on her face, the sloping shapelessness of her shoulders – but she had a soft button nose and uncomplaining eyes that seemed full of forti- tude and kindness. To me anyway.”
Some are very moving, such as the events leading up to and just after Watt’s father’s funeral (it’s not giving anything away here, to reveal that his Dad, Tommy, dies, as it it is all part of the narrative arc of the book). These scenes work really well, because they combine the funny with the moving and show you how closely each lies to the other. Watt’s showing of the photograph to his parents prompts them both to ask how the laptop works, to see and enjoy the pictures and for Watt also to wonder if this is how they really see things, or else, are they just saying these things because they feel they have some specific role or other to fill?
Watt shares with us memories of how his parents were as younger people, with hopes and dreams and aspirations of a career in the arts, with the eagerness and anticipation and fears and ambitions that all new parents seem to possess, then throws all this into sharp and sometimes uncomfortable contrast by documenting then his Dad’s increasing reliance on an oxygen cylinder (courtesy of a near-lifelong smoking habit) and his mother’s increasing subservience to arthritis and heart problems. What shines through in each case is the indomitable spirit each of them possesses and the way is clear as to how they have passed this on down to Mr Ben Watt himself. It is hard not to have either a tear in one’s eye or else a smile at the corners of ones mouth as each page turns towards an inevitably melancholy conclusion.
As Watt lays bare a true and human picture of both Romany and Tom through his noting of each of their nervously characteristics, idiosyncrasies and sheer annoying little habits (you know, the kinds which both parents and children each possess in abundance and are very fond of pointing out in each other, yet firmly deny possessing themselves??), he also paints a very convincing and honest portrait of himself and where he is in life. Once the cared-for (in both childhood and adulthood – see his previous nook, 1996’s wonderful Patient for further examples of this), he finds himself now the career and wonders regularly throughout the book how he feels and how he should feel about this, all the while trying to just get on with the rigmarole of daily life around about him.
In speaking plainly and simply about his own family (there are plenty of little mentions of Tracey and the kids in here as well), Watt has opened up perhaps even more than he meant to. He has given us a small, intimate, but somehow, at the same time, cinematic and widescreen and truly fascinating comparison of two pictures of family life from differing ages and eras. He shows two very different sets of people pursuing two very different agendas and ways of life and all the while, each is sharing something small and very special with the other in small, almost stolen moments, day by day and, towards the end, hour by hour.