Posted on September 30, 2017
39. ‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb
A few weeks ago, I went to see Robert Webb talk about his new book, How Not To Be A Boy. Of course, he was very funny to listen to (it’s delightful to hear that typically Webb-ian delivery and turn of phrase in person), and wrapped up in his humour were lots of fascinating and important observations about masculinity.
How Not To Be A Boy is, for the most part, a memoir. Webb guides us through his life from childhood to his time as an unbearable comedy snob in Cambridge University’s Footlights Dramatic Club, and on into the beginnings of his writing/television career. The last part of the book skips ahead several years, past things like That Mitchell and Webb Look and Peep Show (as he said at the book launch, David Mitchell has already covered all that in this book) for a final look at him ‘now’ as a husband and father. This final section is very short, though, so the main focus of the book is Webb’s childhood and teenage years, and the various comedies and tragedies he experienced.
Throughout this tour of his life, Webb repeatedly returns to his central theme – masculinity – and he looks at the major events of his life through this lens. For example, in the chapter ‘Boys Love Their Dads’ he contrasts his own, complex relationship with his often abusive father with the idea that all boys ‘should’ want to follow in their fathers’ footsteps. When he writes about the death of his mother during his teenage years, he considers how well-meaning relatives would encourage him to ‘talk’, when his entire upbringing until then had made it clear that boys were meant to be quiet about their emotions.
Before I make it sound too doom and gloom, I hasten to add that this is a really funny book. Webb often deals with heavy subjects but he does so in a hugely entertaining way, and he also deals with plenty of lighter stuff (see taking the piss out of his own teenage diaries). Some of his turns of phrase, and his use of capital letters to indicate Very Important Truths, had me do that shotgun-burst laugh out loud. One of my favourite lines is his description of a vagina as a ‘feminine lady secret’. I might have spit out my tea.
If you like self-deprecating humour, you’re going to love this book. Webb is a master at taking the mick out of himself, and a number of times he does this by staging conversations between his current self and a younger version of himself. Usually his younger self doesn’t know what he’s going on about – it’s hugely satisfying to read. Probably my favourite ‘period’ of this book is Webb reflecting on his teenage years. He describes his constant desperation to get laid and his absolute rage when he was turned down. He renders the self-centred, overly dramatic attitude of teenage-hood perfectly – so perfectly that I found myself cringing, because I remember being just like that.
At the book launch, Webb made very clear that he is very definitely still a work in progress. All of the things he talks about in this book – masculine and feminine stereotypes, and all the rest of society’s gender bullshit – are still present in his life (in all of our lives). By writing this book, he has not ‘succeeded’ in escaping them. Indeed, he still frequently falls into their traps, but he is more aware of them now, and able to pull himself out again more quickly and with less pain. I think that’s the point of How Not To Be A Boy: it isn’t giving us a set of answers. It’s just equipping us with the tools to identify the crap and to wade through it without being too hard on ourselves.
There’s so much more I could say about How Not To Be A Boy, but I’ll just close by saying that it’s really funny, really moving and you should read it.
“Some men don’t recover from masculinity at all.”
Have you read this book or are you planning to? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.