How Not To Be a Boy

Posted: November 11, 2017 in Book reviews
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By Robert Webb

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Before he was a husband and father, before he danced for comic relief, before he found fame as one half of a somewhat successful double act with David Mitchell, before he went to Cambridge and became vice president of Footlights…before all of this Robert Webb was just a boy like any other boy.

Well maybe not like any other boy, because he didn’t always seem to think and act like all the other boys, but growing up in the 70s and 80s he was very clearly given certain rules to follow; don’t cry, love sport, play rough, drink beer, don’t talk about your feelings.

Now Robert wonders if these rules are any use, and explores what it means to be male in the 21st Century.

 

As a big fan of Mitchell and Webb, and having read David Mitchell’s autobiography, Back Story, there was no way I wasn’t going to read Robert Webb’s book, although calling it a straightforward autobiography does it something of a disservice. Oh, sure it’s autobiographical, but Robert has a point to make beyond just regaling us with his life story, and for me it resonated quite a bit.

I share a lot of common ground with Robert. Not so much now, what with him being star of stage and screen and me, well me not being a star of stage and screen. I never went to Cambridge and my parents didn’t divorce when I was a child and I certainly didn’t have to experience the trauma of losing my mum when I was a teenager.

But setting aside all of that there’s a lot of the book that felt very familiar. I’m two years older than Robert Webb and, like him, was a working-class boy, so when he talks about a childhood spent in the 1970s and 1980s this is the kind of childhood with which I was acquainted. He talks about the Television shows he watched and it was the same telly I watched; The A-Team, Buck Rogers, Doctor Who etc. But beyond this is how he was described as a sensitive child. A quiet child. God did I ever hear myself described in that fashion time and again, and though unlike Robert I do actually like football (watching it at least) I too recall standing on a football pitch trying to stay as far away from the action as possible and dreading the ball coming anywhere near me.

Anyone expecting a book chock full of celebrity tittle tattle may be somewhat disappointed. Robert does touch on this aspect of his life, and there’s a wonderful story featuring Carrie Fisher, but for the most part this isn’t really about Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look, it’s about growing up, about how difficult it is to be a boy, and a man, and how expectations and the unwritten rules affect all of us, especially when it comes to sharing our feelings. It’s no surprise that men are more likely to kill themselves than women after all, but this also helps explain (but not excuse) what’s now referred to as toxic masculinity, because growing up if you didn’t drink lots of pints and shag lots of birds, well what was wrong with you? You weren’t a poofter, were you?

Robert’s prose is a little workmanlike at times, but on the whole its eminently readable. It’s also honest, brutally honest. This is a warts and all life story; he doesn’t hide from any of the things he’s done, many of which he clearly regrets and none of which he seems inclined to excuse himself for, even if at times you kinda think he had a bloody big excuse for being a dick.

This is a book to be enjoyed on several levels, both as a straightforward autobiography, but also as a meditation on masculinity. If, like me, you’re a bloke who grew up around the same era, then I think this will resonate for you too, but I think this is a book that anyone, irrespective of age or gender, can appreciate.

An enjoyable, often very funny, and sometimes very sad, tale of a man who, before he was famous, was just a boy, and a fairly rubbish boy at that, or at least a boy who felt rubbish because of society’s expectations about what a boy should be. Suffice to say I know the feeling, and it’s nice to know I wasn’t alone.

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