Since Robert Webb has spent more than 20 years writing and performing jokes with his comedy partner David Mitchell – in their eponymous sketch shows, nine series of Peep Show, and in the current Channel 4 sitcom Back – it’s no great shock that his first book is very funny. How Not to Be a Boy, a recent Radio 4 Book of the Week (you can still hear it on iPlayer), is a well-written and thoughtful meditation on masculinity, as well as a painfully honest and moving account of Webb’s own upbringing and his experiences as a husband and father to two young girls.
“I wrote an article of the same name for the New Statesman,” the 44-year-old says of the book’s genesis, “and realised that in other stuff that I had written, gender and masculinity and feminism were preoccupations.” In that piece, he discussed how his mother’s death in his teens had shaped him, and how he’d rebelled against but then fallen prey to his forester father’s old-fashioned model of masculinity.
“The response to that was very positive and I realised it was a very comfortable way for me to approach this subject, through childhood and through early experience,” he explains. “The way your mother and father model how two people live together and the way they approach raising children has a big effect on what you are going to be like when you are a parent yourself, in good and bad ways. It seemed like a good way to address [masculinity], do some funny stuff, and be honest as well, to reach out to people who have lost people. Which is everyone.”
Webb has two older brothers, Mark and Andrew, and he was born ten months after a third brother, Martin, died in infancy. After his parents split up when he was young, his mother remarried and had his sister, Anna-Beth. Webb is merciless in describing his young self – spoilt, geeky, obsessed with comedy and Star Wars – and acute on the politics of the playground, where boys were inculcated with “the paramount objective of despising girls, and the Sovereign Importance of early Homophobia”. Deftly but unpretentiously, in the book he unpicks the way girls are taught to value appearance and delicacy while boys are taught to be taciturn, emotionless, “hard”.
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There’s eye-popping frankness in his description of his first orgasm, a solo effort involving a fantasy about Dr Who’s early 1980s assistant Nyssa, and of his realisation, through a complex relationship with a friend he calls Will, that he’s not entirely heterosexual. (The language, it should be said, is pretty salty throughout the book, and Webb had to “de-swear” it for Book of the Week.)
Then his mother’s cough turns out to be aggressive lung cancer. “The bits that were difficult to write were where I was dealing with mum dying and the very painful weeks and months afterwards,” Webb says. “But there is something to be said for being able to go back and frame those experiences in your own way. There is something cathartic about that and an illusion of control, though it is an illusion.”
His honesty is relentless: he goes to Cambridge to university purely to get into comedy, and discovers therapy, but also becomes egotistical and manipulative.
When his career subsequently takes off, he is professionally driven but selfish in relationships. Stability beckons when he meets his wife, Abbie, on a radio show and they have two daughters: Esme, now eight, and Dory, six. But Webb immediately throws himself into a workaholic blur of voiceovers and begins drinking and smoking too much, withdrawing emotionally until Abbie (in a devastating moment included in the book) says, “You failed me.”
“There are lots of ways to be a father, but instead of inventing my own way, I let the original model reassert itself,” Webb says. He takes a long, hard look at himself and the extent to which he has been prey to centuries of conditioning, and tries to make changes. He cuts back on booze, fags and work, takes a bigger share of the parenting, talks about things rather than bottling them up and tries to show his girls that this is “the minimum requirement of being a decent bloke”.
He and Abbie do not forbid the girls pink clothes or dolls, but they try to “tell them they are brave and strong and independent, as often as [we] tell them they are beautiful and lovely and caring”. And they talk to them about “the Trick”, an all-embracing term for gender inequality and unfairness.
Webb acknowledges he still has work to do in coming to terms with his masculinity, but he has evolved enough to write empathetically of his late father and stepfather at the end of this very impressive book.
Without wishing to stretch the image of the clown who wants to play Hamlet, Webb is clearly proud of having not just produced a serious work but taken pains to make it “much better than people might expect it to be”. I suspect his mum would be proud of him. And his dad, too.
By Nick Curtis
Back is on Wednesdays at 10pm on Channel 4
To order How Not to Be a Boy by Robert Webb call 0344 245 8092 quoting ref RTBOOKS38