Book review: ‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb

Be a man. Man up. Act like a man. Get a grip. Get real. Get over yourself. Pull yourself together. Sort yourself out. Stop moaning. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t know you’re born. BE A MAN. MAN UP. ACT LIKE A MAN…

What does it mean to be a man in the 21st century? Do men truly differ from women, or is it rather that we’ve all been told, from our very earliest days, that boys and girls want and need to be treated in clearly-defined ways? And what are the rules that you must follow, as a man, to truly ‘fit in’ with your peers?

How Not To Be A Boy

Comedian Robert Webb – best known for the Peep Show alongside long-standing comedy partner David Mitchell – unlocks many of the dangerous myths that surround masculinity by turning to his childhood and early life experiences in his excellent memoir / call-to-arms for men of all ages, ‘How Not To Be A Boy’ (published by Canongate).

The book’s intriguing title serves as the backdrop to Webb’s life story throughout – it’s a tale of how a young lad from Lincolnshire never quite managed to fully grasp and abide by the typical traits and expectations that come with ‘being a man’, viewing the world and himself in a different way and, in doing so, wrestling with his relationship with his absent and challenging “local character” of a father.

It’s also a tale of loss – Webb talks candidly about the impact of his mother’s death during his teenage years – and of overcoming adversity to achieve his childhood dream of studying at Cambridge University and ultimately embarking on a career in the world of comedy, a dream that only a very select few will ever achieve as the author acknowledges.

As you’d expect, along the way there are also many, many laughs, as Webb recalls life growing up in small-town Lincolnshire and his memories of life at school.

But the stand-out aspect of Webb’s moving book, for myself and, I’m sure, many other readers, is the insight that he shares about gender roles and the unfair expectations that continue to be placed upon boys from a young age – to be physically stronger, emotionally tougher, to suppress their feelings, to be the provider but not to fully share in ‘feminine’ responsibilities, to only like certain things and behave in the way that society expects.

“There are probably lots of men who haven’t had their lives marred or pointlessly complicated by the expectations of gender, but I’ve yet to meet one,” observes Webb. “It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to talk about what’s wrong. It’s OK to play with girls if you like them, to dress like girls if you want to, to like the colour pink if you like it … to not be bothered about football if you’re not all that bothered about football. But small boys know that already. They don’t invent these gender rules as they get older. We teach them.”

It is clear that Webb has learnt so much about himself – and what it means to be a man and especially a father, a role that he openly acknowledges that he struggled with greatly at first – from his interactions with his father, explored at length in ‘How Not To Be A Boy’.

No punches are pulled as Webb lays bare his father’s shortcomings, but equally the love and respect shared between the two also shines through. The prevailing takeaway is the absolutely vital role that Dads play in shaping the next generation of men and women, and how all of us parents must always remain mindful of the long-lasting impact that our behaviour and attitudes, right now, can have on our children long after they fly the nest.

Masculinity needs to be re-examined and re-defined. Suicide is now the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK – 84 take their own lives every week. That is a truly shocking statistic.

All of us, as men, sons, fathers, friends, managers and colleagues, must support and help one another. We must raise one another up, encourage each other, carve out time to talk and share our lives and feelings together, and seek a better future for ourselves and the next generation – one in which so much of our value and worth isn’t defined by what gender we are, but instead by how we live our lives. It’s time to MAN UP, in a positive way.

How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb is published by Canongate and available to buy now from Amazon. Follow the author at @arobertwebb