How Not To Be A Boy Book Review
by Susie Southall
Wow, what I really want to do right now is just bullet point all the brilliant quotes from this book that so perfectly illustrate its merits and give you a sense of why its worth reading. But I’m not going to because that list is as long as my arm and let’s face it, it would also be a pretty lame review!
Bit of background; Robert Webb is a writer, comedian and actor. I was already a fan, an early adopter of Peep Show on Channel 4. I loved the Mitchell & Webb series and I had marvelled at the hutzpah of the Flashdance he did for Comic Relief. So I was ready to like it, disposed to read this with some enthusiasm and curiosity. But I wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did. Or cry.
I read other reviews of How Not To Be A Boy before the book finally dropped through the letterbox, so I became over-familiar with the phrase Celebrity Memoir but to give it this label, as so many reviews have, is doing it an enormous disservice.
The book started out life as an article for the New Statesman magazine back in 2014, inspired by Caitlin Moran’s ‘How To Be A Woman’. Robert Webb, (I’m just going to call him Rob), knew he had more to say and a profound desire, or even a need, to address the issues in greater depth; taking to task the age-old societal expectations of boys and men which have led to the toxicity in masculinity we recognise now.
Open hearted and self-examining, it is an autobiography crafted with extraordinary sensitivity. Rob applies a microscope to his younger years with a sharp focus on episodes of the banal, the brutal and the tender. His childhood, though never loveless, was often bewildering and painful and it is painful for us too, as he pokes around at the skeletons in his cupboard with enough objectivity to allow us the entire spectrum of responses from tears and despair to belly laughs.
He writes with an easy fluency, in a vocabulary that allows him to articulate his past experiences with such measure and this level of analysis runs right through the book. As a reader who has done time in therapeutic relationships, I think I can recognise the language and the insights you can gain from turning inwards when you are being supported in that task. It has taken work to be able to talk about his life in this way and he has had to learn a new language to be able to do it this effectively. I respect and love that about it.
Written in two Acts, within each Act are chapters with titles like; Boys Don’t Fall in Love, Boys Don’t Cry, Men Don’t Need Therapy and Men Understand Women and many more of this roll call of rules we should follow to achieve the making of a man in the traditional mould. These chapter titles help frame the story as we move from his infancy and early relationships, through school life and into University, out into the world and his finally into his life now, as a parent to young children.
He laces personal diary references into the text at times providing a little window into his world which connect us to the moment and, as a former teenage human myself, this doubles me over in cringes of recognition. Rob’s adolescence isn’t massively removed from my own, actually as I read further, I am thinking that in some respects little about his story is that different from so many of our own, which is why it is so massively relatable and readable. The ordinariness of home life in its material reality, the episodes of angst, mistreating our family and friends as we stumble through the teenage years.
But an even greater leveller, like so many of us, Rob grew up around unreconstructed older men. So in some ways he is not telling an exceptional story but with his analytical eye and his ability to really see what was happening, he is lifting the lid on the sad, damaging, unpalatable story of how our society has for so long maintained the myth of masculinity, or what he calls ‘The Trick’.
The Trick; a world we have grown up in which our every day language is freighted with ‘terms that come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century’. And these terms dictate the way we live, love and relate, we have been handed them down the generations and our fathers, like theirs before them, were not questioning but sedated by the overwhelming sense of tradition and their own rule-following human weakness.
Dads are the key to this story, Rob’s Dad is the reason he has anything to tell. He is both cause and effect and tells us stuff about the potency of the father-son relationship, that despite having other older men around who were more positive influences in his life, the effects could not be mitigated even following his parents divorce.
Exceptional is his honesty and self awareness, his affectionate yet clear-eyed look back at home and family, despite some of the events taking place that he might justifiably be so bitter about. Exceptional also that he beat a different path for himself and took on the mantel of exposing the issues in this book.
That when we tell a boy to act like a man, what are really doing is telling him to stop expressing those feelings. And that after a while what he understands is stop feeling those feelings.
That when you’ve stopped feeling them, these feelings are no longer your responsibility and they become someone else’s problem; a mother, wife or girlfriend, so you may as well let them out as anger, since Society generally thinks it’s okay to be an angry bloke.
He talks candidly about his mental health, fully cognisant of the depths he reached in grief after losing his Mum, the times that he contemplated ending his life and about his first encounter with getting the help he needed during the Uni years. I read an interview he gave to GQ recently after the book was published in which he said it still felt like a brave thing to do, to get help. Yes, still.
I got a lot from reading this book and I asked a lot of questions along the way, of myself and of him; does he feel hope now that he is a father with two young children? How important was humour in his telling of the story? How important has it been to his mental health? How does he feel the women in his life have shaped him? - actually I think he answers this more than comprehensively and how does he manage to break the mould when others don’t?
At a moment in time when we are looking more closely at the over-arching effects of the patriarchy on women and girls, this book reminds us how vulnerable boys and men are too.
Do read How Not To Be A Boy. Be ready to laugh and cry, remember and recognise. And once you’ve read it, pass on your copy to a man you care about.
If you would like to buy the book…
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