Friday, 20 December 2019

Nineteen in '19: How Not To Be a Boy

I've read far less in recent years than I would like. To help remedy this, I've set myself the modest target of reading nineteen books in 2019. When I finish one, a thumbnail review here will follow.

15/19: How Not To Be a Boy by Robert Webb

The blurb: Robert Webb tried to follow the rules for being a man:
Don't cry
Drink beer
Play rough
Don't talk about feelings
Looking back over his life he asks whether these rules are actually any use. To anyone.

The review: on the face of it, this is a memoir about the blond one who played Jez in Peep Show. So if you enjoyed Peep Show, you should read this. There. End of review. Except there's quite a lot more to this book than that. And actually very little about those nine series of that show you enjoyed. So what is it about?

The clue is in the title and, for once, the blurb. For this is really a story of how someone kicked so hard against the stereotypes he didn't conform to that he ended up conforming to them. So here's sensitive, angelic Robert, growing up in rural isolation, doting on his mother, but surrounded by tough-talking, beer-swilling, football-loving, fist-throwing male archetypes. You might imagine this was a recipe for disaster and, in some respects, you'd be right. For here is young Robert, markedly different from his much older brothers, frankly fearful of his father, feeling different from them from an early age and yet navigating a possible path out of it all through selective education and grammar school, where the encouragement of one teacher in particular makes him realise another world is possible. That maybe that other world includes Cambridge, and performance. And then, on the cusp of getting out, the escape tunnel collapses as Robert suffers personal, familial tragedy.

The story might have ended there. Towards the end of the book Webb pauses to consider how different his life almost was; he doesn't use the phrase Jonbar points but that's what he's talking about. But even all this autobiography, and the years that follow - Cambridge, Footlights, meeting David Mitchell, meeting his future wife, Peep Show, Let's Dance for Comic Relief, marriage, parenthood - that's really just the means by which the real point of the book is illustrated. For really, this is a book about gender stereotyping, feminism, mature masculinity (Robert's phrase, not mine), societal conditioning, all that... and the inevitable, damaging effects they have on, well, everyone really. But especially those who don't conform to the stereotypes. They're the ones who are scarred.

So this is an autobiography of sorts, but one with a theme. Webb is two years younger than me, grew up shy and sensitive in a rural nowhere, feeling that he didn't fit, and then found a way out via grammar school and university, so for this reader there was plenty to relate to. But this isn't the sort of autobiography that recounts anecdotes from Peep Show or That Mitchell and Webb Look or Ambassadors or Back or any of the rest of it. Indeed, the only time his career really gets a look in is when something in it illustrates either how messed up he had become or how he found a path out of, in his own words, being a "pompous dick". And he has found that path - no pompous dick would be this open, this honest, this raw about themselves.

What do I make of it all? Simply that this is a book that I think everyone should read, regardless of age and gender. And more than that, I think this is a book that middle-aged men must read. Oh, and if, like me, you used to watch Peep Show then inevitably the first-person narrative of this book will have you hearing Robert's voice in your head, Jez-style. But that's not a bad thing, is it?

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★★

P.S. This is the 900th post on New Amusements. Hooray for me.


  1. The Man Of Cheese20 December 2019 at 22:38

    Will maybe grab that book for a New Year read.
    Congratulations on hitting the 900- just wondering what you are going to pull out of the bag when you reach four figures!!
    PS Sponsorship to follow shortly.

    1. Yes, it's a top read, mate.

      Will limp on with the blog, who knows what will crop up!

      And cheers re imminent sponsorship, much needed and appreciated!

  2. That's definitely not a bad thing...I hope, otherwise I'm screwed.

    Congrats on the first 900, bring on the next

  3. I didn't think I wanted to read this, but now I do, so... Keep blogging.