I’ll preface this by saying that I have not yet read Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not to Be a Boy. But I did make my way to the Athenaeum Theatre on 21 May to hear him talk all about it.
Listening to the author was a lovely introduction to his new material. I was unsure how serious the evening would be, given that Webb is best known as a comedian but his book ponders ‘the rules of being a man’ and seemed, from the outset, to be veering into weighty topics. The evening was a perfect balance in tone, with the event host Clementine Ford often steering the conversation into deeper, darker territory, while Webb lightened the mood with self-deprecating jibes. The mixture of commentary and excerpts of the memoir revealed the book will be a funny, poignant and insightful read.
Webb’s book is described as ‘part-memoir, part call-to-arms’. His book tour emphasises the former. It was less of a deep discussion on masculinity and more of an exploration of the qualities exuded by the men in Webb’s life, and how they helped shaped his understanding of maleness.
One of Webb’s earliest understandings of what a man should (or shouldn’t) be came in the playground. He was twelve and another boy in his year (a ‘cheeky chappy with an eye for the ladies’) was going around pinching girls’ bottoms. Familiar, cusp-of-puberty playground stuff, right? But at Webb’s school this behaviour didn’t go unchallenged. Another boy in their class stood up for the girls, receiving a thump from said chappy but bringing the harassment to their teacher’s attention. It was a pivotal moment for Webb when the teacher praised the thumpee as a ‘gentleman’. Webb realised that ‘to be a gentleman, you needed both manners and bravery, and that was horribly fascinating because I thought only wimps needed manners and only tough guys were brave.’
This was a fairly straightforward realisation to have—gendered expectations aside, to be a gentleman is essentially to be a kind person. Much more complex and fluid was Webb’s interpretation of maleness from the man closest to him: his father.
Webb’s relationship with his father was recurrent in the evening’s discussion. He explained that his parents had separated when he was young, and he hadn’t had much engagement with his father between the ages of five and nineteen. Webb was quick to assure the audience that his father was, in many ways, typical of working men in the 1970s; he was a man who ‘didn’t know how to get out of the box because he didn’t know he was in a box’. Still, Webb’s earlier memories of family life include fear, both of his father and of the feeling that he might grow up to be similar to him.
Webb was still a teenager when his mother died and so he went to live with his father, re-establishing a relationship that gradually healed as they grew older. It was evident that Webb’s father was a man of contrasts. Webb spoke of his father cooking them lovely dinners and then spending the evening barking his opinions at his son, who had learned to respond in a quiet and unassertive manner. He also spoke of his surprise at seeing his father from the perspective of outsiders. It turns out that everyone in the village thought his father was a lot of fun. ‘He didn’t so much live in that village but host it,’ Webb quipped. He also learned that many people thought of his father as ‘straightforwardly kind’—he was the man who’d help them out with odd jobs and was genuinely liked by people.
This notion of kindness was something that Webb struggled with in his twenties. He admitted there was ‘a big chunk in the middle’ of his life where he was not a kind person, to which Ford suggested that Webb had ended up mirroring elements of the men in his life that he didn’t want to be.
But it was clear that these experiences helped Webb to relate to the men in his life. Webb’s last conversation with his grandfather was one such experience. It was the most touching element of the evening when Ford read an excerpt from the book that reflected on this conversation. Webb’s grandfather had said ‘at least we had some good holidays, mate’. It was the ‘at least’ part that struck Webb the most – in saying at least they’d shared some special memories, his grandfather appeared to be regretting the way he had spent the rest of his time. After his grandfather passed, Webb realised that all that matters in life is ‘friendship, understanding, family and love’. Societal expectations about men’s emotional expression had been barriers to his grandfather and similar men truly achieving all of that. In Webb’s words, the men in his life had ‘missed out on too much of the good stuff’.
Through his book and the accompanying tour, Webb is sharing lessons from his own experiences. He described it as a sense of responsibility, an acknowledgement that his position in the public eye gives him a platform to bring these observations to light. And he’s doing it in the way that is more relatable than any academic forum. In his words: ‘I think you can say serious things through humour.’
If you’re keen to hear Webb’s conversation in full, the Wheeler Centre has uploaded a podcast of the event.