"What are we saying to a boy when we tell him to 'man up' or 'act like a man'? More often we're effectively saying, 'Stop expressing those feelings.' And if the boy hears that often enough, it actually starts to sound uncannily like, 'Stop feeling those feelings.'"
Herein lies the main issue that surrounds Robert Webb's new book How Not To Be A Boy, the idea of how much damage that can be inflicted on to young boys when they are encouraged to behave in ways that supposedly befit their gender. But Webb interweaves this idea tenderly with an autobiographical tale of him growing up in 1970s Lincolnshire with a working class woodcutter for a father and a mother who was tragically taken from him when he was just seventeen.
Webb frankly admits how he never really felt like much of a 'boy', taking a dislike for sport, writing a diary, having sticky-out ribs and liking poetry. He is told how he is 'sensitive' and 'shy', attributes one normally wouldn't associate with boys. There is a heartbreaking moment when he discovers a bee on the ground that is close to death. At seven years old, he knows society has created a construct for him in which he knows what he must do, "I wasn't supposed to look after it. I was meant to stamp on it." Instead, Webb creates a circle of stones around the bee "to offer it some protection" and leaves it to its fate. Webb goes back into his house and he cries, but swears that "[I'm] not going to tell anyone about this, not even Nan or Tru or Mum." It's a heartbreaking moment in the book.
Not all moments in the book are layered with intellectual nitpicking and seriousness. The early years of Webb's youth are told with such charm and hilarity - talking to his mother on her deathbed about him still being a virgin for example - echoes that of Adrian Mole, navigating between adolescent awkwardness and trying to process his fluctuating emotions. From this Webb wavers into the topic of sexuality, albeit briefly. He recalls his previous relationships from Sixth Form to his Cambridge days, one in particular with he best friend Will. Webb never plucks a label or a box to conform to or fit in with, he simply states "I liked what I liked, and what I liked was Will." There is a moment, shortly after his Mother's death, where he is sharing a bed with Will and a spark flickers between them. "Will is holding my hand. He never holds my hand. [...] His curiosity - maybe his sympathy - allow him to be secretly something-or-other with me," We never return to this moment, but it's enough access from Web that makes us question the lines between masculinity and sexuality and how indistinguishable they sometimes can be.
The toughest moments Webb depicts, are that which involve Webb's father. As someone who is an alcoholic and abusive husband, it could have been easy to go down the road of painting him in one particular way, but Webb balances this out with charming moments between father and son, especially in later life. Paul Webb isn't portrayed as a villain by any stretch of the imagination, (though the occasional reference to Darth Vader crops up now and then) but his actions and lifestyle choices are painted with brutal honesty. The book jumps backwards and forwards into different parts of Webb's life, at times the present Robert talking to his seven year old self, clearly reluctant into revealing too much about the sadness to come, but still maintaining a self-composed dignity and charm to insinuate that things will get better regardless.
I guess the focus of the book is that there is no solution to how we should solve the 'crisis' of masculinity, nor does Webb provide a clear answer. His deconstruction of masculinity isn't the first venture into the topic, but he does provide a fresh insight. He mentions 'the trick', an abbreviation of 'The Patriarchy' told to his two daughters as an all embracing term for gender inequality that "makes men sad and women get rubbish jobs." Even now as a father and husband, he still feels like he isn't being a very good adult, but he's trying his best; I guess this could apply to a lot of us.He still has work to do on getting to grips with his own masculinity, but you can sense how he has evolved over time and how writing the book has helped. I actually spat my drink out when I got to Webb's crude analogy for masculinity, "Imagine Dr Frankenstein being constantly bum-raped by his own monster while shouting 'I'm fine everyone! I'm absolutely fine!" The writing is notch for notch sincere as well as being hilarious and creates a window for Webb to truthfully bare his soul for the world to see, and it has to be commended.
Painstakingly honest and frank, 'How Not To Be A Boy' is a fascinating read into the gender conditioning of the modern man, as well as a highly personal tale that will highly resonate with others, as Webb rightly says "Being male is terrific, but [it] comes with an extra baggage that is worth noticing."
Published by Canongate Books