The comedian Robert Webb has received great acclaim for his book How Not to Be a Boy, which tackles important questions about gender and male identity in the twenty-first century. Martin Gleghorn welcomes his refreshingly comic but poignant approach at Durham Book Festival.
Taking to the stage appropriately enough on World Mental Health Day, Robert Webb’s talk at the Gala Theatre was more than a mere introduction to his new memoir How Not to be a Boy; it was an hour that relentlessly, humourously, and poignantly (often all at the same time) exposed the audience to the downright daftness of traditional, rigid gender constructs and characteristics – masculinity in particular.
The chair, Professor Simon James, established at the outset how Webb’s frank discussions on his struggles with the constraints of masculinity – and the emotional impacts such a struggle can have – mark out How Not to be a Boy as far more distinctive, brave and important than the typical celebrity memoir. So much of the openness and relatability of Webb’s experiences come from what he described as the tone of ‘self-mockery rather than self-flagellation’ that he hoped How Not to be a Boy has struck, and the dialogue between Webb and his various younger selves within the memoir prompted interesting questions on the peculiar dynamics between autobiographical, comedic and literary writing. Indeed, the importance of literature – as well as the odd phenomenon of the bookish boy – were never far from the surface of this talk, no more so than when Webb movingly described the profound impact that Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” had upon him following the death of his mother as a teenager.
In addition to Webb himself, the talk benefitted from thoughtful, diverse, and occasionally even personal questions from audience members. The first of these focused on the increased difficulties that aspiring and even established female comedians face compared to their male counterparts, with Webb quipping that ‘I wish we had one [a female comedian] here to ask’, before noting that female comedians have to reach the levels of greatness associated with the likes of Victoria Wood or French and Saunders in order to gain appropriate recognition, due to an often unconscious unease from audience members (male and female alike) at the seemingly daunting prospect of a female stand-up.
If there were any avid Daily Mail readers in the audience, they kept any consternation to themselves during the closing discussion on whether gender studies and education around gender constructs should feature more prominently (or perhaps, as seems to be the case, feature at all) on the national curriculum. Prior to this, in one of the most poignant moments of the entire talk, Webb responded to a question on the uniquely strange psychology of knowing that you have been born as a replacement for a sibling who has died (Webb was born ten months after the death of his six-year-old brother Martin). Webb mused that, in the constant struggle between love and death, his birth was both his parents’ and love’s reply to death, and though death may inevitably win this struggle, it is still possible to make its victory a decidedly hollow one.
It was Webb’s readings from his memoir, however, that most effectively captured the deep and complex emotional conflicts that How Not to be a Boy seeks to drag into focus. The first of these centred on John Gray’s best-selling relationship manual, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. While Webb exposed in an acerbic and genuinely very funny way the sheer ridiculousness of concepts such as the ‘man cave’ and the idea that the duty of care in relationships lies with women, far more subtly powerful in his story was the sad inevitability that exists at the cusp of a long-term relationship breaking down, in no small part because of the kind of incompatible notions that Gray and others like him so successfully market.
Webb’s second reading told the story of the grammar school classmate who fancied himself as something of a pre-teen lothario, and was eventually publicly shamed for constantly harassing his female classmates. While it is easy to merely laugh at the humiliating retribution dished out, the story is again underpinned by a sense of uneasiness; not only in reflecting on the sexual harassment that was taking place, but in the difficulties in speaking out against it, and even the somewhat self-centred motives for potentially doing so.
This anecdote helped shine a bright light on one of the troubling questions that dogs Webb’s memoir, as Simon James pointed out: what do we do with privilege, which in Webb’s experience means being male, white and (mostly) heterosexual? In Webb’s view, privilege is just ‘a posh word for luck’, and while one must acknowledge it and use it to do good where and when they can, it comes with its own expectations and complexities. In terms of masculinity, Webb ultimately believes that there are still far too many boys and men incapable of expressing and articulating emotions and feelings outside of the strict confines of traditional masculinity, and that this will not only leave them ill-equipped to deal with any genuine adversity they will encounter in their lives, but also incapable of fully benefitting from love and relationships. The hope is, therefore, that How Not to be a Boy will help take off what Webb calls the ’emotional stabilisers’ of masculinity. Just as attempting to ride a bicycle for the first time without stabilisers will prove difficult at first, Webb cannot and does not try to shy away from the lack of straightforward solutions to these issues of masculinity and mental health – yet by engaging with these issues in such a candid way, his work is that much more important.
Durham Book Festival continues until 15th October, bringing an array of leading writers, poets and thinkers to the city.