About three and a half years ago, my marriage broke up. I didn’t write about it at the time. I don’t imagine I ever will.
But unless you knew me personally, you would never have known about it from my columns. Over that period I continued writing the sort of thing I usually do, pieces about small social embarrassments, designed to amuse.
I drew a veil over it for two reasons. Firstly because break-ups are private and painful for all concerned, and the family of a writer should not necessarily be fodder for copy. Those relationships inform the work of the writer, but that doesn’t mean wholesale invasion of family members’ privacy is warranted.
But the second reason is because it is so much easier to be the clown, it’s so much easier to be the one who gets into silly scrapes on the bus than it is to talk about feelings and being hurt and vulnerabilities. And, especially, about your own failings. It’s so much easier to expose yourself as an idiot than to expose your wounds. Especially if you’re a man.
Robert Webb is braver than me. A clown of much greater note, in How Not To Be A Boy, he writes about his Lincolnshire childhood, and the two men who taught him what it was to be a man – his father and stepfather.
These are two men trapped by patriarchy, emotionally stunted, like most men of their generation, and, I suppose, mine. These are two men who unquestionably love him, and who are almost incapable of expressing this love except through subtext.
And he writes about his mother, a woman who appears romantic and practical and uncomplicatedly loving, and whose absence is felt on every page of the second half of this book.
Webb is honest, sometimes almost to the point of cruelty, about his father’s and stepfather’s failings. But he is never as hard on them as he is on himself. He rips pages from adolescent diaries to show his self-centredness. He picks at scabs covering his crimes against kindness. He acknowledges his behaviour in the early years of his marriage.
In part it is a difficult read, especially for the sort of man who doesn’t know how to repair his own white van. So many bells are rung it feels like a campanologist’s convention at times.
And it is not perfect. It loses momentum in the second half of the book – we’ve read the Cambridge/Footlights memoirs a million times from previous alumni – and sometimes Webb goes for the gag when he knows he should hold back. Just like a man.
But this feels like an important book. How Not To Be A Boy is heartbreaking in the right places, and Webb writes fluently and stylishly, with a light touch. And the central thesis is compellingly drawn – that patriarchy is an evil that limits men as well as women.
Comedy is hard, honesty is harder. Robert Webb has managed to master both.
- How Not To Be A Boy is published by Canongate, RRP £16.99.
- I am speaking to Robert Webb about How Not To Be A Boy at Heswall Hall, Heswall, Wirral, on Friday, September 1, at 1pm. All the tickets are sold out. I’m just being transparent in case you think I’m getting a bung for this review. Which I am not.