I’m a  bit wary of writing this review, as Mr Liz pointed out, Webb is very active on social media and is having a big old retweet of his reviews at the moment. All I can say is, people who wrote the books that I review do sometimes see them, and that doesn’t mean that I temper them for the audience. Hello if you have popped over from a retweet, and welcome to my world, that’s my To Be Read shelf to the left, and let’s get on with the review.

Robert Webb – “How not to be a Boy”

(29 September 2017)

I read this alongside Mr Liz doing the audio book. He enjoyed it a lot, perhaps more than me, being more used to the slightly ickier “boy stuff” that (literally) appears in the book, and enjoyed the fact that Webb narrates it himself. There are also some amusing extras.

On to my experience. I’ve enjoyed reading Webb’s pieces on the constraints and expectations of masculinity heaped upon men, and his avowed feminism, in the New Statesman, and was keen to see what he was going to do with the memoir format. In fact, although there is theoretical and polemical stuff in here, it can read like a straight autobiography, but he does cleverly work in lots of great messages and explanations among the stories and laughs (and punch-in-the-guts moments).

We get his childhood, adolescence and university and just post-university years, then a hop forward to the present day via some talk of his behaviour during the early years of his marriage. Sleb-fest this is not, although he meets and obviously has huge genuine respect and affection for David Mitchell (phew). I’m not sure that he’s doing the celebrity-memoir-split-in-two thing here, as he does cover later years and also has a book deal apparently for a memoir and a novel. So that’s good, as that’s something that annoys me. He also clearly wrote it himself, which is refreshing these days.

The chapters are rather cleverly labelled by all the things a boy is assumed to be and do – be brave, love sport, not be teacher’s pet, understand women, etc. He then subverts those expectations by showing himself to be either a decent person who doesn’t quite do all those things or a bit of a wally who can’t manage them. He certainly shows the pressure to conform, emanating from society and very clearly from his father, and although there’s a fair bit of comedy, there are some dark and sad moments. He never leaves himself alone though, criticising himself for playing the “My mum died” card when he needs to. I think he could have modelled being a bit kinder to yourself, but he does have points to make.

Although the pink endpapers might put off the man more worried about his visible masculinity, Webb very effectively weaves in some good messages aimed at the men who will be surely bought this by the women in their lives for Christmas etc. He has a great section on exactly what happens in a therapy session, explains why it’s not “feminists'” fault that men have crappy lives, and, having discussed “The Trick”, which is the tide of gender bullshit that boys and girls have to navigate, has the main mission statement:

If I’ve tried to say anything in this book, I’ve tried to say that it’s dangerous for boys, too. Feminism is not about men versus women, it’s about men and women versus The Trick.

There are some funny and heart-wrenching dialogues with his 15 and 7 year old selves in the early part of the book and I found it odd that they didn’t continue throughout. Apart from this oddity, the writing and editing were pretty impeccable. It must have been a difficult book to write, with his older brothers and sister appearing in it and certainly a very careful account of his brothers’ relationship with each other and him.

As I’ve alluded to above, Webb is pretty scathing about himself, especially when he appears to become the very man he’s fought not to be, and spends a good few years being “a useless arsehole of a husband and father”. He’s obviously reformed himself, but some positive modelling of how to do that could be a welcome addition – I’m sure there was some, but I came away quite sad because we can’t all be perfect all the time.

It’s a very masculine book, with lots of boy stuff that made this lady reader a little squeamy (most people will cope fine, I just don’t like bodily fluids very much) although he is respectful of the women he has what we’ll call relationships with and doesn’t go into detail there. See: nice man. Another theme that came out for me was his move from the working to middle class, which was an interesting echo of that discussed in “Respectable” (there, mentioning that one again!) – I wonder if he and Lynsey Hanley have had any kind of public dialogue about their experiences.

So, a decent book that will do some good: I’m probably not the exact ideal audience, but it was interesting and I’m sure it will open a few people’s eyes.


I’ve finished another book since this one (where will it end, etc.) and have started Iris Murdoch’s “Under the Net”. If I still haven’t convinced you to join my #IMreadalong project, read all about it here.