Robert Webb is best known as the Webb half of Mitchell & Webb in the Sony award-winning That Mitchell & Webb Sound and the BAFTA award-winning That Mitchell & Webb Look, and as permanent man-boy Jeremy in the acclaimed Peep Show. Last year he released his bestselling debut How Not To Be a Boy, a book that is part memoir, part call-to-arms. Looking back over his life, from schoolboy crushes (on girls and boys), to losing his beloved mother to becoming a husband and father, Webb considers the absurd expectations boys and men have thrust upon them at every stage of life, as well as the high cost to others of the failings these expectations cause.
Off the back of recent appearances in Australia and New Zealand, KYD’s Alice Cottrell spoke to Webb about How Not To Be a Boy, teenage diaries, and the difficulties of writing fiction.
KYD: How Not To Be A Boy is both a memoir and a thematic exploration of gender conditioning – why did you choose a blend of those two usually distinct genres?
Robert Webb: You’d think I’d have a good answer to this by now. I suppose on the one hand it’s not a rags-to-riches celeb autobiography because I’m, frankly, not famous enough to write a book that boring. So it had to be good and it had to be about something. I’ve had this preoccupation with gender and masculinity for a while. A memoir seemed like a good way to approach the subject because that’s where it all starts – the gender conditioning, how to be a boy, how to be a girl. It starts in childhood. And then once I started writing, looking at stories of my own life, looking at them through the prism – if you’ll forgive such a pompous term – of gender, it all started to make a lot of sense. And so I thought: this is quite a good idea for a book, all I have to do now is not bugger it up. So that’s sort of how it happened. But also what How To Be a Boy is not is a very dry social science book about exploring gender with thirty pages of erudite notes in the back. I wouldn’t want to read that book, so I certainly wasn’t going to write it.
‘Once I started writing, looking at stories of my own life, looking at them through the prism of gender, it all started to make a lot of sense.’
Can you pinpoint a moment when you started to think about your own behaviour in terms of a larger pattern or system of masculinity? Was there any kind of lightbulb moment for you?
No, it’s been quite gradual. It was always there – as a small child I understood that boys are supposed to be into running and jumping and climbing trees, that they prefer maths to reading, that PE and games are the best lessons and that [boys are] noisy and boisterous and disruptive. They’re not almost completely mute, as I was. I just couldn’t do any of that stuff. So I often felt that it was an odd fit. I didn’t have a problem with my sex assignment, I didn’t want to be a girl, but gender, the stuff that we put on top that amplifies these differences – which I’m of the view is largely made up and often harmful – I couldn’t really get around.
But much, much later when I became a father I noticed that society was, in a way that I thought I had [grasped] before but really hadn’t, set up for the convenience of men. Just the way I would go into Mothercare and the shop assistant would look at me like I was about to be given a medal for actually bothering to try and buy some clothes for the baby. I thought ‘okay, it’s going to be like that, is it.’ Then I had this breadwinning panic and I suddenly took jobs that I didn’t need.
All of this stuff that I thought I’d rejected in my 20s and 30s because I vote Labour, I write antisexist comedy sketches, I’ve read Man Made Language by Dale Spender…[I thought] therefore this stuff is never going to happen to me, I’m never going to fall into these patriarchal traps. And it turned out it was all waiting for me. So gradually noticing that was very important and my wife Abbi, I can assure you, helped me to learn that.
You’re a parent now [Robert has two daughters with his wife Abigail Burdess] and you’ve talked about gender-neutral parenting in the past: how easy do you find it?
I’ve heard gender-neutral parenting described as ‘gardening in a gale’ and that’s kind of how it feels. There’s only so much you can do and parents shouldn’t beat themselves up too much. I mean, I know that their grandmother is going to turn up and make sixteen comments about their hair and their clothes and their body shape before she asks what they’ve been doing today, and it’ll be a different story when she talks to their male cousins. Luckily I’m halfway around the world and that’s where I get to slag off my mother-in-law. But it’s everywhere: it’s in the language and it’s in the culture, so it’s hard.
‘All of this stuff that I thought I’d rejected…[I thought] I’m never going to fall into these patriarchal traps. And it turned out it was all waiting for me.’
As far as we’re concerned, home is where they don’t have to put up with this bullshit. It’s not like we banned the colour pink, it’s not like we don’t let them play with dolls, of course we do, but there’s also some Lego knocking around and they both do karate, because they like it. They also do ballet and dancing, and of course if they want to wear a pretty dress to a party of course, of course, of course they can. And I like to think that if we had boys we’d have been presenting the same range of options of not only what they can do but what they’re allowed to be.
A part of How Not To Be a Boy that I loved was the section with extracts from your teenage diary. I’ve got some teenage diaries and I’ve had the experience, reading back, of being surprised by what I was thinking or saying because I’d kind of rewritten the events in my head to make myself behave in a more admirable way. I wondered if you had that experience – if you were surprised by some of the thoughts and feelings you had as a teenager when you reread them as an adult.
Not really – the main experience of rereading the diary was boredom. It was just so dull. The pattern just keeps repeating: I take a shine to a girl, I ask her out on not quite a date, but I hang around with her at a party, she seems nice, she seems friendly, ‘Oh this is it, we’re gonna go out together’, she says ‘Lets be friends’, I go into a huge sulk and it goes on. Or maybe we’re sort of girlfriend and boyfriend, we actually have a kiss, ‘Are we gonna have sex?’, ‘NO, let’s be friends’. It’s just general frustration of: ‘What’s wrong with my thin white leather tie? What’s wrong with my red and grey ski jacket? Next they’ll be asking me to wash my hair more than once a week! What more do these people want?’
I just want to take that boy to one side and say: a) There’s plenty of time, just calm down; b) Yes, you should have a bath and wash your hair more than once a week if you want girls to stand near you. Weirdly, it was easier with the younger chapters because there’s only so much you remember about being seven. The important memories are the ones that are immediately available. When it came to the diary I had this huge primary source of material. Most of it didn’t make the cut but every now and again there were bits that were just so embarrassing they were worth quoting in full.
‘There’s only so much you remember about being seven. The important memories are the ones that are immediately available.’
Was writing the book a cathartic experience for you?
It was, yeah. I’m always slightly shy admitting that because I don’t want readers to think that I did it in order to give myself therapy. Hopefully it’s an open and outward facing and generous book. Particularly the stuff about grief, about when I lost my Mum… it’s not there to say ‘poor old me,’ but to reach out to other people who have lost someone, which is basically everyone. But yes, there was a sort of collateral benefit, if you like. It did help me to frame some of those experiences in my own terms and in my own words. It was a good thing.
You talked in the book about being emotionally ill-equipped for losing your Mum when you were 17 and subsequently having counselling when you were at university – was therapy important in helping you gain an emotional toolkit that you felt you were lacking?
It was a more short-term benefit than that, really. Firstly, when she died, suddenly I had all these nice people saying, ‘If you need to talk then just talk, I’m here, just talk, talk,’ and I kind of went, ‘talking? That’s novel’. Because talking about your feelings, particularly talking about negative, uncomfortable or unwanted feelings, is something that boys, I feel, are specifically trained not to do. So you’re suddenly going: ‘how’s talking going to change anything?’ You haven’t got your head round the idea that, of course talking doesn’t change anything but it does change how you handle the truth.
You can sort of make peace with events rather than try to close them off and ignore them and bottle them up, because they’re going to come out somehow, those emotions. If you don’t address them they might come out as anger, if you’re not careful. So therapy was very useful – though it was only counselling, this wasn’t a psychiatrist. This was a counsellor, and mainly they just listen.
So the short-term benefit was – because I was in quite a bad place, I was having suicidal thoughts every now and again – during the week I could think, ‘okay, this is a very unpleasant feeling I’m having in my head but at least I’ve got Michael who I can talk to about that on Thursday’. He’s a professional; he’s literally got nothing better to do, it’s not like talking to a friend or family member where you feel a bit guilty calling on their time and don’t want to bring them down. It helped. But did it heal me, or give me proper distance? I doubt that. Really that’s just time. You don’t get over this stuff; you learn to coexist with it. That’s a matter of time – it’s 28 years now and I think I’m basically okay. But it’s too soon to say.
‘You don’t get over this stuff; you learn to coexist with it. It’s 28 years now and I think I’m basically okay. But it’s too soon to say.’
I did want to ask you about your relationship with your mother. In the first chapter you describe being in the car with your Mum, feeling safe and happy. You write: ‘I like it here. There are no men, and there are no other boys.’ Did you feel that there was a certain amount of shame associated with being a ‘Mummy’s boy’?
Definitely. I had a strong impression that you were supposed to prefer the company of your Dad, and I just didn’t. As I set out in the book, he was not at his best in the late 70s. He didn’t really know what to do with a young family. He found it frustrating. He was a disciplinarian and he liked the odd drink and he punished his sons physically. This was absolutely nothing unusual for the time and the place, we’re talking about rural England in the late 70s early 80s, but still, I was basically very frightened of him and didn’t want to spend time with him. I was really pleased when he disappeared from the scene. But being a Mummy’s boy? Yeah, that was equivalent to being effeminate in some way, or any of the other various homophobic playground taunts that were knocking about at the time. It was shameful.
Early on in the book you also write: ‘If I understand two things about masculinity at the age of seven, it is a) the Sovereign Importance of Early Homophobia and b) the Paramount Objective of Despising Girls’. If you could give your seven-year old self some alternative guidelines on how best to be a boy, what would they be?
That’s a good question because children are very conservative in their own way because they’re trying to figure out the rules and they’re trying to belong. It’s a very unusual seven-year-old who wants to be different. I just wanted to be accepted as a boy. Because we insist on this segregation – even now, 2018, you walk into a school and they’re divided into girls vs. boys and there’s a whole load of girls vs. boys stuff going on – so you don’t want to let the side down. And the side said, this is your attitude to girls: girls are rubbish, it’s wrong to hang out with girls and only a homosexual would hang out with girls (paradoxically). So what would I say to him? I suppose I’d say to him ‘do what you need to do but try not to cause any harm.’ I don’t want to be too tough on that 7-year old, he’s got to make his own way there!
‘Children are very conservative in their own way because they’re trying to figure out the rules and they’re trying to belong. It’s a very unusual seven-year-old who wants to be different.’
What’s most surprised you about people’s reactions to the book, if anything?
Gosh, it would sound incredibly immodest if I say that nothing has surprised me. My main reaction has been relief – huge relief and gratitude. While I was writing it, although I said I had a good idea for a book, you never know for sure. Even when you’re writing what you think is the world’s funniest comedy sketch, there’s a chance that absolutely no-one is going to laugh. So, I thought for a while ‘okay, maybe I’ll do this and then no-one’s going to buy it and I’ll get four or five supportive and dutiful emails from my friends trying to be nice to me and then the subject will never be raised again.’ So I was just very relieved and grateful when the book came out and it did so well. Via Twitter I get to hear from the happy readers of How Not To Be a Boy every day, and that’s a great pleasure.
It’s very different from the reactions when I started to do interviews about the book before it was published. Then everyone was reviewing and responding to the interviews. That’s when the Men’s Rights Activists came out. I managed to make a group of very angry men even angrier. Now they’ve settled back down to their default of livid. In terms of people who’ve actually read the book, men and women, it’s been overwhelmingly a positive reaction. I’m extremely touched and grateful and all of those words.
What are you working on next?
I’m writing my first novel. Which turns out to be really, really quite a lot harder. It turns out you’ve got to make this shit up out of nothing! Who knew? I had a very good idea for the beginning of the story and I’d sold the book on that basis. It was only half a page of A4. And now it turns out you’ve got to come up with not just the beginning, but also the middle, and the end and all the bits in-between. It’s an enjoyable challenge but every now and again I have a crisis of confidence. I’ve shared a certain amount of insecurity on social media and people go ‘Oh just write it! Just write it! Just get through the first draft!’ and I feel like going ‘WRITE FUCKING WHAT? YOU WRITE IT! I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO PUT!’ …Yes, it’s going quite slowly but it’s going to be great.