Robert Webb as a teenager: “Slow, skinny and an utter countryside coward”
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How not to be a boy: Robert Webb on growing up, and losing a parent

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit.

Gazing up at Steve Austin, I could tell that this was a real man. A Six Million Dollar Man, in fact. I could tell by his square jaw, square hairdo, square everything. The poster was on the wall of my first bedroom, which means I must have been four, because Mum remarried when I was five. No More Shouting was the instant and lasting benefit. Dad was a real man, too, but not like Steve Austin. Steve Austin didn’t make everyone cry.

Neither did Han Solo, Buck Rogers, Dick Turpin or B A Baracus. What they did instead was beat people up, stab them or shoot them. My childhood was as heavily gendered as any you would find in a working-class household in Lincolnshire. As such, it was nothing less than an orgy of make-believe violence. I was never without a plastic gun or a plastic sword; if I was on my bike, that bike was Zorro’s horse: simply a means of transporting me between punch-ups. Or it was a motorcycle zooming me along to make some tough, wisecracking arrest with the California Highway Patrol in CHiPs. Yes, I made spaceships out of Lego but the point of spaceships was to blow up other spaceships. How I hated the boring bits of Monkey where our hero is admonished simply for battering the baddies to death with his metal pole. How I longed for the Doctor to lose patience with this annoying Silurian and just punch him hard in the mouth. And what the hell was Aslan waiting for?

My escape from the violent rows of the last years of my parents’ marriage was not into a world of science or religion or dreams of becoming a florist or ballet dancer. It was an escape into a safer, more containable world of violence. I don’t think I was unusual in that respect: I was a hopelessly conventional boy. The trouble was, in the real world, fulfilling those conventions was something at which I was hopeless. I gave lousy “boy”.

I was a weed. Legs like sticks, arms like reeds, ribs like the notes of a toy xylophone made of twigs. Every night, I’d sit in the living room of “the new house” (the bungalow) with a stepdad, a mum and two much older brothers all chain-smoking their way through Coronation Street and Minder. They smoked in the kitchen; they smoked in the car. I could basically breathe but not run, not fast and certainly not for long. Slow, skinny and an utter countryside coward: I lived in dread of nettles, spiders and the very sound of a wasp. As a victim, I was beneath the dignity of the bullies in my year but fair game to the ones in the year below. And when it came to picking teams for football, I was reliably the second-to-last choice, the last choice being a kid called Mark who had cerebral palsy. Nope, that wasn’t a joke.

This was primary school. At grammar school, things went sharply downhill. I became dimly aware that this macho-man aspiration was, quite possibly, not doing me any favours. Ultimately, I don’t think it does any boy any favours but maybe I was in particular need of a “rebrand” or “makeover” or some other term that we all seemed to manage without in 1985. The problem was ultimately the solution: this was a good school, where boys, just like girls, were allowed to be clever. I’d lived in fear of being called a “poof”. Now, thank God, there was something just as bad: they might call me a “divvy”. In the summer exams at the end of my first year, my average score put me 17th in a class of 24. I’d stuffed my head with pointless fantasies of physical invincibility and forgotten to be good at anything real. But it wasn’t all for nothing: I remembered that Zorro reads books when he takes his mask off. I liked Zorro but needed Don Diego.

Boys and girls in flight from gender expectations are apt to overdo it. So, yes, this is a well-known tale of “wimp has to get smart”. But also of “teenage zealot sets about everything he doesn’t like about himself with a machete”. I was taking delivery of a huge dose of testosterone at the exact moment that I decided all this testosterone-worship had been, well . . . childish.

The results were predictable. So, I’m 13, I speak with a Lincolnshire accent like my father. Fine. I can’t stand my father so the accent will have to go. It went. So, I’m a joke on the football pitch. Fine. This will now be my joke. I will make you boys laugh so much that, like me, you can barely run. This occasionally worked. So, real men don’t read poetry. Up yours. I’m applying to a very posh university to study English. Tough one, this, but they eventually let me in. And apparently real men don’t get off with other men: hello, boys! I would characterise this new approach to boys (which involved various approaches to boys) as a shot glass of gay desire in an ocean of rebellion. But also convenient, because most of the girls thought I was out of my mind.

They had a point. My mother died when I was 17 and I moved in with my dad to make a 12-month pig’s ear of retaking my A-levels. To summarise: bumpy. But the scary tyrant of my childhood turned out to be just this . . . bloke. A charming, exasperating bloke. And the original real man was a good cook and talked knowledgeably about birds and flowers. This was unhelpful; he was spoiling my new thought system. Real men are sexist, overbearing, unreflecting drunks who treat their wives badly and vote Conservative. Dad was capable of supplying evidence for every part of this grand theory. But puzzlingly, he could also be generous, sensible, bright and funny, and was obviously adored by more or less everyone in our village. In fact, he showed worrying signs of being just another complicated human being. This was outrageous. I decided to resent him for that, too.

He was in the habit of telling people what they were like and, with me, he often prefaced this with the phrase, “You’re like me . . .” So, “You’re like me, boy: moody,” or, “You’re like me, son: you like a pint,” or, “You’re like me, Rob: we’re no good at talking about our feelings.” He was always right. But anyway, I was in no mood to talk to him. This was the guy who, a year earlier, had turned up at the bungalow of tubes and chemicals. The oxygen tanks, the vials of morphine kept in a Tupperware box, the occasional hovering nurse, the friends coming round with some taut cheeriness and home-made lasagne. And then the extended family and the friends of friends who’d driven 80 miles to see Mum because they just wanted to say – wait for it – “hello”. Into this bungalow came my father, drunk, to explain to me that the situation was serious.

By the time I Blu-tacked a poster to the wall of my first-year room in Cambridge, Steve Austin had given way to Brett Anderson. The lead singer of Suede was notorious for the daft quote, “I’m a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience.” I tended to show a bit more commitment than Brett in this regard. “Nobody is going to say this is a pose,” I announced to myself as I once again flounced into the college bar with my silver earring and long coat. I think “Come and call me a poof if you think you’re hard enough” was the slightly misfiring impulse. The soundtrack in my head would be playing “Animal Nitrate”. Five pints later, I would stumble out again to the theme from Bullseye.

“Good old boy,” Dad would chortle down the phone, “you like a pint, just like yer daddy.” Christ. My lager was better than his lager. And I would go home in the holidays with an air of studied tolerance and refuse to tell him much about what was going on and refuse to argue with him about politics. We’d eat our tea in front of Channel 4 News (how he enjoyed hating Jon Snow; “Who’s a pretty boy, then!?” he once yelled at the portable telly when Snow was giving some bishop a hard time) and he would give a running commentary on what was wrong with the country and who was to blame and I would sit there eating the meal he had cooked for me and nod and shrug and close it down. I allowed him to assume that I thought his opinions were beneath my important consideration.

Why did I treat him like this? Because I was furious with him for not being dead. My smart, kind, beautiful mum had just died and I was stuck with this pillock. But the real insult was that he was a man. Don’t “women and children” go first? Don’t men “take the bullet”? Despite my noisy rejection of “the macho”, there I was, blaming my father for not being a real man. Years later, he told me that when I first moved in, he spent most of his time just worrying if I was going to be all right. Of course he did.

Nobody ever told me: you don’t have to waste years trying to figure out how to be a “man” because the whole concept is horseshit. We are people, individuals comprising a variety of sexes, races, shifting sexualities and all the rest of it. Every convention that tries to reinforce this difference is a step back. Notions of gender pointlessly separate men from women, but also mothers from daughters and fathers from sons. The whole thing is – at best – just a stupefying waste of everyone’s time. And the thing that we naturally forget about time is that we only get so much. That’s why, if I could talk to my 18-year-old self right now, I’d say something like this:

Mate, I know you lost a beloved parent last year. So did I. And the whole village came to his funeral; St Peter’s was packed and there were people standing outside, just like at Mum’s. I wrote the eulogy and spoke for 15 minutes about everything I loved and admired about him and it was easy.

You see, I got to know him better. It took a long time but eventually I heard him. “Boy, son, Rob . . . You’re like me . . . You’re like me . . . You’re like me . . .” and that made the difference. Grief is the echo of love and you’re holding it close to you now with good reason.

But don’t forget the real thing is standing in the kitchen, peeling spuds and wondering if you’re all right. Hey, young man, go and ask him about his day. 

 

Robert Webb is a comedian, actor and writer. Alongside David Mitchell, he is one half of the double act Mitchell and Webb, best known for award-winning sitcom Peep Show.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era