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

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

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