Robert Webb’s autobiography is framed as an account of how he tried to escape the prison of masculinity. But How Not to Be a Boy, which began life as an article for the New Statesman in 2014, reads far better as a book about how to escape the valley of the shadow of death. Webb’s mother died when he was 17. She had already separated from his feckless “local character” of a dad and married a man who was equally feckless but less of a character. “Where does a mummy’s boy go when he’s got no mummy?” asks Webb. Back to Dad, of course.
Webb achieved fame as a writer and performer of brilliantly funny sketches and he has the sketch writer’s gift for finding and recreating the telling moment. As his mum lies dying in one room, he has to listen to his father and stepfather discussing how much Josie from Woodhall would charge to come and do a bit of cleaning after Mum has gone. A stranger in a pub recognises him as the son of Paul Webb and tells him that Paul was the best man in the world for drinking and fucking. Webb tries to pass on the compliment to his dad.
These excruciating moments build a picture of a group of men trying to move on from loss without ever talking about it directly. Dropping his son off at Cambridge University, Dad says, “Right then, boy. See you at Christmas. Try not to get VD.” It’s a story that comes to an unexpectedly sweet conclusion at Webb’s graduation. “I know you’d rather your mother was here but I’m proud of you anyway,” says Dad, and Webb realises that his father “knows he’s taking someone else’s place”.
There’s an affectionate, insightful picture of growing up on the snakebite-and-black,snooker-at-the-conservative-club council estates of small-town Lincolnshire; of the neighbours who kept an eye out for you; of Nan and Grandad who work at the golf club. There’s a description of the mortifying day his big brother Mark gets his mate Larry to demonstrate his disco skills by making him dance to “Stool Pigeon” in the kitchen that will be anthologised for ever.
At a particularly divisive moment in the the nation, it’s refreshing to read that small-town conservatives are “some of the most tolerant people I’ve ever met”. When Webb decides to tell his dad that he has had gay relationships in the past, his brother warns him it’ll break the old man’s heart but it makes no difference – “Go on, son. None of my business. Go on.” Family is family.
Among its other virtues, this is a terrific book about how, far from stifling you, family can be the crucible in which tolerance and understanding are forged. I spend a lot of time visiting schools these days and often come away asking myself where working-class children ever see themselves represented in our culture as anything other than anthropological specimens or as ciphers in a political argument. When do they see themselves portrayed in colour?
The autobiographies of comedians are among the few places where you can read about working-class people struggling with big ideas. I’m thinking of Johnny Vegas’s brilliant account of losing his faith in a seminary in his early teens; Alexei Sayle’s description of the weirdness and wonder of growing up communist; or John Bishop’s stories of growing up ambitious in Runcorn.
Are you disorientated to find Robert Webb in this category? Webb’s career highlights include dressing up in a leotard, putting on a massive wig and performing the big number from Flashdance. I didn’t need a spoiler alert for the revelation that he had somehow broken free of narrow definitions of masculinity – but I was bloody surprised to find out that the definitive Bertie Wooster of his generation was from a council estate.
This is also a book about ambition and fame. You lose your mother’s love; you set out to win the love of eight million viewers. Comedians usually stumble or fall into comedy. They’re bullied into being funny by their classmates or circumstances. Not Webb. He saw that Cambridge was the source of the comedy he admired, went to grammar school, read a lot and got there. When the death of his mother impacted on his A-level results, he swotted harder, said his prayers and did resits. He learned to love literature. There is a beautiful passage in this book about how Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” echoed in his heart. Nevertheless, as soon as he got to Cambridge, he dropped the books and threw himself into Footlights.
Webb is hilariously precise about the mechanics of changing social class – how, having been a fey aesthete at home, you find it handy to release your inner yob at university, for instance. For all his pansexual metropolitan cool, this is in many ways a very old-fashioned journey involving grammar school and a change of accent.
Maybe this is to do with coming from Lincolnshire. It’s all right to be an intellectual or a wit with a regional accent if the accent is from a city. If you’re from Woodhall, you probably have to work on your vowels. In the era of house-price insanity, geography is as strong a determinant of social status as class.
In order to shake off the bonds of masculinity, Webb had to be more true to himself. To shake off the bonds of class and Lincolnshire, he had to leave something behind. One of the boys I met at a school in Liverpool memorably told me, “It was a shedload easier to come out as gay than it was to come out as clever.”
The thing that really lifts what is already a very funny and moving book is the grace and gratitude with which Webb remembers the goodwill of those who made him and those he left behind. Grief, as he says, is the echo of love.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. His latest book is “Sputnik’s Guide to Life on Earth” (Macmillan)
How Not To Be a Boy
Canongate, 328pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move