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Robert Webb's How Not To Be a Boy: a bittersweet picture of men dealing with loss

In his memoir, the actor remembers the goodwill of those who made him with grace and gratitude.

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
Robert Webb
Canongate, 328pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move

Emma Moore as Ruth Ellis
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Rasping old cassettes bring new depth to a familiar true crime tale in BBC Four’s The Ruth Ellis Files

Plus, a BBC Two documentary about Brixton reggae producer Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin.

I thought I knew the Ruth Ellis story inside out: when I was writing my book about women’s lives in the 1950s, her name came up so often – almost daily, it fell like a shadow over my desk – I finally had to give in and take a detour, reading everything about her that I could find, for all that she wasn’t part of my plan (if you’re interested too, and want a primer, I recommend A Fine Day for a Hanging by Carol Ann Lee). But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps I didn’t really know anything at all, for I never once felt even half so haunted in the British Library as I did the other night in the moments after I finished watching Gillian Pachter’s three-part documentary series, The Ruth Ellis Files: A Very British Crime Story (13-15 March, 9pm).

It wasn’t that Pachter, an American filmmaker who specialises in true crime, had vast quantities of new information; the thrust of her investigation had to do with the part played by Ellis’s other lover, Desmond Cussen, in the murder of David Blakely, the crime for which she alone was hanged on the morning of 13 July, 1955, at Holloway Prison, north London. Pachter suggested, like others before her, that Cussen provided Ellis with the gun with which she shot her violent boyfriend, and that he should therefore have been tried as an accessory.

Nor were her long-winded films, so deeply in love with their own processes, without their irritations, from the tonally jarring film clips she insisted on using to illustrate situations for which she had no images, to her bizarre and utterly pointless desire to recreate the pathetic last bedsit of Ellis’s son, Andre Hornby, who committed suicide in 1982, aged 37. Faced with certain expert “witnesses”, among them a couple of retired coppers who couldn’t have been loving their moment in the sun more if they’d been slicked with Ambre Solaire, Pachter was never anything less than wide-eyed and credulous.

What she did have, though, were some rasping old cassettes, the complicated provenance of which would take far too long to describe here. And so it was that we heard the voices of Cussen and Ellis discussing Blakely; of Hornby gently interrogating Christmas Humphreys, the counsel for the prosecution at his mother’s trial, whom he tracked down in the months before his suicide; and even of Blakely, loudly toasting the company at a party. She made maximum use of these tapes, playing them repeatedly, and it wasn’t hard to see why; if the words sometimes meant relatively little (“he’s just a little drip… a cheapskate… a skunk…” Ellis said of Blakely, perhaps only telling Cussen what he wanted to hear), the voices nevertheless spoke volumes, whole worlds conjured up in their strangulated vowels, their urgent hesitations.

Here was Ellis, a working-class woman, speaking in a painful, put-on RP. Here was Hornby, his life utterly destroyed by his mother killing the man who was then the closest thing he had to a father, trying desperately hard not to sound mad (“she lived on the borderlines of insanity,” he said of Ellis, possibly unaware that it takes one to know one). And here was Blakely, so obliviously chipper, his voice all dry gin and privilege. Ellis’s story has always reeked of Raymond Chandler: the racing driver lover, his floppy-haired beauty destroyed by bullets; that blonde hair, which she determinedly bleached again in prison ahead of her trial. Hearing them, though, all that fell away. What messes and muddles people get into. What calamities hit them, head on, like meteorites.

After a ten-year absence, Molly Dineen has returned with a documentary about Steve “Blacker Dread” Burnett-Martin (12 March, 9pm), a Brixton reggae producer. Three years in the making, it included some remarkable events in the life of this local celebrity, among them his conviction for money laundering; Dread’s dreads, uncut since he was 14, now reach to his feet and deserve a film of their own. But though I admired its intimacy, the warm and effective way Dineen mined his universe, in the end there was something self-indulgent about it, too. Like Blacker’s barber, her editor was, alas, seemingly surplus to requirements. 

The Ruth Ellis Files (BBC Four)
Being Blacker (BBC Two)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game