A Portrait Of An Idiot As A Young Man, by Jon Holmes | Book review by Steve Bennett

A Portrait Of An Idiot As A Young Man, by Jon Holmes

Book review by Steve Bennett

The subtitle of Jon Holmes's autobiography, 'part memoir, part explanation as to why men are so rubbish', indicates it's being pitched as a manual of modern manhood, a response, perhaps to the Caitlin Moran-led genre of manuals about female identity.

Male incompetence is, of course, no surprise – a staple of every washing powder commercial, let alone 'men and women are different' stand-up routine. If this is gazetteer of masculinity (a geezer-teer?), you can be sure it's not in the war-loving, man-against-nature, tub-thumping, alpha-male Ernest Hemingway mould.

No. Holmes, the notoriously short one from Radio 4's The Now Show and presenter on the male-dominated Radio X, is caught in a familiar generational gap of a man born at the very end of the 1960s. His father was a builder, even owning diggers, practical and sure of his place. Yet those skills, that certainty, are disappearing in today's middle-class world of service jobs, better gender equality, and less well-defined notions of what being a modern man means.

Forget running with the bulls, he's morbidly afraid of spiders. His gun toting-adventures end up with him being inadvertently shot in the face. When there's a brawl at the school disco, his intentions of heroism are thwarted by cowardice. This is what manner of man Holmes is.

Yet in other aspects, male traits are hardwired into his brain. His thoughts about masculinity start book when he finds himself looking down the midwife's low-cut top at the very moment his wife gives birth to his daughter, one of the most profound bonding experiences of his marriage and he's reduced to a Benny Hill caricature.

Like most his generation, his sexual awakening came by stumbling on hard-to-find contraband porn, before experiences inexpert teenage fondling, executed under the dread of being caught out. Later in the book, he addresses one of the big taboos of male sexuality, the premature ejaculation, with a little more honesty that it being a punchline.

In many ways Holmes had a typical upbringing in a nondescript English town in the 1970s and 1980s, Nuneaton in his case. In others, it's atypical, too. He's adopted, for starters, a fact that doesn't seem to influence his life much, but sparks some nature-versus-nurture debate. And that quite a lot of adoptees tend to end up as show-offy performers might suggest some influences are at play. His career in the media means Holmes has some fun stories for the second half of the autobiography, too.

Given the spate of TV comedies based on the 1970s memoirs of radio favourites, you might expect Holmes's book to feel familiar. However, it doesn't dwell on nostalgia, but rather presents a plethora of personal anecdotes that are less dependent on era than his propensity not to think things through.

The chapter sub-headings should be enough to tease: '…in which my dad thinks I am a transvestite' '…in which an Oscar-nominated screenwriter sticks a pair of scissors in my ear in Graham Norton's disabled toilet', '…in which I am arrested again. And the attacked with raw mince.' For a confessed coward, he certainly gets into a fair few scrapes, becoming a wanted man in the States and being led out of a gathering of Tory grandees by security.

For while Lord Ashcroft is spilling the (alleged) beans on David Cameron, Holmes reveals that the scorned Tory donor himself once hosted a party where debauched, drunken behaviour was witnessed. Wine was stolen from a Conservative grandee, and John Major faced embarrassing questions about whether he ate peas off Edwina Currie during their affair. And the well-oiled miscreant responsible? Yep, Homes himself…

The style is light, conversational and breezily funny, as you might expect from a radio personality and co-writer of such comedies as Dead Ringers, Horrible Histories and Listen Against, the mash-up show so recently at the centre of a plagiarism storm.

This book was inspired by him becoming a father, prompting a certain analysis of how he made his way through life; giving him a newfound respect for his parents and prompting concerns about how his daughters will make the same journey. But that meaning is secondary to a catalogue of often wince-inducingly funny incidents, experienced by a real-life Homer Simpson.

His sometime Radio 2 co-host Miranda Hart called the book 'Caitlin Moran meets the Inbetweeners', and it would be hard to top that description.

• A Portrait of an Idiot as a Young Man by Jon Holmes is published by Orion Media, priced £12.99. Click here to order from Foyles.

• Jon Holmes will be appearing at the Chortle Comedy Book Festival in London on November 7. Click here for details.

Published: 15 Oct 2015

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