I can honestly say that I was nervous to speak to Martin Robinson about his new book, You Are Not the Man You Are Supposed to Be. I’ve met him three times before, and Martin has never been anything other than kind and warm; he’s intelligent, thoughtful and has a 25-year career in journalism that I’m in awe of, but that’s not why I was trepidatious.
I was nervous because, among other topics, we were going to talk about the time I made him cry.
It was back in 2019, when I was new to hosting Happiful’s podcast, and I still remember holding my breath as Martin’s voice cracked, and I desperately fought against every instinct to say something soothing, funny, or just awkward.
“You asked me a question about what I’d say to my teenage self, and I said: ‘Get your haircut, buy some better clothes, and it’ll be alright,’ and at that point I started crying. Properly crying,” Martin recalls while smiling at me over Zoom. “It was quite an honest moment, but it was really embarrassing.
“In the aftermath though, it was pretty important for me. I went out on the street, and called my girlfriend saying something like, ‘I can’t believe I was on a podcast crying…’ Then I went into a pub, had a pie and a pint, got myself together, and I just thought, what am I doing? I’m such a bloke! I got a bit upset, and went straight to a pub.”
When Martin started to think about the shape of his new book, that day came back into his mind. “It really showed me that I’ve still got loads of issues I’m not dealing with. I’d started The Book of Man, and was showing an interest in men’s mental health, but why? Why was I really interested?”
To answer this question, he decided that his book would be part self-exploration, part documenting others’ experiences and relationships with masculinity and mental health.
His journey began back in the North of England, visiting Andy’s Man Club, a now nationwide, free, men’s support group, set up by mental health advocate Luke Ambler after his brother-in-law, Andy, died by suicide.
“I attended as a regular person would, from the viewpoint of what could this do for me?” Martin explains. “Andy’s Man Club is kind of group therapy; you sit around with other blokes and it’s no frills. A rugby ball gets passed around and you talk – or you don’t.”
The concept of speaking about his challenges in front of a group of strangers felt alien to Martin at first, but he soon realised his concerns were unfounded. “I couldn’t believe how warm they all were. It was brilliant, and I just thought, there really is more to men than meets the eye. Once you make men comfortable in a space where you say ‘We’re not going to take the piss out of you,’ it all comes out.”
“Men and boys are as fragile as anyone else –and shouldn’t we stop pretending otherwise?”
From there on in, he examined a lot of the clichés around perceptions of masculinity, as well as the fact that men and boys are as fragile as anyone else – and shouldn’t we stop pretending otherwise?
“There’s a certain strand in masculinity where men are in denial of that fragility,” he says. “I started unpicking that, and where that urge to deny what’s really going on comes from.”
But questioning what masculinity means now, doesn’t come without a backlash, as Martin explains. “There’s often a resistance to men talking in this way, but I keep returning to the idea that this is simply about self-questioning. Trying to understand that is a really healthy process.”
Beyond the personal, Martin delves into issues around class, poverty, and politics. He’s keen to impress that environmental factors also have a role to play.
“Statistically, you are more likely to have a mental health problem, including addiction, if you live in an impoverished area,” he shares.
“People can often blame themselves, and think it’s something that they have to untangle on their own. But it’s not your fault, and it’s important to acknowledge that.
“Getting more men to look at tricky issues is the starting point, because I think we can clam-up. That’s partly because masculinity and mental health is such a big issue to get your head around.”
But that’s why the work Martin, and many others, is doing is so important – pushing for the next chapter on modern masculinity. And with his honest self-reflection, challenging the status quo, and asking for change, Martin really is writing the book on this.
Martin Robinson is the editor, CEO and founder of thebookofman.com, a site working towards a new concept of masculinity. ‘You Are Not the Man You Are Supposed to Be: Into the Chaos of Modern Masculinity’ is out now (Bloomsbury, £20).
Hero Photography | Ed Miles
To connect with a counsellor or seek support with your own mental health, visit counselling-directory.org.uk
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