Never a Belonger

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Richard Cobb in England seems, if not quite an oxymoron, at least a bizarre fortuity, an accident of birth, like El Greco in Crete or Livingstone in Lanarkshire. For was he not one of the most Frenchified of historians? Did he not write huge scholarly tomes in French? Had he not been one of those rare souls who manage to acquire a second identity in a seconde patrie?

Well yes, he was, he did, and he had. But he remained very English, at least when he was on this side of the Channel. And he looked very English as well: not Saxon or Celt, but with his gaunt knobby features unmistakably English. ‘Monsieur Cobb,’ the French used to tell him, ‘vous portez votre passeport sur la figure.’

A devotee of pubs as well as cafés, Cobb was born in the most inappropriate of places, Frinton-on-Sea, a town without a pub for the whole of the twentieth century. He was brought up in the south-east, living in Tunbridge Wells and visiting his uncles and grandparents in the flat country he loved along the Essex-Suffolk border. Between school at Shrewsbury and university at Oxford he escaped to Paris where, after discovering the joys of the Archives Nationales, he went to live after taking his degree in 1938. But the war interrupted his research, and he was unable to return to France until after D-Day or to resume his studies before demobilization in 1946. Subsequently he spent nine years living in Paris before accepting, at the age of 38, his first academic job at the
University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Short stints followed at Manchester and Leeds, succeeded by a much longer one at Oxford, first at Balliol and then at Worcester College. After a disastrous attempt to retire to Whitby, he finally settled in Abingdon, where he died in 1996. He had spent more than four-fifths of his life in England.

All of Cobb’s chief historical works deal with France: the four great volumes on the revolutionary armies (in French) and the four lat

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About the contributor

David Gilmour was taught by Cobb at Balliol, in the Worcester College buttery and at the Gridiron Club. He subsequently edited Cobb’s collections of writings, The French and Their Revolution and Paris and Elsewhere.

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