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
Subscribe or sign in to read the full article
The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.Subscribe now or Sign in
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 later, shorter books on popular protest and other aspects of the Revolution (in English). Yet, as he later admitted, ‘a certain intermingling of history and autobiography’ was present in nearly all his writing. In middle age, apparently unconnected reminiscences started creeping into the early pages of his works. The preface of Reactions to the French Revolution contains an account of the Essex routine of his Uncle Primus – winding the clock, laying the table, tapping the barometer – and an evocation of the ‘private, distinctive smell’ of his grandfather’s house in Colchester, ‘a mixture of pipe tobacco, horseradish, and the peppery smell of the geraniums that grew in pots at the entrance to the walled garden at the back’. Later reminiscences were even more eccentric and esoteric: French and Germans was prefaced by a history of its author’s dental problems, starting with his first tooth coming out in a slice of gingerbread in 1923 and ending with the revelation that the third-happiest day of his life (the first two being demobilization and the birth of his youngest son) was when he ‘got rid of the last six or seven of the wretched things’ a half-century later. In 1975 Cobb wrote an essay, ‘Becoming an Historian’, which recorded the influence of his public school, Shrewsbury, on his subsequent career. Although his housemaster was ‘reptilian’ and the senior boys were loutish and philistine Lancastrians, the medieval town alerted his historical imagination, and the school itself contained ‘corners of Enlightenment’ inhabited by inspirational teachers. One such was a history master known as ‘the Duke’, who introduced him to the work of Lewis Namier. Another was an English teacher called ‘the Swith’ (his surname was Sopwith), who read him Eliot and Auden and helped form the character and quality of his pupil’s future writing. Cobb recognized the debt in his essay.
How would I, without the guidance of this master of rhythm, sound and evocation of place and season, ever have discovered on my own, the old gravy smell, the cabbagey smell, of the basements of Bloomsbury boarding-houses kept by declining ladies, the stale smell of genteel loneliness . . . [their] hurried,half-ashamed ‘Good mornings’, before the lodgers – unattached, mousy ladies, sad-looking clerks, lonely people of uncertain professions – hastily hid themselves behind their morning papers, each bearing his or her name; the underground Torrington Square world, washed away by the blitz, my favourite retreat from the institutional life of an Oxford college, my regular plunges into the joys of anonymity, of being unattached and unknown, freedom spelt out in potted plants, antimacassars, dark, bad, oil paintings, huge, forbidding mahogany dressers; how would I have come to appreciate the sad, seedy poetry of such loneliness . . . had I not been guided in the beauty of words by my English master in the Classical Fifth and the History Remove?After winning the Wolfson Prize with Death in Paris (1978), his last book based on research in the French archives, Cobb concentrated on autobiography. His first work in the genre, Still Life (1983), is a memoir of his childhood in Tunbridge Wells, a town he vividly evoked in all its gentility and class-consciousness. His mother had appeared before in prefaces and introductions but here she is paraded in full dress in her rather quaint snobbery, her respectability and practical common sense, playing cards at the Ladies’ Bridge Club with the widows of colonial officers, relishing (as a doctor’s daughter) the exclusion of dentists from the Neville Tennis Club. His father, a civil servant in the Sudan, makes only sporadic entrances, usually taciturn; but sometimes in good humour, humming tunes from Gilbert and Sullivan and calling his young son ‘old boy’. Still Life contains some of the qualities that made Cobb such a brilliant historian: an acuteness of observation, an empathy with people – especially ‘ordinary’ people – and an astonishing receptiveness to place and ambience. The book is among other things a social study of Tunbridge Wells written with a novelist’s ear for dialogue. ‘Simply frightful,’ say the ladies, ‘sensibly dressed . . . hatted and gloved’, returning by train from a shopping jaunt to Harrods or Swan & Edgar, ‘what a terrible faux-pas (fo-pah) . . . she’s grown into quite a little hussy, a face like Jezebel . . .’ Later on we are introduced to the obscure and shadowy world of the Limbury-Buses, a family whose members do not work or read books or even listen to the wireless in wartime: they play bridge and visit the club and survive the war years by chomping their way through chocolate cake and cucumber sandwiches. They must have been as boring a family as any one has ever met, yet Cobb, who admired their attachment to routine and their ability to insulate themselves from anything disagreeable, managed to write about them with such empathy that one almost wishes one had known them oneself. In the next instalment of his autobiography, A Classical Education (1985), the historian returned to Shrewsbury, although this time he focused not on magisterial mentors or Liverpudlian bully-boys but on a school chum, a Dubliner who invited him home and introduced him to his awful mother, known as Medea. The climax of the book comes a few years later when the chum hacks Medea to death withan axe, puts her body in a car and attempts to push the vehicle over a cliff – an operation delayed by another car, occupied by a copulating couple, that blocks the way to the push-off point. After this perhaps unedifying excursion (though with many redeeming passages), Cobb returned in Something to Hold Onto (1988) to Essex, his grandparents’ house, and to his memories of various uncles and aunts. (Here Uncle Primus happily reappears, still winding the clock and checking the barometer, but also making rugs that were apparently very finely stitched.) Cobb’s last book, published posthumously in 1997 as The End of the Line, contains nostalgic memories of dingy hotels in English market towns, places of ‘agreeable and baffling diversity’ that flourished in an era before Trust House Forte. He recalled how, sitting in a room with ‘big, sad leather armchairs facing futilely in all directions’, he read, ‘evening after evening, going down to the bar every now and then to pick up a pint of beer’, the whole of War and Peace. In Something to Hold Onto Cobb declared that at the age of 70 he had ‘never felt more English nor more middle-class’. This was dispiriting news to those of us who loved the classless and anarchical Cobb who strode the boulevards and was on easy terms with streetwalkers on the rue St Denis and petty criminals in Les Halles. One could as happily drink Abbot’s Ale with him in an Oxford pub as share a bottle of red wine in a Parisian café, but the ambience of the latter seemed more exciting as well as more appropriate. Yet there were continuities in subject matter as well as style in his new writing. In his French work he had increasingly written about people on the margins of the Revolution, a tendency that annoyed his French colleagues and provoked one of them to exclaim testily at a conference, ‘Prostitutes do not make history’. Perhaps they don’t, but they belong to history just as much as Robespierre and the revolutionary leaders whom Cobb detested and became increasingly reluctant to write about. Carters and innkeepers, poachers and bandits, housemaids in Lyon seduced and impregnated by their employers’ sons – they were worth rescuing from oblivion, especially when described with such ‘Swithian’ sensitivity. And so surely were Uncle Primus and the Limbury-Buses and the ladies in the train from Charing Cross to Tunbridge Wells. Banality too is a part of history. Cobb wrote as well about England as about France: he had as strong a sense of place, as acute an ear for speech, as powerful a perception of character. Perhaps in France he was more drawn to violent people whereas in England (with the exception of the matricide) he shunned them. But there was not a great difference. He was a natural shirker, a hater of cricket and its ‘beastly’ hard ball, and at the time of Munich he admitted he was ‘physically and morally a munichois’, grateful to Chamberlain and Daladier for having secured even a few extra months of peace. Although he did not shirk the war, the Army very sensibly recognized that he was not ‘officer material’, that he did not have the required ‘calibre’ to lead or indeed to be allowed anywhere near the front line. As an improbable sergeant, Cobb spent most of the war as a teacher of English (to Czech and Polish soldiers), and later as a warrant-officer and a journalist on an Army newspaper in northern France. ‘Mr Cobb’s real subject’, wrote a reviewer in the Sixties, ‘is anarchy.’ And although the historian was not at all interested in anarchism as a movement, he understood and accepted the anarchy of life, both his own and other people’s. His subject matter was chaotic and, as he admitted, he wrote about it chaotically. He himself was an observer and an outsider, a man desperate to preserve his ‘status of lone wolf ’; he was never a belonger. Yet perhaps the most arresting feature of his English books is their revelation of how much this side of his nature needed to be counterbalanced by opposing desires for routine, order and continuity. The man who so frequently drank himself under the table – and required time to work out where he was when he woke up – needed the reassurance of habit and familiarity. ‘I have always liked things to be regular,’ he wrote in A Classical Education, ‘and have generally derived a sense of reassurance from habit and continuity.’ He needed this reassurance in his history, writing about ordinary people getting on with their lives and not getting killed on the barricades, and he needed it in his personal life, the reassurance of taking the same train in the morning, of going to the same café and seeing the same customers, of establishing a regular itinerary in each town where he did research, of visiting at the end of each month the same Parisian prostitute. In later life he obtained this reassurance by writing about his childhood, for where does one find more routine than in an English boarding-school? And indeed where could one have a more reassuring childhood than in Tunbridge Wells? Writing Still Life and its successors was Cobb’s way of dropping an anchor that would never have to be weighed. In September 1939 he was sitting in the drawing-room of his parents’ home, looking out from French windows at the hotels and monkey-puzzle trees of his home town, when suddenly he felt a cold anguish’ about the war, his potential participation and the possibility of being killed. In the middle of a hand of bridge he panicked and missed a trick. Then he looked about him, saw familiar objects, checked the well-known view, felt reassured by the presence of his parents – people who ‘had been through so much and had still come out the other end’ – and eventually he calmed down. Nothing really terrible, he managed to convince himself, could ever happen to him in Royal Tunbridge Wells.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 41 © David Gilmour 2014
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.