Richard Cobb’s first book in English was A Second Identity (1969), a title he chose to show how a middle-class Englishman became not just a historian of France but a historian who effectively became French, a man who had learned to say and even feel different things on opposite sides of the Channel. He had spent many years in Paris, living in arrondissements on both banks of the Seine, carrying out a prodigious amount of research in the Archives Nationales, and writing almost always in French. He was chuffed when Frenchmen mistook his nationality. ‘Vous êtes Belge?’ they might ask, or better still, ‘Vous êtes du Nord?’ for he loved to be thought a native of the textile towns of Lille or Roubaix.
Cobb was not a normal student working towards a doctorate; until the age of 38 he made no effort to acquire an academic post or indeed any other job. His life was anarchical (though not in any political sense) and unstructured. Classless in his new identity, he mixed easily with Parisians and provincials, Communists and Catholics, with prostitutes in the rue St Denis and petty criminals in Les Halles, with legionnaires or railway workers in a tabac in Rouen or Lyon. Yet this rather chaotic and bohemian life, fuelled by much carousing and plenty of red wine, did not prevent him from writing four long and impressive volumes on the French Revolution in French.
I knew Richard Cobb in the early 1970s, first as my tutor at Oxford and then as a friend until his death in 1996. By the early years of this period he had reverted to his first identity and become an Englishman who was a professor who now wrote his books (also excellent, also on the Revolution) in English. Yet even as he acquired fame he remained anarchical, disruptive – and very funny. He received the Légion d’honneur; he won the Wolfson Prize; he was chairman of the judges of the Booker Prize; and at a dinner at Buckingham Palace he drank too much and had to be escorted out down a back staircase.
I thought I knew both identities, the second during occasional meetings in Paris where I lived for a while and where, after a convivial dinner, I would walk him to his lodgings off the rue St Antoine only to find that he could not remember where he was staying on that particular evening: it was after quite a lot of random bell-pushing that we would find the right place.
Yet during those years Cobb was slowly revealing yet another identity, or perhaps it was more a mutation of the first: the sensitive English boy from the provincial south-east, from Kent and Essex, a child with an insatiable desire to explore the unromantic townscapes of those counties. (It was of course wonderfully inappropriate that he should have been born, in 1917, in Frinton, a town which did not possess a single pub in the whole of the twentieth century.) As someone who had loved to share a bottle of vin rouge with him in a café on the boulevards, I was rather shocked when he wrote to me about his ‘beloved Manningtree’ and confessed that he had never felt ‘more English, more Protestant or more middle class’.
For some time he had been inserting little bits of autobiography into the prefaces of his most memorable books on French history. In Reactions to the French Revolution he introduced his Uncle Primus, a person with no connection to France or indeed anywhere really except Colchester where, in the house of his parents, he led a life of stupefying routine, winding the clock, laying the table, tapping the barometer and reading the Essex Standard; he did no conventional work, except making some rugs, and after the death of his parents he moved to a boarding-house in Clacton-on-Sea where he went mad.
Impatient readers might wonder what on earth Uncle Primus had to do with characters in the book such as a water-carrier from Aveyron or a market porter from Brittany. Not much, of course, except that Cobb liked to write about ‘ordinary’, unremarkable people. Essential to his approach to writing history was his stress on the importance and the independence of individuals, of their idiosyncrasies, their sufferings, the banality of their existences – and his sympathy for people trying as far as possible to lead normal lives in times of war and revolution.
In 1980 Cobb gave Uncle Primus (and other relations) a more extended outing in ‘The House on the Hythe’, a chapter in Places, a book edited by Ronald Blythe, the author of Akenfield. Its success persuaded him to make further excursions into autobiography, whole books now, and still concentrating very much on south-east England. All his life he liked flat country: Essex and Suffolk, Flanders and the Pas de Calais. He never liked hills (‘they spoil the view’), and he particularly disliked Scotland, where I used to live; on the map, he said, it looked as if it had been torn out of a piece of paper. For him the country’s only advantage was that its climate and topography made it unsuitable for cricket, a game that he hated.
The first and best of these memoirs is Still Life: Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood (1983), a book I have read half a dozen times. I do not know a more evocative account of a childhood, of the place in which it was lived or of the many and very varied people one encounters during it. The book displays Cobb’s great skills – as an observer, as a social historian, as a man with an extraordinary power of recall, and a writer with a unique style of prose and a remarkable sense of place.
Richard moved to Tunbridge Wells at the age of 4 with his mother and sister; his father, who was in the Sudan Civil Service, was only an intermittent presence until his retirement. The family moved house a good deal, from one rented place to another, but managed to retain its status among the many gradations of middle-class society in a very middle-class town. Mr Cobb did not care much about status – he was happiest in his allotment chatting with whoever was digging in the neighbouring potato patch – but Mrs Cobb did. She was a sensible, good-hearted and harmlessly snobbish woman, who played cards at the Ladies’ Bridge Club with the widows of colonial officials and (as a doctor’s daughter) relished the exclusion of dentists from the Nevill Tennis Club.
As a child observer who was curious, unpretentious and above all empathetic, Richard was the perfect person to portray Tunbridge Wells and its peculiar society. His ear for dialogue and social nuance is wonderfully displayed in a description of a party of ladies, ‘hatted and gloved’, returning by train from Charing Cross after a shopping jaunt to Harrods and Swan & Edgar. How well he captures the voices and accentuations – something was ‘simply frightful’, someone was a ‘little hussy’, someone else was ‘a bit brainy’ (in a negative and possibly even dangerous way) – and their appearances, the scarves, the blouses, the thick stockings, ‘the washed-out, blue eyes . . . the clearly- marked deltas of mauve veins [and] extensive estuaries . . . that gave to their weather-beaten red faces a hint of intelligence and even kindness’.
Cobb was a spectator, a witness, not a mocker or a satirist. He devotes several pages to a family of distant cousins, the Limbury-Buses, a group of very idle people who managed to insulate themselves from the world, even in the middle of the Second World War. They hardly did anything except consume cucumber sandwiches and go for very short walks; they certainly did not listen to the wireless to find out how the war was going. Yet however boring they must have been, Cobb is not censorious. I think he rather admired their imperturbability.
Richard may have been eccentric, irreverent and anarchical but he was also someone who needed reassurance. He needed a place that would reassure him that life, however threatening it might be elsewhere, could carry on. For him his childhood town was that place, at least until his mother died. In September 1939 he was playing Bridge in his parents’ drawing-room when he felt a sudden ‘cold anguish’ about the coming war. Thinking of his participation and possible death, he panicked, played a wrong card and lost the trick. Then he stared out of the French windows at the town with its hills and its monkey-puzzle trees, looked around the room at the familiar family objects, felt the tranquil and reassuring presence of his parents – and calmed down. Nothing too terrible, he managed to convince himself, could ever happen to him in Royal Tunbridge Wells.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © David Gilmour 2021
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 55: Still Life