Teaching Life

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Richard Cobb was a history don at Balliol, eccentric in a college where oddness is almost routine. He was small and thin, not very prepossessing. Jeremy Lewis, his editor at Chatto & Windus, described him as ‘like a freshly skinned rabbit, red and blue all over and faintly clammy to the touch’. He was certainly memorable to those he taught; Tim Hilton remembered an ‘utter disregard for decorum and discipline. I still hear the French martial music and the crashing of glasses. He was both an example of the scholarly life and a lord of misrule.’ Out of college he was memorable too: Lewis wrote of walking with him after a lunch where as always he’d had plenty to drink. ‘Suddenly, ramrod stiff and with no bending of the knees, Cobb toppled over backwards. His head was only inches from the pavement when I caught him, like Nureyev catching Fonteyn . . .’ Alcohol and anarchy were always magnets. There was no gathering so distinguished he’d avoid being thrown out of it.

Naturally there was more to him than this. A fellow historian said Cobb had a poet’s imagination. He started his academic life by tunnelling into archives throughout France, not attached to any university, pursuing his own interest in the Revolution, or rather in the people caught up in it. Some of these people really were committed to Liberté etc. but, for most, revolution meant dodging the dangerous busybodies of the new order, or a chance to dump responsibilities, or an opportunity for crime. Cobb followed whatever unexpected path took his eye – the love letters of a guillotiné, intercepted correspondence from London or eye-witness accounts of a massacre – and became addicted to France’s various collections and bibliothèques, most never consulted from one century’s end to the next. Those early years, solitary but for the dead, honed his compassion and were a source of his originality.

There were other disparities in his make-up, for i

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About the contributor

Grant McIntyre was once a publisher and is now a sculptor, so he has largely abandoned words and embraced shapes.

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