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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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 instance the different selves he inhabited on either side of the Channel: ‘I do not say the same things in French as I do in English, because I am not the same person.’ And though he liked the distinctions that came his way – Professor, CBE, FBA, chevalier de la Légion d’honneur – he was more at home in dubious bars and mean streets in Paris or Lyon. A particular friend, Maurice Chauvirey, was a burglar and black-marketeer who celebrated the Liberation of France by liberating a German army truck and using it to liberate the contents of French farmhouses whose owners had not yet returned. His nature was full of such splits, but for him there was no split between history and experience. He brought to them both the same empathy and understood in the same way the needs and sometimes sordid shifts of individual lives. David Gilmour said ‘he wrote with such intuition about the poor of revolutionary France because he knew their descendants in the 1940s and ’50s: having spent so much time with peasant farmers, black-marketeers, criminals, legionnaires, sailors and their families, he was naturally more aware than most historians of their feelings and preoccupations . . . His revolutionary armies did not, therefore, consist simply of revolutionary enthusiasts but also of people who joined up because they liked uniforms, because they were unemployed or bankrupt, or because they were returning émigrés or counter-revolutionaries in need of a disguise.’ Cobb was only interested in lives and relationships. He dismissed theories of history that tried to impose structure on human chaos. Methodology was the invention of solemn Germans. In the same way, he recoiled from all political ideology; in fact he distrusted authority throughout his life. When a fellow don called him an anarchist he famously took it as a compliment.
*Cobb knew more about the Revolution than anyone, French or otherwise. He was not the first Englishman to write about it but he was certainly a pioneer in actually going to France to look at evidence close up. He was not much interested in Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, or Danton, Marat or the others, though he did like to spot Robespierres in modern life. He hadn’t much to say about the Tennis Court Oath or the Fall of the Bastille, and that is really a relief since for most of us the Revolution’s politics is a mass of forgettable detail. To enjoy Cobb’s evocation of life in its midst, you need only the following oversimplified summary: (1) the attempt to replace government by aristos with something less grasping; (2) the rage of those who wanted speedier and ideally more brutal results; (3) the Republic of Virtue, which was actually a bloodbath; (4) the chaotic retaliation; (5) Napoleon. Having no time for theories, Cobb had none for anatomies of revolution either. He claimed not to know what had set the French one off, since the discontents were hardly new. Each revolution is unique and unprecedented, he said, otherwise it would easily be headed off by the forces of law and order. The flash that creates the explosion is hard to contrive, or explain, and so it was in 1789. Frustration, resentment, boredom, failure were all vital. But once the fire was lit, the usual people appeared: discontented lawyers for the Committees, sans-culottes to be the shock troops on the street. These latter included plenty of opportunists and score-settlers, and generally the sharp-elbowed coped as they always do. But the Revolution was never, Cobb said, for the many. ‘It had nothing to offer the vast body of the poor, of vagrants, beggars, the sick, the old, the cold, abandoned children . . . save worse conditions [and] better repression.’ It was characteristic of Cobb that he would combine the extremes of human experience with the minutiae. He had an eye for revealing trivia and was attuned to language. The more aggressive revolutionaries went in for the cannibalistic, always threatening to eat each other’s livers or proposing a fry-up of aristocrat. On the other hand revolutionary babies, when saints’ names had fallen from grace, might be given more vegetarian names, such as Haricot, Endive or even Absinthe. As with verbal metaphors, so with visual ones. Kings and queens disappeared from revolutionary packs of cards. Sans-culottes dispensed with breeches, by definition, but there was also the question of facial hair. Opinion was divided as to whether a moustache was or was not a badge of correctness, though there was no doubt that a beard was a marque du fanatisme.
*Because Cobb’s kind of history was so closely engaged with experience, it had to be walked, smelt and drunk, overheard in cafés and railway stations. His studies of the eighteenth century progressed hand-in-hand with his memoirs of the twentieth. He first went to Paris in 1935, when he was 17, and stayed with a well-to-do widow, Mme Thullier. Her two raffish sons went in for horseplay of various kinds, ‘attempting to race the Blue Train on the stretch through Villeneuve-Saint-Georges in their mother’s enormous black Panhard-Levassor, throwing fish and silver salver over the balcony on Fridays to express their anti-clericalism, driving straight at traffic policemen’. The elder son, François, became an auctioneer. In that role he would ‘make a very rapid and businesslike entry on his rostrum, plunging straight into the sale, with a semi-serious description of some grotesque object held up before him, as if it had been a heraldic symbol’. In a single session ‘the bicornes of polytechniciens would be disposed of in company with the shakos of cyrards [cadet officers] . . . immense quantities of female clothing, down to the intimacies of night-wear, knickers, shifts, soutiens-gorges, would appear on the anatomical shelves in front of his rostrum, as if this had been an unofficial morgue, minus the bodies’. Cobb thought François Thullier ‘a committed artist, a poet, even a social historian of a kind . . . His curiosity about people was insatiable.’ For Cobb too, people’s clothes and belongings revealed their states of mind. His book Death in Paris (1978) deals with accidents, murder and – mostly – suicide in the six years from 1795. Many of these deaths happened in the Seine, and from the records of bodies fished out Cobb constructed a picture of life on the lowest rung. The drowned would be identified by their clothes: poor people would ‘carry very little with them through life, and most of that on them, day and night . . . men who wore two or three pairs of trousers and several waistcoats, did so, not so much to keep warm as in an effort to preserve . . . their wherewithal’. Some even dressed up for their departure, like a highwayman for his hanging.
*Cobb was aware of terrain in a way most historians are not; he made one see it and feel its importance. Rivers for instance were part of every life. Not all deaths in the Seine were suicides – after all, the river offered poor people their best chance of a bath, and there would be accidents. There were more river-based trades then too, like the millers, or the flotteurs who steered the trains de bois down fast-flowing rivers to the wood ports of Paris. Then there were the river boats, the cheapest form of transport. They were good for travel, trade and escape, and sometimes also for ‘disposal of compromising objects, including unwanted wives or mistresses’. Rivers were the network along which news and rumour spread, and they dictated the pace at which uprisings would travel; Rouen would riot two days after Paris because that was the time the boat took to get the news, the grievance and the enthusiasts that far downstream. As ever-present as the rivers, and even more alarming, was the sense of being under siege by surrounding wildlife, some of it human. Paris was ringed by ‘clusters of turbulent carters’ inns, of hutments, of cardboard dwellings and even tents, in which an uncharted, moving population . . . camped, like the Turks outside Vienna’. It was risky to go anywhere near these places. Next to them the forests began. The highroads through those were ‘uncertain, fragile frontiers, between huge areas of primeval jungle’. The woods were royal hunting grounds made national property. They quickly became a national firewood supply but there was still plenty of cover for robbery, murder and rape. In his own life, too, Cobb was sensitive to place. He loved disregarded quarters, with their ‘obscure corners, deep courtyards, private voies sans issue . . . high front steps leading to street doors that have not been opened for a hundred years . . . the swing doors of a tiny hotel, rue de la Goutte-d’Or, full of menace, evocative of sordid violence’.
*In his work, Cobb felt a chivalrous concern for women’s vulnerability to violence and for the fate of servant girls made pregnant by employers and then fired. He regretted the Revolution’s indifference to love, sex and children. In his own life, he had a soft spot for prostitutes and as a young man was on excellent terms with many. He was not at first a good chooser of wives. He was briefly married to an employee of the SNCF whose cheap rail tickets helped him in his research. Later he married a colonel’s daughter, a move he afterwards found baffling, as she did too. That was brief as well. There might have been a third marriage when during the Cold War a Bulgarian siren fell for him at some academic conference. But she was warned off by her minders. This episode reads like a story by John le Carré, with the central role played by Monsieur Hulot. Cobb was lucky in the end to marry one of his students, Margaret Tennant, who looked after him patiently till the end of his life. When he became Professor, Cobb moved from Balliol to Worcester. He loved and despised both colleges. Balliol was full of bleeding hearts, Etonian new leftists and zealous, indefatigable reformers. Several dons were mad and the Master was devious. The Worcester dons on the whole did not bleed – but then ‘most of them did not seem to have any blood’. He upset colleagues in both places with his visceral anti-authoritarianism, oddly mixed with admiration for people like Pinochet. But he was much more affable with students; surprisingly, he approved of the toffish end of undergraduate life as much as the French underclass. In the end, he retired from Oxford and moved with his wife Margaret to Whitby. He was supposed to be writing a new book for John Murray, where I was working at the time. It was to be on the events of Thermidor, the turning-point when the Terror became Counter-Terror. Thermidor became one of those books kept in the programme only by unrealistic hope. But Whitby proved isolated and unsatisfactory, and it was abandoned for Abingdon. There in 1996 he died. Even though Thermidor had never been written, we did have in train a final volume of memoirs, to be called The End of the Line. That had been delivered as his memoirs always were, typed on pale blue Basildon Bond writing-paper of the smallest size, and handed over to Richard Brain, the wizard who would turn it into a book. Margaret wondered whether we should add to it a piece on his last days, and to that end she and I spent an afternoon in Port Meadow, sitting on the banks of the Isis with an ancient borrowed tape-recorder. It gave us a good deal of trouble. As I sat on the damp grass transfixed by the awful indignities of his illness, and then his horrifying struggle with death itself, I couldn’t help thinking that Cobb himself might have appreciated both the occasion and the superannuated tape-recorder, which looked ready to be knocked down for a few francs by his friend François Thullier. But the piece when I wrote it up was too dark even for the last book by the man once called the Goya of historians, and we decided to leave it out. Where to start reading Cobb? I’d suggest David Gilmour’s masterly collections, The French and Their Revolution and Paris and Elsewhere. He does not, of course, include Cobb’s English memoirs, which number among them Still Life, a portrait of Tunbridge Wells at the height of its oddity between the wars, and A Classical Education, which covers his close but uneasy friendship with a schoolmate convicted of murdering his own mother with an axe. His students used to claim that only over a long, argumentative and drunken acquaintanceship could the full Cobb personality be felt. In an obituary Philip Mansel remembered him as tutor. ‘He did not simply describe, he transformed himself into, a farmer overeating merely for the pleasure of depriving Parisians of their food; [or] a revolutionary who had marinated in envy all his life and was using his position on the Committee of Public Safety for revenge . . . To be taught by Cobb was to be taught life.’ Sadly he is no longer around to teach life, but reading him is the next best thing.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 33 © Grant McIntyre 2012
About the contributor
Grant McIntyre was once a publisher and is now a sculptor, so he has largely abandoned words and embraced shapes.