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Slightly Foxed Edition No. 64 Richard Cobb, A Classical Education - Autumn 2023

An Unusual Case

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Richard Cobb’s memoir A Classical Education (1985) opens on a spring day in 1950. He is at St Lazare station in Paris awaiting the arrival of an old schoolfriend he’s not seen for fourteen years. Cobb has spent much of that time on the Continent, first as a soldier in the war and then as a historian researching various French archives. His friend, by contrast, has been shut away in a Dublin asylum for the entirety of those years, serving out his sentence for the murder of his mother.

The boat train arrives and empties, and there’s Cobb’s friend striding along the platform. Apart from the weight he’s put on, it’s the same tall, curly-haired Edward – the surname is withheld from us, tactfully in the circumstances – who had shown newly arrived Richard the ropes at Shrewsbury School. Almost his first words after so long take Cobb by surprise: ‘What a pity that we went to a classical school.’ That expression of regret is the one explicit connection between the title of the book and its contents. Edward’s regret is that their type of school didn’t have weapons-cleaning on the syllabus. If only it had, he’d have known that to rid his axe entirely of blood, he should have washed it in cold water, not hot. That, Edward tells Cobb in all seriousness, is where Shrewsbury failed in the duty it owed him personally.

Cobb is dismayed that matricide and lengthy incarceration appear to have wrought no change in his friend, who’s as unburdened by self-awareness as he was fourteen years earlier, and who shows no sign of remorse or guilt for what has happened. Even now he’s fully an adult, he remains incomplete, an innocent at large, convinced he’d have got away with murder if only his school had taught him the things that mattered.

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Edward had already been at Shrewsbury for a year when Cobb arrived and was allocated to his house, Rigg’s. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over a shared love of pranks and practical jokes (one of which, played on a particularly oleaginous chaplain, Cobb describes with relish). The boys’ backgrounds were very different; Richard’s in Tunbridge Wells, a model of middle-class decorum, Edward’s in Dublin, one hundred per cent dysfunctional, as Richard would see for himself when he spent a few days one summer with Edward and his mother in her house – ‘home’ decidedly not the word – in Booterstown. Edward had warned Richard beforehand about his estranged parents, monsters he could bring himself to call only Moloch and Medea. The two were locked in a war-without-end, with Edward the collateral damage.

Moloch had all but washed his hands of Edward, but not so Medea, hell-bent on destroying her son. Richard had to watch as a row between mother and son progressed from words to weapons. Initially, Edward was no match for the fourteen-stone, alcohol-soaked wrecking-ball that was Medea. He remained silent and still, impotent with rage. But when she aimed a full teapot at his head, narrowly missing it, he walked off, boiled a kettle, made a fresh cup of tea, came back and threw it in his mother’s face (effects not recorded). A pitched artillery battle followed, fought with whatever objects came to hand until ammunition ran out and hostilities ceased, to be resumed no doubt at the next opportunity. Medea had it in for Richard too, though in his case she limited her attacks to words. Accusing him of leading her boy astray, she sent him packing back to England well before the agreed date. Matters didn’t stop there. She then tried to sue Richard for the ‘libels’ about her which she’d found in some jokey letters he’d written to Edward. That failed. So a few months later, she wrote – in green ink, Cobb notes with disgust – to every male college in Oxford and Cambridge to warn them against scholarship candidate Cobb. That too failed, and in the autumn of 1935, Cobb started at Merton College, Oxford.

By then he and Edward had gone their separate ways and Cobb assumed he’d hear nothing more of Medea. But in February 1936, splashed across the newspapers, came the news that she’d been hacked to death and that Edward was to stand trial for her murder. Since it was likely that Cobb would be subpoenaed as a prosecution witness, the Oxford CID advised him to spend the coming vacation in Brussels and not Paris as he’d intended; unlike France, Belgium didn’t have an extradition treaty with the Irish Free State. The trial went ahead without Cobb, Edward was carted off to Dundrum Asylum and the two didn’t meet again until the reunion at St Lazare station.

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A Classical Education is not an easy book to classify. The title suggests a chronologically arranged memoir of schooldays; or perhaps an essay on pedagogy, the ancients versus the moderns, art versus science, and so on. But it’s neither. Most obviously it’s a psychological thriller, fluently developed. It makes no odds that the denouement is known from the start. A dramatist might have shaped the events into a tragedy for our times. But Cobb is no tragedian. His forte is the rattling good story. And, as he concedes in his preface, where the passage of time has created gaps in memory, fictions have filled them in.

A rattling good story A Classical Education certainly is, one that Cobb often dined out on in Oxford when he returned in the 1960s as a don. But of course it is a memoir too, the biography of a friendship between two lads drawn together by their similarities but ultimately separated by the sad reality that while one of them has grown up, the other has not and probably cannot. Initially, I wondered if the book’s title was meant ironically. Education? What education? Then I thought no, irony wasn’t really Cobb’s way. But now I’m changing my mind again. Shrewsbury may have set Cobb on his zigzag path to honours and distinction; but Edward, unchanging, incorrigible Edward? His classical education appears to have taught him nothing worthwhile, not even how to out damned spots from an axe.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 79 © Martin Sorrell 2023


About the contributor

At Oxford, a fellow undergraduate urged Martin Sorrell togo to lectures on the French Revolution by someone called Cobb, the most brilliant and wackily informal don he’d come across. Of course, Sorrell now wishes he’d done so

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