Everything about the historian Richard Cobb was unexpected and original, especially his writing. A Classical Education is no exception, a memoir that’s more like a psychological thriller, told in Cobb’s exquisite and inimitable style.
The book opens on a spring day in 1950 at the Gare St Lazare in Paris, where Richard awaits the arrival of his old schoolfriend Edward (surname withheld) whom he hasn’t seen for fourteen years. When he appears, to Cobb’s surprise he seems little changed since their days together at Shrewsbury, for while Cobb has been making his name as a historian Edward has been shut away in a Dublin asylum, serving out his sentence for the murder of his mother. Almost his first words are ones of regret that the two of them had gone to a ‘classical school’ where the cleaning of weapons was not on the syllabus. Had he been properly taught to wash the axe he’d used he might, he believes, have got away with murder.
Shocked that his friend seems to have developed so little self-awareness, Richard Cobb pieces together the events that led up to this tragedy, looking back on their schooldays at Shrewsbury, where they had become friendly enough to visit one another’s homes in the holidays. But whereas Cobb came from an exemplarily safe and conventional middle-class family, Edward’s was entirely the reverse. Enough to say that Moloch and Medea were his nicknames for his estranged parents, two monsters who were locked in a never-ending war, with Edward trapped in the middle. Drunk and violent, Medea terrorized her son and had it in for Cobb too, accusing him of leading Edward astray and later going to insane lengths to blacken his name. After school the boys went their separate ways and Cobb knew nothing of the murder until he read about it in the papers. It’s an extraordinary story, vividly told. A Classical Education is a book you won’t be able to put down.
Buy A Classical Education together with Still Life, Cobb’s portrait of his quiet and deeply conventional hometown of Tunbridge Wells in the 1920s and ’30s. In this unusual memoir, he leads us through the town and into the lives of the eccentric characters among whom he grew up.