In the latest issue:

Consider the Hermit Crab

Katherine Rundell

Emigrés on the Make

Sheila Fitzpatrick

Autopsy of an Election

James Butler

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

‘Cosmo’ for Capitalists

Stefan Collini

Kara Walker’s ‘Fons Americanus’

Cora Gilroy-Ware

So many ships and fleets and armies

N.A.M. Rodger

British Sea Power

Paul Rogers

Richard Holbrooke

Samuel Moyn

Four poems after Callimachus

Stephanie Burt

‘Your Duck Is My Duck’

Christian Lorentzen

On Paul Muldoon

Clair Wills

Leanne Shapton

Namara Smith

Antigone on Your Knee

Terry Eagleton


Michael Wood

Walter Pater

Elizabeth Prettejohn

Two Poems

Rae Armantrout

Diary: In Monrovia

Adewale Maja-Pearce


Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
by Richard Cobb.
Oxford, 158 pp., £5.95, June 1980, 0 19 211758 0
Show More
Show More

These Promenades come from a man who, although he is the most hexagonal* historian in the United Kingdom, is still not recognised at his true worth south of the Channel. Right from the start of his itinerary Cobb gaily mixes everything together. He paints well-behaved Norman children such as one can only dream of meeting these days. He rides his biography backwards, he describes his period as a pion (a supervisor) in boarding-schools run either by priests or by anti-clericals, both of whom were great believers in corporal punishment. Lay or clerical, these child-rearers shared the pedagogical sadism that Dr Spock later decided to abolish: are we to believe, with reactionaries of all shades – among whom we of course are not numbered – that in doing away with the repression of children Spock gave rise to the generation of 1968, with its drop-outs of all kinds?

For Cobb, that indefatigable wanderer who has explored every one of our regions, including Paris, the French town is the longest distance between the seedy hotel where the impecunious researcher has to spend his nights and the departmental archives where he spends most of his days. He observes the town, but he also explores the regional literature. People in France, and elsewhere, are always talking of the death of the novel. Cobb ignores this. He has read Henri Béraud, Maxence Van der Meersch, Eugène Dabit, and many other minor masters of the French récit who though often forgotten are nevertheless excellent witnesses, even in Paris, to a provincial life that refuses to die. My compatriots have long despised this provincialism, even if they put it into practice without realising it.

For anyone who can see, and God knows Cobb doesn’t go about with his eyes shut, a first-class funeral may often be tragic, but it is also much better than a family dinner: it is a kind of photographic developer and fixer of the life of the notables. Especially in the department of the Nord: in Lille-Roubaix-Tourcoing this sad ceremony was the connecting link in the golden triangle of the textile, Catholic and bourgeois families. In the years between 1930 and 1950 they had both a superabundant birth rate and their châteaux de la densité (this ‘density’ was an allusion to certain methods of measuring the amount of sugar in the beetroot, which enriched the owners of the big sugar refineries). And let us not forget the ritual gatherings of this or that great family of the Nord, each of which alone may have had 5,000 participants, with a special train for the family, and a Mass concelebrated by priests belonging to the lineage ... Roubaix, so dear to Cobb, has decidedly a great deal to teach us about this erstwhile northern French élite, which, though ultra-Papist, was nevertheless just as efficient a manufacturing caste as, horror of horrors, the Calvinists described by that great ‘novelist’, Max Weber.

Cobb is also, with a wry smile, the inspired eulogist of military service. This rite de passage much precedes (at least in theory) burial: it comes between the first communion and the first marriage. Who would have believed, in the days of Louis XV when the French balked at anything, however small, to do with the militia, that grosso modo they would cheerfully accept universal conscription after the disappearance of the Bourbons? England had its steam-engine and its Lancashire cotton mills. But France, after the fall of the Ancien Régime, distinguished itself by shutting up most of its young males in barracks. While serving under the flag, and away from their villages, these temporary soldiers lost their innocence with prostitutes or camp-followers and learnt the ‘dreadful secrets’ of contraception. This (among other factors) contributed, from about 1800 to 1830, to the decline in the French birth rate fifty years before England, though more industrialised, more ‘advanced’, began to practise birth control in the latter days of the reign of Queen Victoria. This military service, so characteristic of us, was to become the target of fierce satires by people like Courteline. No one in France now reads this writer, the bête noire of sergeant-majors and bureaucrats. Cobb is one of our last Courtelinists.

From Time, we pass on to Space – in other words, to regionalism once again. Regionalism was adored, for better or worse, by generations of French writers. Right from the start, our author chooses his camp. He has nothing but scorn for the vogue for expressly regional novels which colonised our literature at several periods between 1880 and 1980. This fashion may be embodied either in a left-wing preoccupation with the sordid or a right-wing preoccupation with the idyllic. What does it matter! Pétain’s exaltation of the peasants, ‘their features seamed by harsh toil’, leaves the English historian cold. As Gide said, ‘fine sentiments make bad literature.’ There is, of course, no question of the regions being denied their proper place, but they only really come into their own at times of utter chaos or unmitigated tragedy – for instance, during the time of the Revolutionary armies, whose history the young Cobb wrote. Or during the 1940 exodus, the Occupation and the Resistance. The years between 1940 and 1944 were those of great discoveries: this was the time when Parisians, that unpopular breed, forged close links with the Dordogne. The Gaullists, who for preference emigrated to England, mythically recomposed even in that island a Gaul such as had never been known since the Roman Empire. It spread to London, to Manchester – to wherever the Free French happened to find themselves.

As a novelist of the Real, Cobb delights in two-dimensional space: he needs either the super-dramatic or the ultra-quotidian. The one protects the other. To ward off catastrophe and the impending world war, since in any case there is nothing you can do, the best solution is to have recourse to the everyday, the trivial, the banal, from then on considered as sacred as the Eucharist and to be absorbed like a soft drug. The recurring events of everyday life are the negation of unilateral Time, and therefore of Death. Hence, the pertits bourgeois of Le Havre, enamoured of the Norman cuisine with its cream and butter, go for their Sunday-afternoon family walk to work their lunch off, pot-bellied, glassy-eyed, having downed great quantities of coffee laced with calvados, or of ‘tricolour-glorias’, those small cups of coffee served with cognac, rum and calvados. Life, for Cobb, is fiascos and news items, faits divers; ‘fillers’ and foutaises, as his friend Queneau would more or less say. It is understandable that he felt at home in Ixelles, near Brussels, among the smells of chips, tobacco and chocolate, in the days when Belgians still existed – before they were definitively divided into Flemings. Walloons and Eurocrats.

Cobb sees towns. The great reproach he levels at Sartre is that he was not an urban voyeur, that he didn’t look, or only barely looked, at Le Havre, Paris or the Stalags. A great lover of harbour life, the English historian has undertaken to tell the story of Dieppe, or Marseilles: this Phocaean city is a serious, even sad town to him; the tall stories told about it are nothing but a tourist trap aimed at those who believe, quite wrongly, that the Nord is the only place in France where people work, pay taxes and have children. My impression of these pages on Marseilles is almost bicoloured: in them, the Navy and the Foreign Legion, with their red pompons and white képis respectively, have lengthy interviews with the Marseilles prostitutes, those repositories of human archives. The book closes with an evocation of two young Parisians, more or less childhood friends of the author: these skirt-chasers were the pillars of the semi-golden youth of the Xth Arrondissement in the Thirties.

And so ends this book, which is apparently intended to be devoid of any major ideas. It lacks a-priori, it is full of fantasy and calculated naivety: it reminds one of certain marvellously surprised paintings by the Douanier Rousseau. For the English historian Colin Lucas, Cobb’s already substantial work is an empirical model of a certain kind of Anglo-Saxon view of France, which sees the decades of the 1960s and 1970s refracted by the French Revolution. The latter has for long been the great theme of the author of these Promenades, and it remains so. In Cobb’s ironic, but not irenic wake, many young English-speaking historians have also become specialists of a French past that was made familiar to them by this master of the 18th century.

Paradoxically, although Cobb has had more than one disciple, he has not founded a school. There is no Cobbian group. The obvious leader of such a group refuses this directorial role; as a liberal, he stimulates, but leaves people free; as a radical individualist, he is totally uninterested in any kind of systematic approach. Didn’t he write – in French – a big book on the Revolutionary armies, an extremely anarchistic institution, which becomes even more so under his pen. Pedestrian, Parisian, covering the whole of our capital in interminable walks, Cobb is the man of brief instants; he has his place in a back-to-front eternity; a ‘temperamentous’ writer, as his master Restif de la Bretonne would have said, he identifies his reader with modest characters from a recent past, In snatching them away from death, he brings us back to life.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.