Cobbery

Julian Barnes

  • A Classical Education by Richard Cobb
    Chatto, 156 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2936 0
  • Still Life: Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood by Richard Cobb
    Chatto, 161 pp, £3.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7012 1920 3

On a damp October evening last year this man robbed me of £15,000. The sum was tax free, so you could round it up to £20,000. Wineglass in hand, black tie at the throat, he also robbed four other novelists of the same sum – four others also musing, no doubt, on kitchen extensions, snooker tables, deep freezes and pulsing foreign holidays (though what we piously say to the press, of course, is ‘We need the money to make the time to write the next book in’). A cool £100,000, whisked away in a few seconds by this modern Raffles. Reading A Classical Education, I would occasionally start, and think: ‘Hey, this guy stole my snooker table. And my air tickets.’ Odd, then, to keep returning to the book with benevolence and admiration.

Kingsley Amis has admitted – with only a measure of self-parody – that he doesn’t want to read any more books that don’t begin: ‘A shot rang out.’ Richard Cobb’s second volume of autobiography, nominally about Shrewsbury and Oxford, opens with a man getting off the boat train at the Gare Saint-Lazare wielding (well, almost wielding) a blood-stained axe. The killer, an old schoolfriend of Cobb’s called Edward, is that rare item in the archives of murder, a matricide; he has just been released after 13 years in Dublin’s Dundrum Asylum (a fitting name, by the sound of it, for a place where life is dun and humdrum). Even better, the friend begins by blaming the crucial mistake he made after murdering his mother on his Classical education: he had boiled the axe instead of washing it with cold water. Boiling – you may need to know this – merely encrusts the blood in the pores of the metal: washing with cold water sluices away the evidence.

A Classical education hardly seems a fair scapegoat: even on the science side of our most progressive schools they rarely teach the washing of axes. And when we get to the killing itself, we realise that the ‘crucial mistake’ was unimportant: the crime was so noisy, messy and clue-ridden that it could have been solved by a tourist wearing a policeman’s helmet bought in Carnaby Street. Certainly Cobb (and fellow-Salopian Brian Inglis, then also up at Oxford) assumed that their old chum had done it as soon as the mother was reported missing. Yet what is open-and-shut in forensic terms is often the opposite in autobiographical terms. This was the sort of murder which reverberated down the later years of those who knew the killer, echoing the question why for half a century. Not the initial why – mother and son detested one another – but the larger why. The scion of a ‘good’ family kills at an age when life ought properly to be just beginning. First there’s the social surprise of But Our Class Doesn’t Kill (though ‘our class’ has in fact been quite good at killing, having money, knowhow and confidence). Then there’s the psychological surmise that someone intelligent who murders a parent unintelligently at the onset of adulthood is perhaps seeking to avoid (an extreme form of avoidance, admittedly) that adulthood. Beyond this lies the dogged question: if he, my friend, could do this, then couldn’t I too? In later years, the shudder at remembered events is perhaps less for the events themselves than for the rememberer. How close was the escape?

Since 1936, Cobb has told his story many times. At Oxford Maurice Bowra used to wheel him out, like a jester, with the port and nuts, to regale Wadham high table with his rollicking tale of blood. After five decades of rehearsal, Cobb tells his story extremely well: he’s familiar with its outline, its emphases, its highlights; he’s aware, too, that the narrative mustn’t appear too smooth, or its author too knowledgeable. At the same time, however, the story has over the years gathered its own momentum, its new accretions of doubt and certainty. The meandering river has deposited ox-bow lakes behind it. Cobb says:

This is not a historical narrative, and I am not always sure at what stages fictional inventiveness takes over from the chronicle of memory. Additions have insisted on imposing their presence as I went along. I may have got some things wrong, left some things out, got others in the wrong order. It is my version. There could be another one, or several others.

Indeed there could: when Cobb’s book was extracted in the Observer a few weeks ago, the former manager of the Dublin Gate Theatre wrote to propose an additional trigger for the crime. At the time of the murder Edward had a walk-on part at the Gate as an organ-grinder in Crime and Punishment, so every evening would watch Micheal MacLiammoir as Raskolnikov fall to his knees and confess: ‘It was I killed the old woman and her sister with an axe.’ A front-of-house photograph showing Edward reacting to this confession was swiftly removed when they heard that the organ-grinder had gone home and imitated art.

Reading Cobb’s account, we for the most part forget the fictional element (‘fiction’, of course, is just a posh way of pleading ‘can’t remember’) and accept the narrative as true. Yet having invoked fiction – or the historical imagination, or whatever – Cobb must also take the rap for it. Bimodality doesn’t, alas, just mean skimming the best advantage from fiction and non-fiction. There is always a price to pay; there is always VAT on the bill. Fiction, for instance, usefully helps Cobb speculate on the motives, and unwitnessed behaviour, of his friend Edward. But fiction, had it been left to tell this story by itself, would also have been kinder – or more imaginative – towards the murder victim. Here is a typical Cobb description of Edward’s mother: ‘Slothful, unimaginative, uneducated, ignorant, feckless, sloppily dishonest... changeable, untruthful, untidy.’ Cobb clearly hated her then, and hates her now. But if Cobb is here being faithful to the autobiographical mode, the fictional might have tried to see the victim’s point of view. As it is, Cobb’s hit-list of adjectives, instead of inspiring a shared scorn, makes you feel deeply sorry for a woman burdened with such disadvantages of character.

Professor Cobb’s history has always been studded with autobiography: pungent and beneficent, like garlic in a leg of lamb. (Those keen for more Salopian detail, whether about cross-country or what went on in the dorm, should read ‘Becoming a Historian’ in A Sense of Place.) His history has also been splendidly discursive and buttonholing; even manic. A Classical Education is, on the whole, a swifter and less eddying narrative (properly so – it has its story to tell). Yet discursiveness always lurks: particularly in a droll and irrelevant section – perhaps the more droll because it is irrelevant – where Cobb goes to Dublin, seeking to understand the crime through an osmotic seizing of the city (in A Second Identity he proposes Commissaire Maigret as a model for the professional historian), but only managing to entangle himself in a sexual malentendu with an off-duty policeman. And of course the familiar whorls of the Cobb fingerprints are all over this murder story. In a London cinema he watches a newsreel about the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Marseilles: ‘There was even a shot of the king, through the open rear door of the car – I think it was a Panhard-Levassor – lying on the floor.’ ‘I think it was a Panhard-Levassor’: it is in such tangy asides – usually between dashes; he puts much, even semicolons, inside his dashes – that the charm of Cobb’s writing lies. His sentences, as miniatures of his overall narrative manner, often just grow and grow: though it is a Byronic rather than a Proustian extension, one of spurts and dashes, furiously alive, furiously observing, extremely easy to read.

Only once, it seems to me, does Richard Cobb seriously miscalculate. Having generously established characters and background (both psychological and topographical), he begins Chapter Nine: ‘It is not my purpose to go over the horrifying circumstances of the actual murder at No 23, nor to recount the details of the trial, as both have been very fully reported, both soberly and sensationally, in the English and Irish press, as well as in a book, Memorable Irish Trials. I want only to add a few items that were not included in the newspaper reports ...’ Since Professor Cobb has offered us a bloodied axe-head on his second page, and generally displayed a buoying frankness (about, for instance, how dull he finds his friend Edward when they meet nowadays), this attack of reticence seems irritatingly coy. In Tour de France Cobb described how he used to perform for Bowra: ‘He would have me go over it, again and again, gurgling and panting approval and delight, and interspersing my detailed narrative with pithy comments: “a bit clumsy that”, “not much sense of aim”, “probably never held a racket in his life”, “not much of a fives player, I should say” (these interjections punctuating my account of the boy pursuing his mother round the house, hacking at her with an axe).’ The £9.95 reader, it seems, doesn’t make it to high table at Wadham. As for Cobb referring us to other sources: I should think few of us keep old newspapers, whether English or Irish, let alone those dating from 1936. Being directed, in a fit of decency, to Memorable Irish Trials is like watching a stripper reach the narrative climax of her act and suddenly decide against removing key items, instead advising her audience to go out and buy Penthouse.

One line in this book might especially appeal to the three men and two women robbed by Cobb back in October. When Edward was confined to Dundrum, young Richard suggested he took up Russian: ‘It would be a unique opportunity, with so much time on his hands, and would it not be so much better to read Pushkin in the original? Or why, then, did he not read Proust in the original French?’ When the chairman of the Booker judges confessed in his speech that he hadn’t read Proust or Joyce, there were some at the dinner who thought he should immediately be dispatched to a modern Dundrum and given the opportunity. I think we should be indulgent. Everyone has gaps, even Oxford dons (I know a successful English tutor there who hasn’t read Middlemarch). For myself, I would rather be judged by someone who writes as well as Richard Cobb than by a tribunate of omnivores.