David Gilmour

I first met Richard Cobb at my Balliol interview one late evening in December 1970. The encounter was, by any measurement, a failure. In the ‘interests’ section of my entrance form, I had made the mistake of declaring membership of the Committee for Freedom in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea. Cobb, who was plainly bored at having to conduct interviews after dinner, asked me brusquely which liberation group in Angola I supported and why. When I admitted having heard only of the MPLA, he recited the initials of the others and then turned to the Révolte Nobiliare: what, in my opinion, did its leaders really want? I couldn’t remember who the leaders were, let alone what they were after, and a difficult silence followed until Maurice Keen asked me about the battle of Waterloo. What should have been a straightforward discussion ended in surly disagreement about whether or not Wellington had been unduly cautious about his right flank, and I left the room convinced that I would be seeing no more of Cobb or Balliol. A week later my school received a letter from the senior history fellow saying that I had passed in spite of a Latin paper which was so bad that I needed coaching: ‘to soften the blow,’ he added, astonishingly, ‘perhaps you could tell him how much we enjoyed hearing about Angola.’

Richard Cobb is 70 this week. At the time of the interview he was 53 and had just published his first major work in English. Until then there had been several large volumes on Les Armées Révolutionnaires (written in French), a book of essays (also in French) and a collection of book reviews written anonymously for the TLS. Subsequently, he has become one of the most prolific historians writing in English: 11 books in 14 years, several consisting of essays and autobiography but four done entirely from archival sources. I have never understood how he managed to write them all when so much of his time was taken up with other things: teaching (for nearly all of this period he was a Fellow of Balliol or Professor of Modern History), lecturing (quite a heavy load), eating and drinking (astonishing how much of these could be done by someone so emaciated), horseplay (Irish songs in the small hours or chariot-racing in the Balliol Senior Common Room) and travelling (sometimes extended by his habit of going to sleep on trains and waking up beyond his destination).

The real time-waster, though, was the tutorial. Cobb taught four days a week and saw his undergraduates one at a time. These were fascinating occasions, introduced with a long discussion about people or things he did not like: Pompidou, the Common Market, Enthusiasm, Allende (his politics were then moving swiftly rightwards), or Robespierre (one of his hobbies was identifying Robespierres in the Balliol JCR, though he claimed to find them in many other places as well, ‘lurking behind the windows of ticket-offices or as deacons in Baptist tabernacles’). After twenty minutes or half an hour, you read your essay while he fidgeted, moved noisily from one chair to another, standing up to open a window or straighten a carpet. And then he talked about your subject, often for no more than twenty minutes, yet with such clarity and perceptiveness that you came away feeling you had learnt all the essential points about Bourbon Spain or 18th-century Poland.

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