Diary

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.

If you had the tutorial before lunch you might spend the last ten minutes over a pint of beer in the Worcester College buttery (he moved from Balliol when he received his Chair), and quite often this would lead on to lunch. Richard is at his best and funniest at meals, after the second glass of wine, when the panorama of his interests and prejudices is given full exposure. His list of Detested Persons is certainly long – Hemingway, Napoleon (whom he compared to Joe Bananas), Daumier, Thiers, Le Corbusier, Haussmann (the ‘Alsatian Attila’), Malraux, Mary Wollstonecraft, poets (especially Baudelaire, though he appreciated Pope for his malice), Saint Just, the staff of the Archives Nationales – and might suggest an habitual intolerance. But he is really only intolerant of other people’s intolerance, of those impatient to inflict their own disagreeable and self-righteous views (particularly when political or architectural) on others. Thus the people he most dislikes are puritans, ‘miserabilists’, Enemies of Pleasure, ‘propagandists of Virtue’ and their admirers, especially those who become tourists of a foreign revolution while retaining the means to return home to safety.

Some years ago, an admiring reviewer suggested that Cobb’s only weakness was his inability ‘to bring himself to sympathise with those who seek to exercise power, be their motives good or evil’. In the introduction to his next book Richard replied, characteristically, that he did understand people who sought power for purely evil motives because at least they had ‘human proportions’ (an important and recurring phrase in the unique Cobbian prose style). People not normally considered entirely admirable, like Charles II, Halifax or Talleyrand, are thus appreciated for their ‘human proportions’. Similarly, he finds politicians who are heavy eaters more sympathetic and reassuring figures than those who are dyspeptics or vegetarians. His letters often end with a postscript like this: ‘Do you know an MP called Critchley? He went to the same Ruined School as myself [Shrewsbury], is a Good Thing and likes Eating.’

Cobb’s most distinctive contributions to an understanding of French history are encapsulated in the titles of some of his books. A Second Identity and A Sense of Place express his own commitment to France and sensitivity to French topography, while People and Places and The Police and the People suggest his concern with individuals and their relationships with authority and the places they live in. The ‘second identity’ goes beyond an unsurpassed knowledge of the French archives and an ability to write books in French. It reflects the real acquisition of another nationality, one that might have superseded his first altogether if he had not been persuaded to take up a post at Aberystwyth in 1955. He does not say the same things in English as in French because he feels a different person on the other side of the Channel. England has a number of exceptional historians working on other countries, but none who has acquired a second identity like his: they tend to remain English liberals, reserved and clear-sighted, able to look at foreign societies with a detachment which local historians seem unable to emulate. A French historian’s remark that Cobb thought, wrote and spoke comme un titi parisien could not have been made about other English historians. No one would ever suggest that Raymond Carr thought like a Madrid teddy-boy or that Denis Mack Smith wrote like un ragazzo di borgata.

A ‘sense of place’ is perhaps a commoner attribute, although Cobb’s descriptions of places, often in sentences of about 250 words, are unlike other people’s and immediately recognisable. He once described himself as ‘totally unpoetic’, yet a phrase of his can evoke a Paris street like a sentence in Simenon or a song by Piaf. Some of his best writing can be found in his brief sketches of the gradients of Lyon, the long streets of Roubaix, middle-class houses in Touraine or the quality of light in the Ile de France. He can evoke, too, the inter-war years on the other side of the Channel, the ‘Bloomsbury boarding-houses kept by declining ladies, the stale smell of genteel loneliness’, and there are fine passages on landscape, particularly if flat like the Beauce south-east of Chartres. He is not so good on rugged terrain – ‘I don’t like hills, they spoil the view’ – and cannot understand why I live in Scotland, which he claims to know nothing about except ‘that it looks on the map as if it has been torn out of a paper.’

For Cobb, history is not simply a matter of long days in the archives: it has to be walked, observed, smelt and above all listened to, in cafés, buses, parks and railway stations. He is a good listener with a wonderful ear for dialogue in both English and French; in Still Life, a memoir of his childhood years in Tunbridge Wells, there is a hilarious description of the town’s ladies returning by train from a day spent in Harrods and Swan and Edgar. In Paris he is a persistent boulevardier, especially a walker of unfashionable boulevards in the middle of the night, a man who has walked a great deal from choice or from loneliness or because he has missed the last métro home (or because on occasion he did catch it and then fell asleep and woke up at the terminus). But it was not random walking. He has always been a creature of routine and fixed itineraries, establishing a regular route between his room and the local archives, getting to know the bus lines, seeing the same people on their way to work every day. He is a lonely person for whom routine and familiar faces are indispensable because they represent security and reassurance. His description of Simenon as a writer ‘of loneliness and alienation, of the process of urbanisation in individual terms’, will do very well for himself.

He has known Paris for more than half a century, and the changes that have taken place in that time have naturally made him both indignant and nostalgic for the city of René Clair. ‘People have not changed much,’ he has written, ‘but places certainly have, and everywhere for the worse.’ Yet it is not so much the physical changes that have saddened him – though he hates La Défense and the Tour Montparnasse as much as anyone – as the human, demographic transformation which has accompanied it. Writing of the ‘de-Parisianisation’ of Paris, he sometimes sounds like Thesiger describing the ‘de-nomadisation’ of the Bedouin. Cobb knew Paris when the mansions of the Marais were divided into artisans’ workshops and flats for numerous working-class families (as the palaces of Naples still are). But now all the clutter has been thrown out, the people have been expelled to the high-rise suburbs, and the mansions are restored and divided into appartements de grand standing for the fashionable rich. According to Cobb, Paris began to lose its ‘human proportions’ with the gradual disappearance of the beret since the Thirties. The process is now almost complete and the centre has been turned over to pedestrian precincts full of boutiques, bars and picture galleries, enjoyed by young technocrat couples (with two cars, two children and one poodle) who drink whisky and are obsessed with their bronzage.

But Richard’s greatest contribution to history is surely his understanding of individuals and their behaviour to each other. ‘I have never understood history other than in terms of human relationships,’ he once wrote, a view that has set him against the sociologists and ‘quantifiers’ and historians who are always debating theories or imposing structures or trying to find a Grand Design. He once told a Yugoslav historian, who had asked him for advice about historical ‘methodology’, that ‘one just went to the records, read them, thought about them, read some more, and the records would do the rest ... All the historian had to do was to be able to read, and, above all, to write clearly and agreeably.’ Cobb’s work has surely demonstrated that history is a cultural subject and not a science, and that nothing useful can be gained by putting 516 urban riots through a computer and then constructing a model.

Cobb can be wildly dogmatic in private and disconcertingly so even in print (on the American reading public: ‘possibly the most unimaginative, certainly the most ignorant in the world’), but a deep and genuine sympathy pours from his writing. And it is a real sympathy – not like Rousseau’s loving his kind but hating his kindred – manifesting itself both in his capacity for friendship and in his treatment of the characters in his books. He has written with such intuition about the poor of revolutionary France because he knows their descendants today: having spent so much time with peasant farmers, criminals, black-marketeers, légionnaires, artisans and their families, he is far more aware than most historians of their feelings and preoccupations. He sympathises with people who try to avoid taking part in wars or revolutions, and understands why the Parisians preferred to surrender their city rather than let Hitler destroy it. He sympathises with a woman from Picardy who has had her hair shaved off for collaboration horizontale with a German soldier, and he tries to understand why people collaborated politically with the Nazis. Although he loathed the Vichy regime, he made the attempt to comprehend why people joined it, and he does not see the Pétainist-Résistance conflict in simple black and white: the collaborators were seldom committed fascists but more likely to become involved by accident, sometimes half-heartedly, or through opportunism, and anyway there was not a lot to be said for the eleventh-hour résistants.

In a sermon delivered in Oriel College Chapel many years ago, Cobb declared that all revolutions were ultimately about Death, and argued that all revolutionary attempts were self-condemned by the lines of corpses that accompanied them. For him there was no ‘terrible beauty’ about an event like the Easter Rising but a great deal of unnecessary death and destruction and a lot of romantic posturing. His attitude to the French Revolution is not perhaps so straightforward. He has tried to look at the Revolution not through its politics and its institutions but through human experiences, a process he has called ‘rediscovering the individual’. In Cobb’s pages the sansculottes are no longer a uniform body of people acting out of class considerations but individuals who do this or that for a wide variety of reasons of family, geography, temperament, habit, selfishness or pure chance. And the Revolution itself becomes a bit more human, or at any rate less effective and oppressive. If it did nothing for most of the poor, it did not prevent many people from getting on with their lives without busybodies constantly telling them what was good for them. In Cobb’s books we are made aware of the irrelevance of the Revolution to people’s needs and interests. What meaning did it have for poor girls from Lyons – the subject of one of his best essays – who had been seduced and abandoned when pregnant? Of what possible value were Virtue and self-righteousness to people who could recognise the ‘outriders’ of hunger and knew famine was on the way? This, I think, is Richard Cobb’s main achievement: to have given the Revolution its ‘human proportions’.