Foxy-Faced

John Bayley

  • Something to hold onto: Autobiographical Sketches by Richard Cobb
    Murray, 168 pp, £12.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 7195 4587 0

In A Dance to the Music of Time there is a journalist called Bagshaw, who was once a Marxist. Although he has long since lost belief, he retains an almost fanatical interest in the technical gyrations of the party line and the multifold shades of left-wing opinion. Bagshaw’s situation is in some degree that of all intellectuals. Enthusiasm may die, but sheer professional interest mercifully remains. I thought of Bagshaw when reading Frank Kermode’s lively little book History and Value, and I thought of him again while enjoying Richard Cobb’s Something to hold onto, whose title would itself have been greeted with fellow-feeling by Bagshaw.

Anthony Powell’s character is fascinated by things for their own sake, an attitude not common among either believers or men of action. Kermode’s sense of history, of the novels and poems of the Thirties, is of the same kind. He has a strong feeling for Stephen Haggard’s novel Nya, which he happened to find a copy of during the war, and which he feels to be a forerunner of Lolita, giving sound professional reasons why Lolita won out and Nya vanished into limbo. What really matters, I suspect, is that Nya is for him something to hold onto, like the novels of Edward Upward, which he also defends for their historical interest, relishing for example in The Spiral Ascent the word and the concept ‘poshocrat’.

Like all Bagshaw-type historians, both Kermode and Cobb delight not only in the objects but in the attitudes of the past. The convolutions of contemporary literary criticism (in this context the past today moves fast) win the former’s professional admiration, while Cobb is as much a connoisseur of Tunbridge Wells interiors, customs and habits – ‘a distinctive week and a distinctive Sunday’ – as he is of the rituals of the railroad in a small American town, or of French speech, French drinks, metro stations, revolutions. The first of the photographs here is a snapshot of himself blackberrying in a wood near Tunbridge Wells in September 1939. He wears a black trilby, bought recently in Paris, and the kind of robust but always shabby and slightly sinister raincoat which has the buttons concealed in the front seam. Foxy-faced among the leaves, he looks both vulnerable and evasive. He was also, he tells us, wearing spats, as part of an attempt to keep ordinary life going.

How he makes his recollections so absorbing is another matter. Why is it that only the memoir – a comprehensive genre shading off into travel books, self-creations in childhood and so forth – seems still at this moment to possess the contextual confidence and authority which once came naturally to the novel? No doubt the novel will reassert itself in time, but just now it seems to have lost its Bagshaw-like abilities, its regal confidence in the readability of ritual. The public that was once absorbed by Buddenbrooks or The Old Wives’ Tale has presumably taken to the TV serials or to The Archers. The self-awareness of the novel in regard to its public is curiously subtle. Thomas Mann and Arnold Bennett would have taken it for granted, like Scott, that though their reconstructions might not appeal to everyone, they would be read by a complete cross-section of the reading public, from the discerning connoisseur to those who were getting something out of the lending library. In the same way, the painters of Dutch interiors, Vermeer or De Hooch, would do pictures both for enlightened patrons and for clueless folk with a bit of money to spend on something over the fireplace. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that the writer’s or artist’s confidence depends on this breadth of appeal; and particularly so in the case of those who have no striking messages or brave new fictional worlds, but are simply offering something to hold onto.

In his Introduction Richard Cobb pays tribute to Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield; and it seems as if East Anglia, Essex in particular, has a special place in the re-creation of Lost Things and the rites that accompanied them. The Fleming brothers, who had a good deal in common with the phantom Bagshaw and the happily alive and writing Cobb, possessed something of the same art of habituating ritual in their migratory pages (Bagshaw found it necessary to find the local and take half a pint of bitter just before closing-time everyday evening, even if he were dining out or engaged in some business foray), and when crossing Tartary or pursuing Dr No, they were able to grip their readers the more effectively by always doing the same sort of thing at the same time. Richard Cobb has a reverence for the same thing, especially when practised as a lifestyle by those who have no idea what they are holding onto, or why.

A singular case was the author’s uncle, Primus Cobb, his father’s eldest brother, who scarcely left the parental roof after a single voyage as a young man, in the capacity of junior ship’s engineer, across the Atlantic and up the Amazon. His mother then decided he was ‘delicate’, and he remained at home while his brothers were inducted into life’s battle: one into brewery management, the youngest (Cobb’s father) into civil engineering, which took him to South Africa in the Boer War and later to the Sudan. A gentle but positive man, Cobb père no more than mildly resented this choice of an avocation for him, making a success of it to the point of being able to send his daughter to the Godophin School and his son to Shrewsbury (and thence with a scholarship to Oxford), ably assisted in these undertakings by an intelligent and affectionate spouse.

As often happens, Cobb clearly took his parents and their ministrations for granted, his Bagshavian interests as historian being centred on his other relatives. Primus, whom he knew only as a child, exercises a natural fascination. A photograph on Clacton pier, taken in his last years, shows a meticulously neat old gentleman, pipe in mouth and hat on head, and apparently without a care in the world. In fact, his parents having lately died in their nineties, he has had to leave the rambling old-fashioned Colchester house (now swept away by the University of Essex) and will shortly himself die aged 74 or so, of senile dementia, convinced that the ladies in his boarding-house have designs on the ‘whole hunter’ watch, by means of which his day has been kept safe and predictable for a couple of generations, divided into short walks, rug-making, and striking the gong at his parents’ meal-times. Daisy, his fellow inmate in this womblike existence, a distant relative taken in destitute early in life, lived chiefly in bed, herself permanently grubby among grey sheets and a decade’s Daily Mails, hoarded for the old strip-cartoon hero, Teddy Tail. ‘My father, who paid an allowance to her last landlady, included in it an annual subscription to the Daily Mail for the rest of her life, which meant another 650 or 750 numbers. Indeed Teddy Tail must have gone on coming for weeks, even months, after her death, seeking in vain his faithful companion of forty years or so.’

So Richard Cobb ends his book. His maternal uncles, both reluctant doctors, as his own father was a reluctant engineer, were great assets to the youthful Richard, giving him severally that gratifying sense, perhaps to be particularly valued in an uncle, that uncle and nephew understood secretly but comprehensively what real life was all about, a knowledge necessarily hidden from parents, schoolteachers and other such well-meaning persons. His uncles value him as someone to take to the pub and tell stories to; and once the 14-year-old author witnesses in the company of one of them a unique literary occasion. It was on Etchingham station in Sussex, where a little queue for the morning train was waiting at the booking-office. A short man with huge black eyebrows and a white moustache hurried in, and disregarding the queue requested in loud tones a first-class single to London. When the clerk civilly told him there was no hurry and to please wait his turn, he shouted furiously: ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘Yes, I know who you are, Mr Rudyard bloody Kipling,’ returned the clerk, who had evidently been through this before, ‘and kindly wait your turn like the others.’ I fancy this story is well remembered, rather than strictly true – Kipling in the circumstances would hardly have said ‘Do you know who I am?’ – but the episode shows a lot about the status of such an author at the time, and also the way in which Kipling, the outsider in Sussex, instinctively expected the kind of treatment he had grown used to in America and the Colonies. A reclusive tormented old gent who walked with kings and politicians and had never possessed the common touch, he was not arrogant but would seem so. Cobb and his uncle were delighted, the latter heartily exclaiming, ‘Well said, well said!’ to the booking clerk.

Cobb’s sister eventually marries the only son of a Tunbridge Wells household in which Cobb himself has become naturalised, and where literary contacts take an even more bizarre turn. Husband and wife here collaborated as illustrators, then assignments varying from a steady weekly strip cartoon, depicting historical scenes, for ‘Uncle Ray’s Column’ in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, to orders for the rich and eccentric American novelist James Branch Cabell (author of Jurgen, a work that might vie with Nya in Frank Kermode’s library of Lost Things). ‘A sort of pre-Tolkien or C.S. Lewis of the Twenties and early Thirties’, as Cobb describes him, Cabell required illustrations for the fantasy land which, on an odd American whim, he had set up in his writings in the Tunbridge Wells area, and christened, in mock-medieval French, ‘Poictesme’. It was a place ‘in which acts of chivalry were everyday occurrences in the whole area covered by the green Maidstone and District buses, and in which slender feminine white arms holding shining swords projected themselves from the middle of deep black lakes ... one of the stranger fates to have been imposed, from across the Atlantic, on the quiet little middle-class place, most of the inhabitants of which – my mother included – would certainly never have heard of Mr Cabell.’ The flow of orders from him stopped abruptly in 1930, although the illustrators, Mr and Mrs Frank Papé, who had become quite famous in England and America, could never find out why. As the annual Fairy Books had ended with the Ruby number in 1922, their source of material became much diminished, although fortunately the Plain Dealer remained faithful.

These matters are surely what History and Value are all about, although Cobb is one of the few really professional historians to make one think so. Preferring, as he puts it, the fuite en arrière to the fuite en avant represented by student revolutions in the Sorbonne, in which he none the less takes a Bagshavian clinical interest, he selects as metaphor for his historical outlook and narrative method the open back platform of a Paris bus.