Not a Belonger

Colin Jones

  • The End of the Line: A Memoir by Richard Cobb
    Murray, 229 pp, £20.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 7195 5460 8

Richard Cobb, who died last year at the age of 79, began his career as a historian of Revolutionary France. When I first met him, in 1968, he was widely thought to be able to write only in French, but as time went on a strong personal vein and a taste for high comedy widened the scope of his writing and revealed a highly distinctive English style: intricate perceptions and sensations set down in long, baroque sentences, full of Gallicisms, argot and incantatory lists of French and English place-names. Increasingly autobiographical introductions to his works of scholarship spilled out into fragmentary memoirs, in which he recounted a Tunbridge Wells childhood, a youthful infatuation with France, war-time service in the Army and an early career teaching English in postwar France as a way of financing time spent in the Archives Nationales and countless provincial depositories. The episodes recounted in The End of the Line further illuminate a trajectory already largely mapped out in A Second Identity (1969), A Sense of Place (1975), Promenades (1980), Still life: Sketches from a Tunbridge Wells Childhood (1983) and People and Places (1985). The stories are told with Cobb’s customary skill and enthusiasm, but they also sound an increasingly valedictory note. Cobb was dying as he wrote: the manuscript was completed two days before he died and has been prepared for the press by friends and by his widow, to whom he pays tribute in the closing pages.

Born in 1917, Cobb was nearly forty when he returned from France to take up a university post. He spent the bulk of his academic career at Oxford, where he had graduated before the Second World War, and, like many Oxford legends, was renowned for his outrageous pranks. Stories, whether true or not, stuck to him. Finding himself on the podium behind the speaker at a tedious lecture given by a visiting dignitary, Cobb removed his false teeth and manipulated them in time to the unsuspecting speaker’s rhythms and cadences. Undergraduates – these were pre-Teaching Quality Assessment days – told of tutorials spent with him variously asleep, drunk, talking for hours about Georges Simenon and other favoured French novelists, or going down on all fours and barking like a dog. His teaching life was interspersed with wild carousing, scandalous behaviour, perpetual spats with the Master of his college; he was thrown out of more hotels and bars than any Oxford professor of history before (and even since). He was almost as much admired for his irreverence towards authority and his drinking feats as he was for his dedication as a teacher and a scholar with an international reputation. He was held in awe for his ability to combine the two.

Cobb revolutionised the English historiography of the French Revolution. Before him, most English historians preferred to do their work in the British Library or an Oxford study: Cobb urged his students to immure themselves in French life, for as long as they could afford to. Cheap travel, microfilm and photocopying have since made this easier, and he was right in thinking that only long periods spent working on primary sources in French archives and libraries would enable foreign scholars to say anything to command the respect of native historians which he already – almost uniquely among les Anglo-Saxons at that time – enjoyed. He was a great lover of Paris, where he spent many years and had many friends – the greatest compliment ever paid him, he says, was to be called ‘un titi parisien’. Yet he held that too much Revolutionary history had been Parisocentric. A provincial angle of vision, grounded in hard work in the local archives, would provide a new, more authentic history of the 1790s: things were bound to look different from Sotteville-lès-Rouen or Palavas-les-Flots. Droves of admiring postgraduates, like so many Young Raleighs, set out to comb obscure archives, and on their return delivered their reports from the front at Cobb’s Oxford seminar. The way to Richard’s heart would have been for one of us to work on his beloved Lille-Roubaix, whose Revolutionary archives he never ceased to extol; but the diaspora headed instead towards the sunnier Midi – Nîmes, Toulouse, Marseille, Avignon, Bordeaux, Rodez, Montpellier.

The provincial angle went with a pioneering concern with individuals and social groups usually left out of the historical account. Cobb had little time for Anglophone historiography and its concentration on élites. The poor, the destitute, the marginal, the outsider, the delinquent, the criminal, the unmarried mother, the prostitute were those whom he placed at the centre of the picture. As was memorably remarked, he was the historian who put the pimp into the Scarlet Pimpernel. He was often compared with other practitioners of ‘history from below’, such as Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Albert Soboul and George Rudé, even though their Marxism was anathema to him. His magnum opus, on the armées révolutionnaires, the semi-vigilante armed bands who enforced the Terror in the provinces in 1793-4, might, in theory, have formed part of a marxisant triptych, alongside Soboul’s Paris sans-culottes and Rudé’s hungry, politicised revolutionary crowds, but Cobb jibbed at such dragooning, and in any case parted company with his colleagues on matters of quantification and theory. He mocked his Revolutionary mentor Georges Lefebvre’s adage that ‘the historian must know how to count,’ and mocked even more the idea that the quantification of social phenomena might offer viable historical explanations. His preference for the individual, the aberrant and the contingent over the collective, the generalisable and the normative put him at odds with Marxism and, indeed, social theory of any kind. The least pernicious sociological insights were those which told you what you already knew or might guess anyway – that market riots tended to happen on market days, for example. He endlessly guyed the Annales school for its determination to link history to the social sciences: the Annalistes’ sociological jargon made them unreadable – their hallmark was an unfailing capacity to state ‘a silly idea sillily’. Cobb saw his armées révolutionnaires as a motley crew of ragamuffins, not so much moved by conscious political objectives as seething with jealousy, envy, lust, resentments, petty hatreds and ambitions. A precocious demolisher of grand narratives, a celebrator of facts and events and a satirist of historical structure-building, Cobb had time only for micro-narratives (how he would have hated the word!).

The End of the Line provides a final outing for these preoccupations but it also allows us to glimpse some of the sources of his thought. Several chapters confirm the impact of his time in Paris in the morbid prewar atmosphere of the late Thirties, with a rotten, demoralised bourgeoisie panicking before his eyes and the threat of random street violence. Cobb was to bring to his treatment of the 1790s a sense of the danger and violence at the heart of French political culture which he had himself experienced in the Thirties. ‘Reassuring’ was to become one of his most approving adjectives, highlighting the fearfulness never far from the surface of his prose. The archives must have seemed a safe haven – as long as the familiar grey boxes poured forth their secrets, there could, surely, be no war, no revolutionary repetitions.

Yet if France had – reassuringly – got through those times without losing what still made it a decent place to live in, the same could not be said for its Eastern neighbours. In ‘The Wrong Europe’, Cobb describes his spell as a young man in Vienna, where he was sent to improve his German, but ended up being arrested for spying, beaten up and summarily expelled. Not only did this confirm him in his distaste for authority, his brief Austrian stay also gave him a lifelong loathing for the rural, folklorish inhabitants of Central and Eastern Europe, caricatured in this account with ‘squiggly’ pipes, green velvet frog buttons, leather trousers, jaunty orchestras, country dancing and garden gnomes – by the end of his stay, Cobb found even Viennese clothes-lines ‘frightening’ on account of the long white socks hanging from them. A postwar chapter recounts a would-be love-affair with a Romanian girl largely frustrated by the threatening presence of police heavies.

A peculiar mental circuitry, which must have owed something to his Austrian experiences, but something also to his antipathy to the Vichy regime, caused him to link folklore with Fascism. (When writing about the militants of his armées révolutionnaires, he had equated rural life and ‘fanaticism’ – a.k.a. Catholicism, a bête noire since his prep school days – in much the same way.) An early exposure to Jude the Obscure, Cobb tells us, had given him an enduring distaste for the rural (qualified here with the adverbs ‘hideously’, ‘irremediably’ and ‘aggressively’). He might walk, cycle or drive in the countryside, but it would be appalling to think that one would not soon hit on a town, a suburb or some other outpost of civilisation, as a refuge from rural tribalism. Probably the single point on which he would have wanted to agree with Karl Marx was on the latter’s sense of ‘the idiocy of rural life’.

Cobb’s detestation of gemeinschaftliche Gemütlichkeit makes his favoured spots small cities and middling towns: in England, Tunbridge Wells and Oxford; in France, places like Rouen, Lille and Dieppe (all of which he writes about here in loving detail). Lyon and Paris, too, come into this category, for Cobb conceived them as conglomerations of distinct arrondissements. Each has the potential for anonymity, for allowing the outsider to achieve the solitude which, surprisingly perhaps, Cobb craved. This taste for loneliness – he ascribes it to a reaction against the hyper-public nature of daily living in an English public school – is a precondition for the work of perceiving, listening and observing which he regards as the vocation of the social historian. It means he can become a flâneur – in Paris, a boulevardier – wandering with vacant intent, drinking in the sights, sounds and smells of urban sociability. In each location he sets out to establish a private itinerary, repeated daily, as a means of understanding local topography; in the ‘Barsur-Seine’ chapter, he describes how a long weekend in a small town is enough to establish routines which allow him to measure the oscillation between regularity and change, and hence to understand and appreciate the texture of local life. The novelists he esteems are those who show this finely calibrated sense of place – Marc Bernard on Nîmes, Georges Simenon on Paris and, more strangely perhaps, Dostoevsky on St Petersburg or, on Le Havre and Paris, Raymond Queneau (whose astonishing ear for demotic language he also admired).

Cobb has an ethnographer’s eye for the life of les petits gens, depicting, in a style which just keeps condescension at bay, the quotidian, the banal, the humble and the lonely, and decoding surface appearances in such a way as to locate underlying traces of passion. And like an ethnographer, he brings back the stories and language of his subjects. Long verbatim quotation, in the original French, was a hallmark of his earlier books, and The End of the Line is full of words to get readers reaching for their Grand Robert: un caïman, une chroniqueuse judiciaire, une menthe verte, des estaminets, des répètes, un cyrard, des demi-soldes, la HSP, des cothurmes, des pneumatiques, un vis-à-vis, le zinc, des chahuteuses, and so on. Yet these tokens of a second identity – a project close to Cobb’s heart – in a sense merely exoticise his profoundly English character. He tells an anecdote in which he hears some of his French pupils referring to him as ‘typiquement oxfordien’, a term he finds hard to accept. But as he shows in great detail, his Frenchness was predicated on his quest for marginality in French life. By his own admission, he was ‘not a belonger’. It is his French friend, Maurice, the black marketeer, who pinches girls’ bottoms – Cobb merely admires them ‘agreeably wiggling’ at a distance. He feels most at home, he tells us, at railway stations, on the quayside of ports and other places of adventitious sociability and movement, all very much ‘the natural haunts of lonely people’. He excels, too, in everyday rituals of inclusion, which confirm rather than transcend his status as an outsider: the restaurant client, for example, who sits opposite him (‘Vous permettez?’); the garçon de café who greets him as a habitué (‘Comme d’habitude, Monsieur Cobb?’ – or sometimes, ‘Monsieur Bob?’); or the shopkeeper who nods in recognition as he passes on his daily round. Little wonder that in his historical work, especially in his later years, he chose to study individuals similarly marked by solitude – Parisian suicides who threw themselves into the Seine, or abandoned unmarried mothers – or else drawn together in the factitious sociability of the bar, the tavern, the queue, the street.

In The End of the Line, as in much of his later work, major historical forces appear only as incidental extras in narratives driven by individual wants and needs. Great public events ‘always seemed to have a way of coinciding with paltry, semi-private ones. History had a disconcerting habit of operating on several levels at once.’ In one of his books he quoted the pregnancy declaration of a young woman whose child had been conceived on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date of the fall of Robespierre. Cobb told the story more than once: it clearly resonated with a man born in the same year as the Russian Revolution and one of whose early schoolboy memories, as he tells us here, was to be told of the existence of Latvia and Estonia, states even younger than he was. The public and the private intertwine – but in Cobb’s account, the latter is the more important. Hiroshima, he tells us, simply meant he could be demobbed earlier than he had hoped. For Cobb, the most important meanings are self-referential (even selfish), local, ungeneralisable, private.

As he struggles to write the last pages of these mémoires d’outre-tombe, the sentences start to shorten and become less baroque, the syntax to slacken; the world of the real is invaded by an oneiric description of stray memories of his parallel lives: Tunbridge Wells, Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, railway branch lines, cities visited, still to visit or best avoided jostle with Rouen’s dockside bars, fish markets, café calvadoses, the River Seine, Paris railway stations and Dieppe’s Gare Maritime, truly ‘the End of the Line’. ‘I am not a belonger,’ he repeats, ‘even in these dream, pill-induced fantasies.’ Not a bad epitaph for the greatest English historian of the French Revolution, simultaneously ‘un titi parisien’ and ‘typiquement oxfordien’.