Tea with Medea

Simon Skinner

  • My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and Others edited by Tim Heald
    Frances Lincoln, 240 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 7112 3240 2

Who now, other than historians of modern France, remembers Richard Cobb? Cobb’s Wikipedia entry – the canonical index of posterity’s interest – measures three lines; by contrast, Hugh Trevor-Roper, his principal addressee in this collection, gets five thousand words. Yet Cobb, who died in 1996, was not only a historian of acknowledged genius. As these letters incidentally but consistently demonstrate, he was also a maverick member of the wider cultural world. He chaired the Booker judges (ensuring that Hôtel du Lac prevailed over Empire of the Sun, and relishing the ensuing howls). He wrote for the broadsheets; he featured in and fed material to Private Eye. Introduced in his youth to Fitzrovia, he knew Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice and Julian Maclaren-Ross, and wrote with sufficient extra-historical purchase to make it into Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (to his immoderate delight). His memoirs were a Book at Bedtime. He received the Légion d’honneur, was an FBA and a CBE. His birthday was in the Times.

Cobb’s professional distinction was remarkable given his relatively late start. Like so many scholars of his generation he got a second-class degree (in 1938), Firsts seemingly being regarded as a bit Widmerpudlian in Oxford in those days. The war put an end to a spell of research in Paris, and after failing the army medical he used family contacts to vault from a desk job at the Air Ministry to a liaison role with the British-armed Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade. A gifted linguist, he then shifted to liaison with the Poles; he was in Brussels immediately after its liberation and was demobilised in France, spending much of the next decade in the national and local archives and working under the Jacobin historian Georges Lefebvre at the Sorbonne. He took up his first lectureship only in 1955, at Aberystwyth (which thereafter loomed largest in his extensive demonology of provincial Britain), and after a year in Leeds in the early 1960s he moved to Oxford, spending a decade as a tutorial fellow at Balliol and then a decade as professor of modern history before his retirement in 1984.

The stock line on Trevor-Roper is that, for all his brilliance as an essayist, he never delivered himself of a magnum opus. Cobb disgorged a succession of claimants to that title: Les Armées révolutionnaires (1961), based on his doctoral work under Lefebvre, recovered the political gangs who exported the Terror into the interior; Terreur et subsistances (1965) sought to rehabilitate the real (material) rather than assumed (ideological) preoccupations of the sans-culottes in the 1790s; The Police and the People (1970), his first monograph in English, concerned French popular protest in the decades after the Revolution; Reactions to the French Revolution (1972) ranged beyond the metropole to the records of the départements for individual perspectives on the Revolution ‘from ground level’; Paris and Its Provinces (1975) explored the relationship between the citizens of Paris and the people of its surrounding countryside; finally, Death in Paris (1978) was ‘an exercise in miniaturism’ brilliantly and movingly drawn from the records of the juges de paix and commissaires de police on suicides in the 1790s. ‘I am a local historian, not a national one,’ Cobb wrote in the introduction to The Police and the People. While he loved Paris and had served his archival apprenticeship there, what distinguished his work was an unparalleled immersion in local archives, a relish for the material found in village mairies and archives communales (the ‘photo of Pétain stacked in the attic’). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie saluted him as ‘that indefatigable wanderer who has explored every one of our regions’.

His influence was felt in person as well as in print. ‘To be taught by Richard Cobb, often in a class as small as an early Christian cenacle, was to be taught life,’ Philip Mansel recalled. ‘He did not simply describe, he transformed himself into a farmer overeating merely for the pleasure of depriving Parisians of their food; a revolutionary who had marinated in envy all his life and was using his position on the Committee of Public Safety for revenge.’ The night before attending a college inquest on Balliol’s performance in last year’s Norrington Table, I read Tim Heald’s introduction to this book, in which he recalls Cobb explaining to his students that they could study modern European history through its canonical topics or, less safely, through a miscellany of marginal episodes about which Cobb himself knew little (or affected to know little) but was curious. A specimen was ‘the umbrella uprising in Milan in 1815 when a mob beat the finance minister, Giuseppe Prina, to death with their silk umbrellas in the piazza outside the cathedral’. He warned that none of these topics would come up in the exam but Heald headed cheerfully off-piste and though he got a third he plainly had fun. (The umbrella uprising actually took place in 1814.) Cobb also served as supervisor to a strikingly large number of British and North American historians of France, many of them still practising.

Cobb’s scholarly and pedagogical legacies place him securely in the profession’s pantheon. But unlike such Oxford contemporaries as Trevor-Roper, Maurice Bowra or even John Sparrow, all of whom have been well served in recent biographies, Cobb was never a college head, and this may go some way to explaining his subsequent eclipse. It was a role for which he was epically unsuited, given his (very un-French) disdain for administration, his indiscretion and his legendary thirst. Heald’s introductory aside – ‘he liked a drink’ – is one of the all-time editorial understatements.

A deeper reason lies in the character of the work itself. Cobb didn’t create, and methodologically couldn’t have created, a school of history. As his former student Colin Lucas explains in an entry in the DNB, while Cobb’s students ‘learned the value of the provincial history of the period, the importance of large-scale reading of manuscript archives at all levels, and the necessity of a real enthusiasm for France’, his work ‘was basically unrepeatable, given life by his own intimate relationship with it, too devoid of engagement with matters of interpretation’. Perhaps more than any historian of his generation, Cobb practised (and sometimes splenetically articulated) an anti-methodology. Many historians content themselves with what aim to be plausible reconstructions of their chosen pasts, ignoring what others might consider the necessary theoretical and conceptual underpinnings. But Cobb turned this practice into the highest form of historical art, essentially regarding 90 per cent of theoretical discussion as pretentious, tail-chasing froth, and the remaining 10 per cent as a restatement of the obvious. He professed an ingenuous bewilderment that anyone should seek to insert any sort of apparatus between reader and source: ‘Why do historians spend so much time arguing, imposing definitions, proposing “models”, when they could be getting on with their research?’ he asks Trevor-Roper. ‘I do not know what history is about, nor what social function it serves. I have never given the matter a thought. There is nothing more boring than books and articles on such themes as “What Is History?”’

The crude conviction that theory was antithetical to research is captured in his remark that Christopher Hill – master of Balliol in Cobb’s time – was ‘not really MY sort of historian. He has IDEAS and he does not really like ARCHIVES.’ The hermeneutical bent of much Continental and American historical writing left him cold. ‘Soon,’ he grumbles to Martyn Lyons in 1969, ‘the only people who write HUMAN history will be the English.’ Natalie Zemon Davis’s truly seminal Society and Culture in Early Modern France of 1975 (though Heald doesn’t trouble to identify it) was ‘a very boring, very intellectual piece, seeing all sorts of symbolism in various aspects of Carnival, and never for a moment does it seem to occur to her that these people were trying to have a bit of FUN.’ Cobb’s paragons were very different. Carlyle, he writes, was ‘wickedly inaccurate’ to be sure, but hey: ‘Imagination, compassion, a sense of place, a sense of colour and of sound, even of night and day, a master of words … he is sensational … Now THAT is GREAT history.’

The antidote to theory was the richness and three-dimensionality of Cobb’s portraiture. The social history he practised, unlike that of his contemporaries – E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Albert Soboul and George Rudé – derived from a novelist’s fascination with character rather than from any interest in class structure or commitment to history from below. In his ‘Experiences of an Anglo-French Historian’, the introduction to A Second Identity (1969), Cobb wrote that the historian ‘is not a cold clinician, he is not dealing with steely concepts à la Saint-Just, nor with geological “social structures”, he is concerned primarily with human beings.’ His ‘principal aim is to make the dead live’, and ‘like the American “mortician”, he may allow himself a few artifices of the trade: a touch of rouge here, a pencil-stroke there, a little cotton wool in the cheeks, to make the operation more convincing.’ Cobb’s rouge and cotton wool were a peerless understanding of character and a pronounced sense of place. He drew on his experience of the demi-monde and the down-and-out in pre and postwar France so that, as Colin Jones (another former student) put it, ‘the poor, the destitute, the marginal, the outsider, the delinquent, the criminal, the unmarried mother, the prostitute’ became enfranchised in his narratives. Cobb, it was said, put the pimp into the Scarlet Pimpernel.

In applying his gifts as a historian to his own past he became an exceptional memoirist. In A Sense of Place (1975), he recalled the first time he stayed in Paris, aged 18, in 1935:

The flat shook regularly with the rumble of the Métro, the smell of which reached up from the nearby mouth of the Bonne-Nouvelle station. At night the ceiling flickered with the neon advertisements, and at week-ends one could hear snatches of ‘Tout va très bien, Madame la Marquise’, or ‘Allons les pompons’, or ‘Mon frère est poitrinaire’, from the street bands who, with the baratineurs, the flame-swallowers, the manacled strong men, then enjoyed droit de pavé on the immensely wide pavement just below the flat. One could not have hoped for more Parisian a setting; the press, the theatre, prostitution, particularly in its lower échelons, were within yards, food, pleasure, the loterie, the shooting booths within sight, the Halles, the Crédit Lyonnais, the Musée Grévin within ten minutes’ walk. This had been the very centre of traditional Paris any time from the 18th century to the present day.

The best-known of Cobb’s memoirs, Still Life (1983), an account of his Tunbridge Wells childhood, and A Classical Education (1985), covering his schooldays at Shrewsbury and undergraduate days at Oxford, are classics of 20th-century British autobiography.[*] The latter includes a mesmerising account of the disturbed relationship between a schoolfriend and his mother (known to them both as Medea), whose surreal culmination was a famously bloody matricide followed by a murder trial in Dublin in 1938. Cobb relates all this with an extraordinarily clinical eye – at once voyeuristic and dispassionate. The controlled fascination with emotional violence and the way it could intrude into scenes of comically genteel domesticity could come from a Mike Leigh script. Take his description of tea with Edward and ‘Medea’:

She was about to pour the tea. Instead, she hurled the full teapot across the room, in the direction of Edward’s head; it was quite a good, very powerful shot, but it just missed him, shattering against a corner of the mantelpiece, spraying hot tea and tea leaves all over the wallpaper above the shelf and smashing some pretty china figurines below the mirror. This was only the opening shot in a vigorous and indeed rather joyous exchange of fire. Edward went with quiet deliberation into the kitchen to put on another kettle, and having, with care, poured himself out a fresh cup of tea, he came back unhurriedly into the room and threw the contents of his full cup over his mother’s face which, under the impact of Earl Grey became even more blotched than usual. It was the solemn slowness of his movements that most impressed me, giving to the exchange a sort of religious gravity.

In the event Cobb was able to prove to the Irish police that he had not been an accomplice only because he had had a tutorial in Oxford that day – enabling him to warn his own students never to skip tutorials lest they inadvertently forfeit a cast-iron alibi in a murder case. The axe murder of a friend’s mother was a long hop from genteel Tunbridge Wells, but a short hop to Jacobin France. All this helps make sense of the later Cobb’s ability to intuit the interior lives of the citoyennes tricoteuses who sat knitting in the front rows at the guillotine, or his liking for Simenon’s novels, with Inspector Maigret imperturbably dissecting love and lust behind the net curtains of Paris. In The End of the Line (1997), which was completed days before his death, he implicitly connects his insights into the 1790s with his own recollections of the febrile atmosphere in Paris in the late 1930s, days of street violence and bourgeois panic.

Cobb is not well served by this collection. The editing is jaw-droppingly slapdash. The letters, I imagine, will largely be read by an audience conversant with the colloquialisms and institutional vocabularies of their time and place, but if you don’t know that a ‘postmaster’ is a type of college scholarship (I’ve been in Oxford for thirty years, and I didn’t), or that the KA is a pub (I did know that), then you’re lost. ‘The Dean’ (of Peterhouse, Edward Norman) and ‘the Chancellor’ (of Oxford, Harold Macmillan) are not identified. How many readers will translate ‘My Successor … is not in much favour with your successor … owing to his lack of assiduity in his attendance beneath the portrait of Queen Anne’ into ‘Michael Howard didn’t think Norman Stone did enough lecturing’? Nearly every page would have profited from half a dozen footnotes. As it is we’re confronted with sentences such as ‘I have since moved to Vespasiennes & to Gwyn Williams (but am not responsible for the heading no trousers),’ or ‘the vc looks … more and more like a monk (of the Port-Royal rather than the Tuck Connexion).’ If this is important we should be told what it means, and if it isn’t, or if Heald doesn’t know what it means, why include it? The Cast of Characters at the end is also a random affair. Some figures in the letters are not in the glossary; some figures in the glossary are not in the letters. Maddeningly, we get a paragraph on Myra Hindley, whom everyone has heard of, while a cavalcade of relative unknowns goes entirely unexplicated. When Cobb mentions that he likes commuting to Cambridge because you go via Liverpool Street, ‘my favourite terminus, & the only one containing a memorial to a British general murdered by the IRA’, wouldn’t it be interesting to learn from a footnote that this was Sir Henry Wilson (in fact a field marshal), adviser to Lloyd George, shot in June 1922 by two IRA men, one of whom had lost a leg at Ypres and couldn’t easily run away – ironically, just after Wilson himself had unveiled the now adjacent war memorial in the station?

The book’s publisher withdrew the first impression of this book, having ‘discovered an unacceptable number of errors’. Yet very few mistakes have been corrected, and you’d still be hard pressed to find a more errata or typo-strewn book (‘Schusnig’ has been inflated to ‘Schusnigg’, but we’d need another couple of reissues to get to ‘Schuschnigg’). Attentive juxtaposition of the two editions discloses an alternative motive for the reprint: remonstrations from a number of the living at their own renderings in Cobb’s portraiture. Heald’s revised introduction casts a nervous glance in the direction of the courts, adding a disclaimer to the effect that since Cobb was a ‘fantasist’ not everything is ‘necessarily true or correct’. It’s fun working out from the airbrush strokes in the revised version who might have objected to their appearance in the earlier one (which will now command a premium, like the spiked editions of a pre-injunction newspaper), but none of the excisions – comments or speculations on people’s marriages, politics, sexuality or intelligence (lack of) – is obviously libellous. And more seriously for the volume’s usefulness, no cultural historian, biographer or obituarist can safely cite these letters, since they have often been redacted entirely without acknowledgment: there is quite a difference between learning that a certain Conservative MP and MSP was regarded by his college tutor as ‘a man of fairly outstanding stupidity, but very nice’ (version 1), or simply as ‘very nice’ (version 2), the latter an outtake retaining as much fidelity to its context as the quotes on a West End theatre billboard.

Anyone recently inducted into the world of Trevor-Roper via his letters to Bernard Berenson, Adam Sisman’s biography of 2010 and the recently published Wartime Journals, will be surprised to learn of this correspondence, for Cobb doesn’t get a single mention in the 1100 combined pages of those books (beyond one incidental footnote).[†] But then Trevor-Roper preserved his correspondence meticulously and Cobb – to the surprise of few – didn’t. We therefore have most of Cobb’s letters to Trevor-Roper, but not their antiphons, and the impression this sometimes leaves is of someone nattering into an empty confessional.

The young Cobb once cheerfully averred to an exasperated faculty superior that he was an ‘anarchist’. Of course, not a few self-regarding Oxbridge dons see themselves as anarchists on the basis of some occasional truculence on a college gardens committee. Cobb was not a political animal but an inveterate dissident and satirist, which makes it possible to explain his writing so often to someone like Trevor-Roper, who took consistently reactionary positions in politics (university and national) and associated himself – not merely from self-aggrandisement – with the interests of Conservative politics (and press barons). The bulk of Cobb’s invective here is reserved for the left rather than the right: deprecating ‘a move on the part of the Do-Gooders to give the College over, in the Long Vac, to Boys of Deprived Backgrounds’ and lamenting that Christopher Hill’s influence meant that ‘we will get no more Etonian peers or even any Public schoolboys at all,’ being ‘depressed by all these dreadful Marxists’ and (tirelessly, and inexcusably) obstructing E.P. Thompson’s election to the British Academy. Some of his asides have an inadvertently comic, Mitfordesque squeamishness, as when he asks ‘what can anyone do about the hideous IRA?’, or observes that ‘Napoleon was not quite so awful (though he was quite as vulgar)’ as Hitler.

All this does little justice to the eclecticism of Cobb’s interests and his circle. His reverence for ‘Mrs T’ may raise an eyebrow, but many with un-Conservative pasts found her anti-establishment gesturing temperamentally congenial. In this way, the dyspeptic, faux-reactionary Cobb on display here might begin to be reconciled with the indigent scholar-gypsy reared by communist wolves in postwar Paris, expelled from Austria ‘for pro-Socialist activities’ and seen weeping at the death of Stalin. Cobb’s identities were manifold, and these letters can be read as an elegy for a scholarly type that the modern academic profession could have been designed to extinguish.

[*] They were reviewed by Julian Barnes in the LRB of 2 May 1985.

[†] Adam Sisman’s biography was reviewed by Neal Ascherson in the LRB of 19 August 2010; Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Wartime Journals are edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (I.B. Tauris, 322 pp., £25, November 2011, 978 1 84885 990 6).