Napoleon's neighbours

THE END OF THE LINE: A Memoir, by Richard Cobb John Murray, pounds 20 by Linda Colley
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Richard Cobb, who died last year, was a leading historian of revolutionary France, a one-time Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Yet, unlike the vast majority of successful academics, his richest achievement was less his scholarship than his life, and his gift for interweaving his living and his way of seeing with his writing.

At one level, this meant that he composed a succession of autobiographical studies, this last volume being preceded by (the much stronger) Still Life: A Classical Education, and by Something To Hold Onto. More profoundly, Cobb's take on the past was self-consciously and quite unapologetically shaped by his own essential being. He was, he admitted, "not a belonger", always in flight "from collectivity" of any kind, allergic to causes and cults, a seeker out of dusty, lost, quiet places "well away from the centre of things ... with a door that shut". So his French Revolution was not primarily a matter of ideologies, or nationalism, or class conflict. Instead, he excavated the expedients of the illiterate, forlorn, forgotten individuals who had no sense that they were making history, but who simply became caught up in its momentum, or tried to struggle on regardless, and often lost.

Cobb looked at peasants herded into revolutionary armies and chafing to desert; at the sad records of Parisian suicides who were apparently utterly unmoved by the fact that their lives and deaths coincided with the rise of Napoleon; at poor Lyon silk-workers who fell pregnant and were deserted quite as easily under the triumphant new republic as they were under the stale Bourbon monarchy.

This sympathy for certain kinds of impoverished and desperate folk, and the instinctive flinching away from mass movements, stemmed in part and paradoxically from Cobb's own comfortable middle-class background. The poor and vulnerable sometimes do require collective action to amend their situation: it is usually only the prosperous who can afford to remain loners. An incidental appeal of all of these autobiographical writings, indeed, is the way they illuminate the minds and mores of certain strata of the pre- and post-war English middle classes.

Cobb was born in Essex in 1917, but his family soon moved to what was then another bastion of Conservatism, Tunbridge Wells. It was here, as a child, that he honed his gift for close observation of the subtleties of place and local custom, which he subsequently brought to bear on the French past. Still Life, for example, described how the town's respectable classes would never enter a front door other than their own before 3pm - unless the door in question belonged to the dentist or the doctor. Only the working classes in their terraces "dropped in". The End of the Line, though, opens with the start of his more formal historical education, at Shrewsbury School in the 1930s. Here, a wonderful history master introduced Cobb to the works of Lewis Namier, which gave him an abiding sense of the importance of dates and facts, and of the local over the national. The same teacher insisted that boys study "current events", by which he meant Europe.

The young Cobb, it is clear, was intensely English. But as with many of his class at that time, this Englishness manifested itself not in insularity, but in a confident assumption that all Europe was an oyster to be cracked open. Cobb supplies here some remarkable pen-portraits of a now lost Europe. Paris before the war: still half- empty, full of startlingly white tablecloths, cheap Calvados, and small, highly respectable hotels attracting sparse custom with the legend, "eau chaude dans toutes les chambres". And there is Vienna, still imbued in 1935 with "a lingering, frayed nostalgia for better days", its shop- signs full of evocative references to Habsburg, or Josef, or Rudolf.

By his own account, Cobb survived the war which devastated all of this through his own marked sense of self and through his writing. For much of the time, his artillery unit was stationed in England and Wales, and he was able to snatch periods of solitude in small market-town hotels, still offering old mahogany desks and quiet parlours, their bookshelves still yielding 19th-century classics. Later, Cobb proved just as resilient in the thin academic climate which existed after the war, teaching English to hairdressers in Brussels, or hoteliers and policemen in Paris, or at summer school in Turin. And all the time writing; but also, incurably, adventuring. One of his first serious posts, at Leeds University, was transfigured by an invitation to Istanbul from a former student, a Bulgar "female, dark, almost luminous hair with a blueish tinge". Naturally, he went. And naturally, he had scarcely boarded the train before being propositioned again, by a Francophile American male "with elegant hands".

Some of the anecdotes and memories which enliven this volume are already familiar. This is not vintage Cobb. But it is witty and well-written, and a further glimpse into the mind of a singularly original and humane figure, written at the last gasp.

Some friends of mine once offered the great man dinner at Oxford. At the last moment he pulled out, the collectivity of the supper table proving too much for him in prospect. But, wanting to make some contribution to the evening, he pushed through their letter-box a packet of fillet steak. And my friends watched his huddled figure disappearing swiftly into the dusk. He must have been a beguiling, elusive man.