OBITUARY: Richard Cobb

Phillip Mansel,Tim Hilton
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:54

The magic of Richard Cobb's style, combined with an incomparable sense of place and interest in human nature, made him a genius among post- war British historians.

Cobb acquired the love of France and of shocking which were to dominate his life while staying with an irreverent family in Paris in the 1930s. Research into the most extreme of French revolutionaries, the Hebertistes, was interrupted by wartime service in the British army which, for Cobb, included cleaning latrines, trying to learn Polish, serving with the Czechoslovak Independent Brigade Group and writing for La Renaissance du Bessin. After a year in Brussels, one of his favourite cities (first visited to avoid appearing as a witness in a murder trial), he lived in Paris from 1946 to 1955, doing research in the archives, teaching English, and writing.

He had many friends in the French Communist Party and, in part because they had provided him with frequent hot meals, he wept at the death of Stalin. He was exuberant and unconventional. At one of the night-clubs he frequented, he met ex-King Farouk, with whom he shared the same birth- date. They occasionally drank together, and 40 years later Cobb was one of the few people to remember that, in the Fourth Republic, un farouk was a name for a 10,000-franc note. He once greeted the dawn nude, in the company of a dozen similarly unattired men and women, in the fountains of the Place de la Concorde.

While living in Paris he acquired the knowledge of France which made him the poet of the vespasienne and the fille montante, of bourgeois ladies of Roubaix and the museum of crime at Lyon. Essentially English, he loved France so much that he believed that to live there was to live doubly and several times applied for naturalisation.

''After 1958, as far as I was concerned, nothing could ever be quite the same again.'' He disapproved of military coups and compared Paris under the Fifth Republic to Warsaw after the 1944 rising, so great was the scale of destruction of the old buildings and streets he loved so ardently. He had, however, already made a break with France by accepting a teaching position at Aberystwyth in 1955. In 1961 he obtained a post at Oxford. His style of teaching, talking, drinking, and after-dinner behaviour - chariot racing in Balliol senior common room was the least of his exploits - made this shy, often uneasy man a living legend. Cobb was thin, looked like a cross between Voltaire and George VI, and was once described by a friend as the dirtiest soldier he had ever seen. His eyes were usually drunk, with curiosity or alcohol, but his capacity to recover from the night before was the envy of his students.

To be taught by Richard Cobb, often in a class as small as an early Christian cenacle, was to be taught life. 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; or a tricoteuse who preferred the lists of the guillotined to contain spectacular noble, rather than plebeian, names.

Cobb enjoyed Oxford, perhaps because it provided so many opportunities to study individuals and puncture pretension. He admired Maurice Bowra and Arthur Marder as much as French colleagues such as his patron Georges Lyebore or the historian of the sans- culottes Albert-Marius Soboul. He described the funeral of his friend Jack Gallagher, the historian of Africa, as ''the saddest sight I have ever seen''.

Cobb loved archival research, particularly (until he was banned after a row) in the Archives Nationales in Paris, one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe. He wrote as well as he taught, at first articles in learned journals such as Presence Ardennaise, then exhaustively researched studies of the revolutionary armies of 1793-94, popular protest and death in Paris.

His first book to reach a wider audience was A Second Identity (1969 - the title refers to his French self), a collection of reviews on subjects ranging from the Jacobin historian Georges Lefebvre to ''la bonne dame de Loudun'' Marie Besnard, accused of having murdered 11 of her relations. His style, at once insolent, erudite and parenthetic (sentences could be as long as paragraphs), won him many admirers.

A Second Identity was followed by an armee revolutionnaire of books. Among the best were Promenades: a historian's appreciation of modern French literature (1980), which described favourite novelists such as Marcel Pagnol and Raymond Queneau; The Streets of Paris (1980), a dazzling essay on four arrondissements of Paris, extolling balustrades and courtyards of the 19th century, washable brothel-fronts of the 1930s and Tunisian shops of the 1960s, with photographs by Nicholas Breach; Still Life (1983), sketches from a Tunbridge Wells childhood; A Classical Education (1985), an unforgettable account of his friendship with a Dublin matricide; and Something to Hold Onto (1988), openly Proustian autobiographical sketches describing his relations, the book illustrator Frank Pape and the pleasures of the lavatory.

Cobb believed that a historian should get inside the threshold, step beyond the door, and write about private people and private places. Accents, clothes (in his youth Tunbridge Wells was, ''a place where clothes called to clothes, cutting out words and greetings''), family photographs and loneliness in cities interested him more than intellectual debates or economic graphs. He extended the frontiers of history so far that his books included descriptions of the tin trunks of French officials on the way to the colonies in a Marseilles hotel, girls in hotel rooms crouching over bidets in ''a rapid gesture of orthodoxy rather than of hygiene'' and the third army, of ''enormous, long-whiskered, dark-coated, red-eyed rats'', below the Germans and the resisters, which surfaced in Paris during the occupation. His unique ability to understand other people enabled him to make collaborators human and a childhood in Tunbridge Wells between the wars interesting.

At least until his last marriage, and the birth of his children, Cobb was a lonely man who sought safety in familiar routines and faces. His own private threshold could be hard to cross. One of his chief pleasures was to attack solemnity and falsity, the cults of statistics, of student revolution and, in the end, of the French Revolution.

''Emphasise my frivolity,'' he once told me, as he poured the last of a bottle.

Philip Mansel

Richard Cobb's A Classical Education is a short and macabre book mainly concerned with an Irish schoolfriend who murdered his mother, partly (the Irish police then suspected) at Cobb's urging, writes Tim Hilton. This matricide was of especial fascination to Cobb, the future historian of many criminal acts. Cobb kept up with the murderer during and after his long detention and delighted in inviting him to the Balliol high table, on one occasion carefully placing him next to an Emeritus Professor of Law: ''My guest is keenly interested in the Irish penal system.''

Cobb was personally a pacific man. Yet he liked to study violence and however eminent his academic position he was inclined both to low life and to pranks that his colleagues considered juvenile. His sympathy with people at odds with the police began, if not at school, with his first experience of France. He was asked to leave Shrewsbury immediately after he gained a Postmastership at Merton College. The intervening year was spent in Paris, where he first of all discovered the socialist politician and historian Jean Jaures, a lasting influence. ''He was a warm man with a good heart; he understood poverty.''

As an undergraduate in the late Thirties Cobb regularly returned to Paris and attended lectures at the Sorbonne given by Georges Lefebvre - the most important of the influences on Cobb's historical writing. The Frenchman was Marxist- inclined but not a Marxist. He was interested in mentalites and history written ''from below''. He was a master of archival research; and however sophisticated his methods were in library or study he wrote history in terms that could be understood by a layman. All this was transmitted to Cobb.

Some of Cobb's own work in the Archives Nationales he did not use for 30 years. One of his most perfect books, Death in Paris 1795-1801 (1978), was the result of the discovery of old notes in a forgotten suitcase. Other work of the post-war period is still missing, in particular his short stories, in English and French, his only essays into imaginative writing. Cobb was a visitor to Fitzrovia during his infrequent post-war trips to London and was friendly with writers such as Julian Maclaren Ross, Dylan Thomas, Dan Davin and Louis MacNeice.

Cobb was not a Bohemian. In Paris he was poor, studied in the day and spent his nights in the bars and brothels that are lovingly described in later writings. He relied on subventions from Tunbridge Wells, also journalism and a position teaching English to Air France stewardesses. He was briefly married to an employee of the SNCF. Characteristically, Cobb used his wife's cheap rail tickets to study archives in the regions and consult with the erudits locaux who shared his historical interests. There was a second Parisian marriage in the Forties, bewildering alike to Cobb, his new wife, and her right-wing and Catholic military family.

Cobb liked to claim that in his Parisian years he was married to the French Communist Party. This was because so many members of the Party, prominent among them his friend Albert Soboul, were contributing to the post-war revival of French history. Certainly Cobb ate and slept in many Communist homes; but his own beliefs were, by comparison, simple. He disliked authority and people who sought power in any sphere. He often spoke of the great political truth that most people simply want their rulers to leave them alone. It was because of Cobb's Communist connections that his work was known to the English Marxist historians who became prominent in university departments in the late Fifties and early Sixties. One of them was Christopher Hill, who eventually brought Cobb to Balliol.

Cobb was concerned with his feeling that he might one day write history that was a part of literature. A Second Identity, whose long autobiographical preface explains Cobb's allegiances within two differing cultures, first revealed Cobb to an English audience as a writer who combined great knowledge with extraordinary prose, but he never joined literature in the way he privately hoped. A biography of Simenon was wisely abandoned. He none the less made a contribution to the prose of our time, often in an unexpected fashion. He was for instance the master of a specialised genre, the academic eloge (or encomium). Within this form he wrote humorously, but with delicate funerary feelings. Some examples are to be found in his People and Places (1985). It is characteristic of Cobb that this book opens with an eloge not to an historian but to the owner of a long-established Parisian night- club.

Those of us who were Balliol undergraduates while Cobb was there will long remember his inspiring talk and his utter disregard for decorum and discipline. I still hear the French martial songs and the crashing of glasses. He was both an example of the scholarly life and a lord of misrule.

In his later years Cobb gave popular lectures in Worcester College, always with a pint on the lectern, saw old pupils at lunchtime, then cycled up the Woodstock Road to his home at Wolvercote - a small house, not at all pretty - where he lived with his wife, Margaret, a former student from his time in Leeds. The acknowledgements to Paris and its Provinces (1975) speak of his love of family and his affection for Worcester. ''Now I feel that perhaps I do have a place in an institution. Of course, I may be quite alone in this conviction.''

Richard Charles Cobb, historian: born Essex 20 May 1917; Lecturer in History, UCW Aberystwyth 1955-61; Lecturer, Leeds University 1962; Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Balliol College, Oxford 1962-72 (Hon Fellow 1977); FBA 1967; Reader in French Revolutionary History, Oxford University 1969-72, Professor of Modern History 1973-84; Senior Research Fellow, Worcester College, Oxford 1984-87; CBE 1978; married thirdly 1963 Margaret Tennant (three sons, one daughter); died Abingdon 15 January 1996.

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