Today – my father’s birthday – is a day for celebrating the older (European) generation – their decencies and strivings. We have not seen their like again! They went through more – were so much less selfish and egocentric – and their writings much more powerful than the simpering affectations which passes for modern writing. I say this in the middle of my reading of English historian Richard Cobb’s Paris and Elsewhere – having bought the lovely NYRB edition after recalling how the impact his writing about Paris had made on me in the 1970s. What a life he lived – and how well his sentences capture life in the mid 20th century. He first went to Paris in 1935 at the age of 15 and was captivated, living most of the next 20 years there and writing about various other urban settings such as Lyon, Lille and Brussels. He admired Simenon’s writings – and had the same fascination with la vie ordinaire des ordinaires. In Paris, as one obituary put it “he was poor, studied in the day and spent his nights in the bars and brothels that are lovingly described in his writings. He relied on subventions from his mother in 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. His style was at once insolent, erudite and parenthetic (sentences could be as long as paragraphs), and won him many admirers”. It’s clear who inspired the likes of Theodor Zeldin – and perhaps even Julian Barnes who is one of the few English writers I unreservedly admire. His descriptive power of Paris and Elsewhere as he describes amazing characters in his lodgings or whom he visited on Sundays surpasses that of most novellists (or indeed the fashionable travel writers) I have read. And they are so sympathetically done – clearly borne of much close character observation. He was very much his own man, utterly individualist, with no sense of a career - admitting that he stumbled into his life as an historian of France simple because he loved living in the country and speaking the language. I count myself lucky because I was able to follow my passions and rarely experienced the role of an employee - and feel so sorry for those who have been compelled to choose a career. For those who don’t know him, let the obituarists give you a sense.
His first book A Second Identity (about the importance of his French life) appeared in 1959 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.The December 1 blog opined that “too much political discussion fails to recognise that politics (like life) is a series of individual choices, decisions and behaviour in a particular context. It is too easy to retreat behind abstractions”. I was therefore delighted to come across his justification of his modus operandi (which came to have such influence on historians such as Christopher Hill, Ralph Samuel and Edward Thompson) in these simple terms -
Cobb believed that a historian should get inside the threshold, step beyond the door, and write about private people and private places. Accents, clothes, 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.
"I have never understood history other than in terms of human relationships; and I have attempted to judge individuals in their own terms and from what they say about themselves, in their own language. Most interesting of all, to me, is the individual unrelated to any group, the man, the girl, or the old woman alone in the city, the person who eats alone, though in company, who lives in a furnished room, who receives no mail, who has no visible occupation, and who spends much time wandering the streets. For, apart from everlasting problem of violence, the principal one that faces a historian like myself is that of loneliness, especially loneliness in the urban context."
"In history, intellectual debate can so often be a cover for over-simplification, lack of experience, insufficient culture, lack of involvement and of sympathy, and the impetus to compare and to generalize in cases where comparisons and generalizations are either irrelevant or positively misleading. Why, one wonders, when reading certain sections of Past and Present, why do historians spend so much time arguing, imposing definitions, proposing 'models', when they could be getting on with their research?"It's not easy to get hold of his books now (Amazon have very few). This is where I need the British second hand bookshops! All credit therefore to the new York Review of Books for adding this collection to their series of classics!