My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and Others

My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and Others
Tim Heald
Frances Lincoln, 240pp, £20

Richard Cobb was professor of modern history at Oxford from 1973 to 1984 and an authority on French history. Before that he had been for ten years a fellow of Balliol College. He enjoyed, seemingly, a fairly conventional academic career. Yet his obituary in Le Monde referred to him as "l'une des figures les plus excentriques du monde universitaire", a description that would have pleased him.

He was a remarkably unconventional scholar, specialising as he did in the history of the banal. Cobb was interested not in grand ideas or heroic figures, but in everyday experience - in how the French Revolution or the Vichy regime impinged on the lives of ordinary, unheroic Frenchmen and women. He had a rooted dislike of "middle-class intellectuals and arrogant historians" who "are absolutely determined to recruit into class attitudes simple people who did not think in those terms". Of Christopher Hill, the Marxist Master of Balliol who recruited him, he declared that he "is not really MY sort of historian. He has IDEAS and he does not really like ARCHIVES."

Ignoring the obvious sources in the Bibliothèque Nationale or in departmental libraries, Cobb preferred to investigate village mairies - “always the most exciting material comes from there and it is really amazing how little the archives communales have been explored". Paris, he thought, had a lot to answer for, with its bloodthirsty crowds, bien-pensant intellectuals and assorted frauds - André Malraux was a particular bête noire. The real France, therefore, was to be found not in the capital, but in the provinces. As Cobb wrote, "What could be more completely French than a rural mairie with its flags and decorations (and photo of Pétain stacked in the attic with the archives!)?"

He was a master of history from below. His knowledge and understanding of la France profonde were incomparable. He was soaked in the culture of rural France. A fellow historian, Guy Chapman, declared, perhaps with some professional envy: "Few can enjoy the felicity of Mr Richard Cobb, of becoming so soaked in a society not his by birth that he moves without needing to look where he is placing his feet among its nuances, its customs, its silences." He was, says, Tim Heald, his editor and former pupil, "as nearly bicultural as it is possible for an Englishman to be".

Instinctively of the left, Cobb nevertheless voted for Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, in reaction against what he thought of as the remoteness of Labour from the aspirations of ordinary people, and was "reluctant to write for the New Statesman" but was persuaded by Claire Tomalin, the then literary editor, to do so, and discovered that "their Books Page is not as revolting as their politics at the beginning".

Convivial and bibulous, Cobb loved to comment waspishly on his colleagues. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor at Oxford from 1957
to 1981, and then Master of Peterhouse - now best remembered for authenticating the bogus Hitler diaries - was a perfect recipient of Cobb's missives, though Cobb was rather more gen­erous in his judgements than the acidulous Trevor-Roper. He had an enormous sense of fun and his letters remind one of a time when dons were gurus rather than narrow specialists. However, like most "characters", Cobb could be tiresome and self-indulgent. And the letters of scholars, even unconventional scholars, are not generally of much interest. So, were these ones worth publishing?

Those still innocent enough to believe that academics are concerned primarily with intellectual matters will find their susceptibilities shaken by My Dear Hugh. There is little here about the finer points of historical study or on the details of French history. The main topic is who will get which post - who is to become master of this or professor of that. Such matters were no doubt of consuming concern to small coteries of dons in the 1980s, yet it is hard to believe that they are of much interest 30 years later. And, like so many dons of that era, Cobb is fascinated by the public schools: by the differences, say, between Wykehamists and Etonians, another topic of strictly limited interest.

My Dear Hugh yields a somewhat constipa­ted view of England, the view from the window of the senior common room of an Oxford college; and Cobb and his devoted editor will insist on treating the gossip of various obscure and long-forgotten academics as if they were the considered utterances of great statesmen. It is all enjoyable and harmless stuff, but who, one wonders, will be interested in these lucubrations of dons of long ago? The natural conclusion is that the letters were not worth resurrecting. And yet I must concede, somewhat guiltily, that, perhaps because I was a don at Oxford for many years, I found this collection of miscellaneous gossip utterly compelling.

This article first appeared in the 31 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Young, angry...and right?