Magazine article The Spectator

Coming to, Smelling of Roses

Magazine article The Spectator

Coming to, Smelling of Roses

Article excerpt

THE END OF THE LINE by Richard Cobb

John Murray, 20, pp. 229

My subject is chaotic,' wrote Richard Cobb in the introduction to one of his books on French history, `and I may well have written about it chaotically!' Well it was, and he did. But he might have made the same remark about his life and his autobiography. Both were anarchical, directionless, saved perhaps from total chaos by his love of temporary 'roots', his habit of settling into an unknown town and establishing a routine so that he could observe its inhabitants and see how it 'breathed'.

The End of the Line follows three volumes on Cobb's English upbringing which depicted respectively his childhood in Tunbridge Wells, a school friend who murdered his mother, and an assortment of aunts, uncles and grandparents who lived astonishingly banal existences in Sussex and Essex. His French adulthood received more idiosyncratic treatment, accounts of it breaking out in incongruous and unexpected places, chiefly in the prefaces and introductions of his historical works. How many diligent undergraduates, eager to study the sans-culottes, must have been puzzled to open his books and read how Oxford's Professor of Modern History used to drink himself under the table with a Danish communist in the rue Monsieur-le-Prince. Academics generally keep quiet about such things. But that was never Cobb's way: life and art were mixed inextricably, fuelling each other and defying observers to separate them. As he openly admitted, he wrote subjectively and often with prejudice because he did not believe it was possible to divorce history from experience.

Although John Murray will be publishing a collection of the French autobiographical pieces before long, The End of the Line, completed just before his death last year, is Cobb's final work, the last stage of the journey which, as he once proudly said, had lasted longer than Leningrad. One could not have expected it to be more ordered than its predecessors -- indeed it is appreciably less so - but it does solve some of the mysteries hinted at in previous works. Readers of this delightful book will at last learn, for example, why Cobb was expelled from Austria in 1935 and why he always disliked men who wore leather shorts and fancy braces.

The book meanders agreeably through familar Cobb territory -- Paris, Normandy, Shrewsbury (where he went to school and where he was inspired to become a historian) - with occasional forays into Latvia (which he never actually visited), Sofia (where he responded to a beautiful Bulgar's apparent desire to be rescued) and Vienna (where he returned in 1962 to discover that the Bulgar didn't want to be rescued after all). As usual, the writing is humorous, especially when describing the vicissitudes of teaching English in Paris or serving in the war under an unpleasant officer from the Indian Army who employed 'a repertoire of varied whines with curried overtones'.

And there is a more than usual amount of drinking. Waiting for the Bulgar in a Sofia hotel and reading The Leopard in French, he drank so much rose brandy that he woke up to find his palms sweating attar of roses. This was nothing, however, compared to his night in Vienna when, following his disappointment with the Bulgar, he set out to find a compensatory female companion, looked for one in the wrong places, ended up on a prodigious cafe crawl and woke the following afternoon to find that he had lost his passport. On reporting his misfortune to the consulate, he was told that passports never get lost in Vienna and that his must have been retained in some bar where he had failed to pay his round: all he had to do, therefore, was retrace his steps and locate the relevant barman. …

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