Richard Cobb

Every return from a time away from home brings with it a mountain of mail. So much for the paperless world. The most depressing thing about it is how much is junk. I received an early lesson in how to deal with this - which I have not had the courage to follow properly - from Richard Cobb, by whom I was lucky to be tutored at Oxford.

Richard Cobb, at the time, was the Professor of Modern History with his chair in Worcester College. He was a passionate Francophile with many acclaimed books on France and the French - a love affair that was requited with him being awarded the Legion d'Honneur. He was also a talented memoirist and wrote about his childhood and friendship with, I think his name was Edward, with whom he plotted to kill his (Edward's) mother. It wasn't just talk: Edward went through with it and ended up in jail for twenty years - though it did sound as if his mother had it coming. Because Cobb was a professor, he wasn't supposed to tutor undergraduates - which the master of my college got round by paying him in claret. Cobb's enjoyment of his stipend was much in evidence during tutorials, as was his waspish humor: one of the better put-downs I was subjected to after reading out a long passage in French was 'Very Churchillian, Mr Ellingworth.'

He had rooms in Worcester which were cold and spartan, and a desk piled high with letters. As he was talking brilliantly about de Tocqueville he would, at the same time, deal with the mountain of letters by immediately throwing into the bin any brown envelope, followed closely by anything in a white envelope with a type-written address. 

He only opened what was left.

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