*My experience of reading Richard Cobb’s ‘Still Life’ published by @foxedquarterly *
Historian Richard Cobb’s memoir about growing up in Tunbridge Wells in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and thereafter feels very much like a miniaturist painting – only transmuted to book form.
For as the dextrous miniaturist painter adds infinitesmal detail to his work of art, so too has the author added layer upon layer of minute detail of his retelling of childhood.
As a reader, this has a few challenges. Some of the details might seem excessive at first or unnecessary, but in retrospect it is those details that render the painting or work so full of depth and it can ultimately feel quite rewarding. Cobb doesn’t write solely about important noteworthy people and events. His pen sweeps in every aspect of every person and place that his young person encountered, in the most quotidian detail. Mostly, as a young and sensitive boy he seeks reassurance in the continuity of things. Be that the presence of a town person walking on the common, or of the presence and unchanging aspect of Tunbridge Wells itself.
Cobb’s family moved to Tunbridge Wells when he was four i.e in 1921. His family consisted of his father an ex serviceman in the Sudan Civil Service, his mother, with a penchant for playing bridge at the Ladies’ Bridge Club and his elder sister.
Though Cobb’s mother seems to have a slightly snobbish character, enjoying her Club activities and being sensible of her middle class friends there, there was an absence of such class related sensibilities in Cobb’s personal narrative. This is why, we learn about all types of people who lived in Tunbridge Wells. Cobb leaves no-one out. No person is too lowly, no incident is too ordinary to prevent it being mentioned.
In the early chapters, Cobb with the thoroughness of the historian goes into great depth regarding the geographical approach to Tunbridge Wells. Don’t be deterred by the minute details however, the later chapters relate incidents related to his mother and father, his assortment of relatives, some of them quite unusual – residing in Tunbridge Wells, how the Second World War affected (it didn’t affect) the towns people and more.
An interesting chapter was that describing the Limbury-Buses – relations of the Cobb’s – who lead an extraordinarily insulated life, even during the war, not allowing any of their daily routines to be upset or any outside news to penetrate to the interior of the house.
I came away knowing about a place that I had never known before. I felt that perhaps I knew Royal Tunbridge Wells better than many places I had actually been before. Now that’s quite a feat of writing for you.
I’d however, recommend this book for the reader who has an interest in small, exacting details. If you delight in the minutiae of a place and it’s people – then this memoir is for you.
I was sent this book as a press copy from the folks at Slightly Foxed but all impressions are entirely my own.