Even by Oxford standards, the behaviour of Richard Cobb, a tutor at my old college, Balliol, was eccentric. On one occasion, he invited a convicted murderer (and old school friend) from Dublin to dinner and sat him next to the professor of law with the words, “my guest is keenly interested in the Irish penal system.” On another, he and a fellow tutor, equally well refreshed, competed to shoot off passing pedestrians’ hats with an air gun. Had he been a run-of-the-mill academic, the authorities might have lost patience with him. But Cobb was one of the 20th century’s greatest historians.
His brilliance lay in his unparalleled ability to evoke a sense of place. He wrote almost as well about Tunbridge Wells, where he grew up, Shrewsbury School, where he was educated, and Oxford, where he arrived as a tutor in his mid-40s, as he did about France, his main subject. Reading his account of Paris in 1934, where he was sent for his gap year, you can almost taste the cheap red wine he drank in vast quantities and smell the perfume of the prostitutes he hung out with. Though garlanded with academic accolades, he once said that the greatest compliment he had received was that he spoke French like “un titi Parisien”, a Parisian street urchin.
Cobb lived at a time when places were very different. These days place is well on its way to being abolished.
The first stage of the process was homogenisation: hotels and shopping malls that looked the same whether they were in the unforgiving sun of Phoenix, Arizona, or the unrelenting drizzle of Reading, England. Holiday Inn hit on the perfect slogan for the era with “the best surprise is no surprise”. However far you travelled from Normal, Illinois, you could be guaranteed the same “Holiday Inn experience”.
There’s a lot to be said for “no surprises”. I once heard Paul Volcker, the Fed chairman in the 1980s, tell a conference that getting interest rates right was a doddle compared with mastering the shower in his hotel, which alternated between scorching hot and freezing cold. I have spent much of my life grappling with variants of the Volcker problem. There are plugs that won’t plug or unplug (there’s usually a hidden lever somewhere). There are temperature controls that deliver either a tropical swamp or an Arctic chill. And, particularly in Asia, there are lavatories that administer alarming jets of water and blasts of air.
Homogenisation involved a trade-off between convenience and blandness: what you lost in local colour you gained by escaping from blasts of cold water. The second stage of the abolition of place involves losses without compensating gains: taking bits of one country and dropping them in another. You can see this pick ’n’ mix globalisation in corporate architecture: Infosys’s headquarters in Bangalore features replicas of global landmarks such as the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower. You can see it in the newest cities: Dubai has a ski slope in a shopping mall. It is driven by a poverty of imagination that is the inverse of Cobb’s desire to immerse himself in the scent of the Parisian streets.
I once stayed in a fine illustration of this tendency, a “Japanese” hotel in the Swiss Alps, furnished with first-class sushi, lavatorial water-jets and mini-bars stocked with Japanese beer and (ludicrously expensive) wasabi-flavoured crisps. It had everything you might want in a hotel, except fun. The bar was permanently empty. My fellow conference attendees, freeze-dried examples of what Cobb called “Enemies of Pleasure and Propagandists of Virtue”, were no doubt optimising their time-use efficiency, either on interminable conference calls or working out in the gym.
Cobb used to deliver his lectures in the college bar with a pint of Guinness in hand. He covered an astonishing range of subjects, from the Belgian umbrella revolution of 1848 to the price of sex in Paris in the 1950s. Their only unifying theme was that there was no chance of any of them coming up in finals, making them a shockingly poor use of time for output-oriented students.
Fleeing from the efficiency of my Swiss-Japanese hotel, I took to hanging around in a wooden chalet down the road, with its bucket-sized mugs of beer, artery-clogging fondue and loud, Lederhosen-clad locals. No surprises? My system took weeks to recover from the shock.