Richard Cobb was a historian whose life was spent exploring the French Revolution. He set tongues flapping when he announced at the prize dinner that he had read neither Joyce nor Proust.

Cobb lived in France for nearly a decade after the Second World War and tried unsuccessfully for citizenship, so it was perhaps natural that he shared fellow feeling with another Francophile, the 1984 prize winner Anita Brookner, whose other life was as an art historian specialising in French revolutionary art. Cobb was an exponent of ‘history from below’, looking at those to whom history happened. When a fellow historian said he ‘wrote, spoke and thought like a Parisian street urchin’, Cobb, a man with an irreverent sense of humour, took it as a great compliment.