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Mrs Thatcher, blood, guts and bumblebees

Charles Moore, former Daily Telegraph and Spectator editor (and the man who recently declared he found Seamus Heaney “sly” – unlike the perfidious ...oh very well, we won’t go there) is one of the shortlisted authors for the United Kingdom’s principal award for non-fiction books, the Samuel Johnson prize, the winner of which will be announced tomorrow.

“The precise reason that I wrote this book,” Moore disarmingly tells the Guardian (November 2nd), was that Margaret Thatcher suggested it. I had never published a book before, because of being busy editing newspapers, and because I believed (and still believe) that there are too many books around that are not quite worth it.”

Other books around that may or may not be quite worth it but which have nevertheless been shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson are David Crane’s Empires of the Dead, a study of the man who was most responsible for creating Britain’s First World War graveyards; William Dalrymple’s Afghanistan book Return of a King; Charlotte Higgins’s study of Roman Britain Under Another Sky; Dave Goulson’s study of the life of that “endearing furball” the bumblebee A Sting in the Tale and Lucy Hughes Hallett’s The Pike, a biography of the cultured Italian scholar, dandy, womaniser, poet and deranged warmonger Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Those who are shocked, or who affect to be shocked, by Patrick Pearse’s ideas about sacrifice (“bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing, and a nation which regards it as the final horror has lost its manhood”) would do well to remember that there was a lot of this kind of thing around at the time.

As Italy entered the First World War in 1914 (at first it couldn’t make up its mind which side to join) in the early hours of April 24th, Italian customs officers fired on Austrian reservists burning a bridge over the river Judrio (Idrija in Slovene). A few hours later the first Italian casualty was brought back across the river, his body thrown onto a farmer’s cart. On the following day, D’Annunzio delivered a speech in the high style:

Our vigil is ended. Our exultation begins ... The cannon roars. The earth smokes ... Companions, can it be true? We are fighting with arms, we are waging our war, the blood is spurting from the veins of Italy! We are the last to join this struggle and already the first are meeting with glory ... The slaughter begins, the destruction begins ... All these people, who yesterday thronged in the streets and squares, loudly demanding war, are full of veins, full of blood; and that blood begins to flow ... We have no other value but that of our blood to be shed.

Hughes-Hallett’s book, in her own words to The Guardian, seeks, through its plotting of D’Annunzio’s intellectual development, to “trace the line that connects high-minded 19th-century Romanticism with the brutality of 20th-century dictatorships”.

David Runciman's very entertaining review in the London Review of Books of Charles Moore's biography of Thatcher is here; 
http://bit.ly/19jkMiA