Monday book: A dandy and a fine historian

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"THE TOSCANINI of military historians," as one admirer called him, Basil Liddell Hart was England's Clausewitz, and the apostle of the Blitzkrieg.

In his writings, above all in the masterpiece Strategy: the indirect approach, Hart explained the essence of war in the 1940s - speed, mobility, the importance of tanks - years before Rommell and Patton put the precepts into operation.

He was a particular influence on the great German Panzer commanders, Guderian and Nanstein, and lost a lot of brownie points with the British Establishment for championing them after 1945, on the dubious grounds that they were merely professional soldiers.

In many ways, Hart reminds one of the 19th-century Richard Burton. Both were known by the quasi-oxymoronic prefix "Captain Sir", both seem to have been bisexual, both received their knighthoods unconscionably late in life, both were attracted to other mavericks - in Hart's case, especially Robert Graves and T E Lawrence, thus bringing the Burton/desert motif full circle.

Liddell Hart was undoubtedly an original as military historian. He had idiosyncratic tastes, rating Scipio Africanus above Hannibal and Sherman above Ulysses S Grant. He was the first man truly to understand the genius of the Mongol commander Subudei, and in many ways he had shrewder insights into Napoleon than Clausewitz.

These aspects of Hart are reasonably well known, but the revelation in Alex Danchev's biography is that he was also passionate about tennis and women's fashion.

Nowadays, we would regard a description of Pete Sampras as Napoleonic or Agassi as Alexandrine as cliched, but it was Hart who first introduced military metaphors into sports reporting.

Given that his admiration for the female was aesthetic rather than sexual, and that he loved to describe women's clothes, hair and make-up rather as though he were a painter manque, it is no surprise that his favourite tennis player was the Wimbledon champion Suzanne Lenglen.

A dandy and a peacock, Hart was obsessed with matters sartorial. He thought that women's fashion, so far from being the froth on the surface of social life, was actually part of the deep structure of societies. He condemned as superficial those people who said that feminine vanity showed the essential frivolity of the sex, and elaborated a complicated sumptuary determination whereby women's corsets, rather than the relations of production, were the basic feature of society.

Danchev reveals Liddell Hart to have been a very odd fish indeed, eclectic to the point of incoherence. Sympathetic to fascism in the 1930s, he ended in semi-pacifism, as a supporter of CND and the Committee of l00. He had many blind spots about the Nazis and was notorious for including, in his history of the Second World War, just a single reference to the Holocaust.

Well-researched and full of insight as Danchev's volume is, it seems to have fallen victim to the curse of the authorised biography. Hart's second wife Kathleen allowed the author unlimited access to all the unpublished material but, as always in such cases, there was a price to pay. The result is that the volume is very oddly structured, with the last 30 years of Hart's life (the Kathleen period) dispatched in 40-odd singularly uninformative pages.

Even in the earlier period, Danchev pulls punches when it comes to his subject's sexuality and the bizarre "open marriage" to his first wife, Jesse.

Reading between the lines, one can sense menages a trois (or quatre, or cinq), voyeurism, transvestism, fetishism, sado-masochism, and much else.

Danchev is content to simply to quote the mainstream view that Hart was merely a spoiled brat who had married too young and to juxtapose it with the "other view", stressing the pathological elements in the great military historian.

To plug the gap left by his fastidious pudeur, Danchev has recourse to a lot of gnomic utterances and learned asides, the relevance of which often escaped me.

I would like to know when Liddell Hart first met Graves and Lawrence, and how their relationship developed. Instead of providing this information, Danchev treats us to some very discursive ruminations on Picasso, Dali and so on.

But I do share the author's irritation with Oxford University for failing to elect (or even shortlist) Hart for the Chichele professorship in the history of war. The preference in the "home of lost causes" for passing over the truly brilliant (A J P Taylor, for example) in favour of second- raters may be one reason why it no longer features among the world's top- rated universities.

The reviewer's biography of Napoleon is published by Cape

Frank McLynn