Amritsar 1919: An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre 
by Kim A. Wagner.
Yale, 325 pp., £20, February 2019, 978 0 300 20035 5
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Thirty seconds​ after he first entered the Jallianwala Bagh, he ordered his men to open fire. There was no word of warning to the crowd, not a gesture. ‘My mind was made up as I came along in my motor car. If my orders were not obeyed, I would open fire immediately.’ After a bit, Sergeant Anderson, General Dyer’s personal bodyguard, ‘noticed that Captain Briggs was drawing up his face as if in pain, and was plucking at the general’s elbow. Mr Plomer, deputy superintendent of police, told the general during a lull that he had taught the crowd a lesson they would never forget. The general took no notice, and ordered fire to be resumed.’ At one point, the general turned to one of his officers and said: ‘Do you think they’ve had enough?’ He then answered himself: ‘No, we’ll give them four rounds more.’

By the end, the fifty Sikhs and Gurkhas under his command had fired 33 rounds each, a total of 1650 rounds. The official estimate was that 379 people had been killed and more than one thousand injured. But it was hard to be sure of the exact figure. Dyer explained that he’d returned to the Ram Bagh (the garden with palace at the heart of the British cantonment) ‘without counting or inspecting the casualties’ – or offering any medical assistance to the wounded – for fear, he said, that his little force might be ambushed. This was extremely unlikely. The crowd of fifteen thousand or more that had gathered on 13 April 1919 was unarmed and peaceable, some of them listening to speeches, others simply milling about and chatting, many of them having come in from the countryside for the Baisakhi festival, the Sikh New Year. The Jallianwala Bagh (Jalle was the garden’s original owner) was in fact a large, irregular walled wasteland, about 150 by 200 yards. It was a traditional place for the citizens of the closely packed holy city of Amritsar to meet and stretch their legs. General Dyer had paraded his men around the streets that morning, warning that any gathering of more than four men would be looked on as an unlawful assembly and might be dispersed by force. But he had processed only through the western half of the city, near the railway and the European quarter. He had not penetrated to the centre and east, where the Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple lay. He himself was not stationed in Amritsar: ‘I do not know the city very well,’ he later admitted. He also admitted that as a result ‘there may have been a good many who had not heard the proclamation.’

But then Dyer also said that ‘it was no longer a question merely of dispersing the crowd; but one of producing a sufficient moral effect, from a military point of view, not only on those who were present but more specially throughout the Punjab.’ In fact, he remarked: ‘I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed.’ He had already seen them laughing in the streets as he passed through on the way to the Jallianwala Bagh. No officer of the Raj more candidly confirmed the truth of George Orwell’s confession in his essay ‘Shooting an Elephant’, written 17 years later, that his ‘whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at’.

The horror of what happened that day sank in immediately. Gerard Wathen, the principal of Khalsa College, who had intervened to stem the street violence of two days earlier, told Dyer that evening that ‘India would never forget.’ That same evening, Dyer himself told the British women huddled at the consulate that ‘I’m for the high jump but I saved you women and children.’

The story of the massacre has been told many times, but rarely with such narrative vigour and moral passion as by Kim Wagner in this centenary account. He quotes at length from Dyer’s own evidence to the commission of inquiry led by Lord Hunter, who had been solicitor general for Scotland in the Asquith government. Again and again, Dyer convicts himself out of his own mouth. As his friend Major General Nigel Woodyatt later told him, ‘he was bound to get the worst of it; not so much for what he had done, but for what he had said.’

As Nigel Collett declares in The Butcher of Amritsar (2005), his magisterial Life of Dyer, it’s difficult to exaggerate the effects of the massacre. Not merely did it horrify all shades of Indian opinion, the failure of the British government to punish or disown the perpetrators, and the heartfelt support Dyer got from a large section of the British public, ‘was a critical factor in the metamorphosis of key leaders of the Indian National Congress, in particular of Gandhi, from loyal subjects … into implacable nationalists who came to reject every facet of the British connection. The massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh led directly to the bitterness and bloodshed of Indian independence and partition nearly thirty years later.’ What entrenched and inflamed the memory of Amritsar was the belief shared by so many servants of the Raj and hardline conservatives in Britain that ‘Dyer saved India.’ Jawaharlal Nehru, who had collected much of the evidence for the Indian National Congress’s separate inquiry into the massacre and who first developed his admiration for Gandhi as they worked together on it, reflected: ‘This cold-blooded approval of the deed shocked me greatly. It seemed absolutely immoral, indecent; to use public school language, it was the height of bad form. I realised then, more vividly than I had before, how brutal and immoral imperialism was, and how it had eaten into the souls of the British upper classes.’

A year later, on 8 July 1920, Edwin Montagu, the Liberal secretary of state for India, was howled down in the Commons by baying Tories in the debate on Dyer’s conduct, which eventually led to his dismissal from the army on half-pay. The coalition government only won the vote deploring his actions after a robust condemnation of Dyer by the secretary of state for war, Winston Churchill. Eleven days later in the House of Lords, as always on the wrong side, the government was defeated by 129 to 86, despite the sinewy arguments advanced by the lord chancellor, Lord Birkenhead. In the 1920s and 1930s, Birkenhead and Churchill were to become leaders of the diehard opposition to Indian independence. Now even their rhetoric was scarcely enough to rescue the government. A public collection for Dyer raised £26,000, with Rudyard Kipling contributing £10. There was, however, more than a little ambiguity about the inscription Kipling offered for a never completed memorial to Dyer: he ‘did his duty as he saw it’.

Dyer died in 1927, after suffering several strokes. He was given a military funeral at Long Ashton, the village near Bristol to which he and his wife, Annie, had retired. But then, amazingly, he had a second great ceremonial funeral through the streets of London, his body carried on a gun carriage draped in the Union flag, from the Guards’ Chapel to St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wagner underplays the extraordinary fact of this rite, normally reserved for a national hero, being accorded to a disgraced temporary brigadier. Only Collett puzzles over who could have given permission for this and fingers those notorious reactionaries and outspoken Dyer supporters, Sir William Joynson-Hicks, the home secretary, and Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, then war secretary, but he can find no trace of the necessary arrangements in the papers of either ‘Jix’ or ‘Worthy’, suggesting that even they felt the need to conceal what they were up to. All the same, by 1927 the Tories were back in power and they were determined to give their hero a supercharged send-off.

Even in our own day, Dyer has had his defenders, or at least mitigators. Nick Lloyd, like Wagner a fortyish historian at King’s College London, gave his account of Amritsar the subtitle ‘The Untold Story of One Fateful Day’ (2011). It is certainly an unfamiliar story. According to Lloyd,

Dyer was no premeditated murderer. His decision to fire in the Jallianwala Bagh was a sudden reaction to the size and composition of the crowd that he faced … which was considerably larger than previous estimates – upwards of 25,000 people – and was mainly composed of male Hindus who had entered the Bagh primarily for political purposes. Because Dyer had so few troops he had no option but to keep firing.

But this totally contradicts what Dyer himself told Lord Hunter. Lloyd’s way out of this fix is to argue that Dyer was a vain and hysterical character who panicked and then offered several conflicting explanations for his conduct. But this hardly squares with his overall conclusion on the following page, where he says that the ‘way in which the British dealt with the disorders of 1919 was, therefore, on closer inspection, much more restrained and responsible than has always been assumed’.

To examine this breathtaking assertion, we need to look at the series of British actions leading up to the massacre, in particular those of Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of the Punjab. Unlike Dyer, O’Dwyer could not be said to be a stupid man; he had a first in jurisprudence from Balliol. But like several clever men who went out to India – Virginia Woolf’s uncle James Fitzjames Stephen, for example – his intelligence only intensified his reactionary instincts. Brought up in the lawless backwoods of Co. Tipperary, O’Dwyer believed in Order first and last (and not much Law to go with it). He regarded any reforms designed to give Indians a greater share in their own government as ‘diabolical’. It was his alarmist call for emergency legislation that pushed Lord Rowlatt and his committee to devise the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act, or Rowlatt Act, which provoked protests all over India in the first months of 1919. Nick Lloyd dismisses these protests as whipped up by ignorant agitators who hadn’t even read the act. I should have thought that the label on the tin would give you a pretty good idea of what was in it.

It was against the Rowlatt Act that Gandhi led his first nationwide satyagraha, or ‘soul-force’, in India, after practising this tactic of civil disobedience in South Africa. The campaign involved a series of hartals in different regions. Lloyd translates hartal somewhat crudely as ‘strike’, Wagner more carefully as combining ‘the political strike and voluntary closure of shops and schools with a more spiritual notion of fasting and purification for the individual’. Most of the hartals went off quite peacefully, not least the first one in Amritsar itself, but the Punjab was unknown territory to Gandhi and O’Dwyer managed to keep him out of the province. He first hoped to have him deported to Burma, as the ex-emperor of Delhi had been after 1857, but only managed to have him detained in Bombay. O’Dwyer then went on to arrest and deport the two leaders of the Rowlatt protest in Amritsar: the Muslim barrister Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew, and Dr Satyapal, a medical doctor educated at Peterhouse, where he had been a friend of Nehru’s. Satyapal had made his name in a demonstration against the absurd regulation that required Indians to buy platform tickets at railway stations while Europeans could stroll on free of charge – the kind of racist nonsense that would be unthinkable were India to enjoy dominion status, like Canada or Australia.

Thus after securing repressive legislation to squash freedom of expression, O’Dwyer then managed to remove from the scene the three leaders of the inevitable protests against the new law. The protesters at Amritsar began by chanting their names, but not surprisingly the leaderless mob turned nasty and there were deaths on both sides, although the situation had more or less quietened down by the time Dyer arrived in the city. After the massacre Gandhi immediately called off the campaign, admitting that it had been a ‘Himalayan miscalculation’ to launch a satyagraha in an area ill-prepared for so delicate an operation. O’Dwyer made no such apology. On the contrary, he told the viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, a week later: ‘The Amritsar business cleared the air, and if there was to be a holocaust anywhere, and one regrets that there should be, it was best at Amritsar.’ According to the OED, this wasn’t the first time ‘holocaust’ had been used to describe a massacre, but it was possibly the first time it was identified as an air-freshener. It was certainly a holocaust for which O’Dwyer had stoked the fires. They were still smouldering twenty years later when he was shot dead in Caxton Hall by a Punjabi revolutionary.

O’Dwyer was, besides, wilfully obtuse to the global background. Adult male suffrage had just come into operation in Britain, and votes for women were on the way. India had contributed hundreds of thousands of men to the Allied war effort, with the Punjab contributing the lion’s share. Gandhi had been an energetic recruiting agent for the Raj, at great risk to his reputation. It was understood, at least by the Indian side, that if they suspended their agitation for the duration, they could expect a generous political quid pro quo. If the reforms delivered by Montagu and Chelmsford fell short of nationalist hopes, at least they were a step in the right direction. The Rowlatt Act was a step back towards despotism, the direction made even more glaring and unpalatable by O’Dwyer’s actions.

Yet it is Montagu who gets it in the neck from Lloyd. ‘His pious hope … was in tatters, shown to be the naive illusion it always was.’ By commissioning the Hunter Report, Montagu ‘was responsible for undermining support for the Raj in a period of acute difficulty. This was not the way to run an empire; it was, on the contrary, a recipe for complete and utter disaster.’ According to Lloyd, the right way was to stand firm as Birkenhead did when he was India secretary between 1924 and 1929 and ‘rebuff nationalist agitation in the way that Montagu never had’. Was it really plausible, though, that a desperately thin upper crust of British officials could continue to rule without the participation of the Indians? Is it not just as naive an illusion to imagine that Britain could have insulated India indefinitely from the liberal democracy and the racial equality before the law that were the coming thing in the mother country? Where would a straitened Britain have found the troops in the 1930s, if there had been no calming prospect of advance towards self-government and eventually independence? Yet intelligent men like O’Dwyer and less intelligent men like Dyer never stopped believing that Britain could hold India down by force ad infinitum. And Nick Lloyd appears to think so still.

Kim Wagner’s view is no less forthright, but entirely opposite. For him, the Raj was always an ‘Empire of Fear’. The massacre at Amritsar was not an exception but a terrible instance of the rule. He takes us back to the Mutiny: to the retribution exacted by the appalling Frederick Cooper, the deputy commissioner at Amritsar, who shot more than two hundred of his unarmed prisoners and let the rest suffocate in his bastion, which he proudly dubbed the ‘Black Hole of Ajnala’; and to General James Neill, who strung up hundreds of Indians on the road to avenge the terrible murders in Cawnpore and then made the murderers lick the blood off the floor before they themselves were hanged – an episode that makes us think of Dyer’s own infamous ‘crawling order’ after the massacre, under which dozens of innocent Indians were compelled to crawl on their bellies along the street where an English mission school teacher, Marcella Sherwood, had been beaten up. Dyer claimed that this street, like the well at Cawnpore into which the bodies of the British women and children had been thrown, was ‘sacred ground’. Dyer, like Neill and the equally psychopathic John Nicholson, was notable for his piety.

Wagner might also have reached further back, to Rollo Gillespie’s execution of hundreds of unarmed prisoners in a fives court after the mutiny at Vellore in 1806, which recalls Dyer’s brutal floggings on the tennis courts at the Ram Bagh – British recreational space always coming in handy as a punishment area. Strapping prisoners to the mouth of a gun and blowing them into sticky pieces which often floated down onto the dresses of lady spectators had been a regular feature of British retribution, from Hector Munro in Bengal in 1764 to Deputy Commissioner Cowan in the Punjab, who executed fifty prisoners by blowing them from guns after the Kuka outbreak in 1872. Sir Robert Davies, O’Dwyer’s predecessor as lieutenant governor of Punjab, defended Cowan wholeheartedly: ‘Blowing from a gun is an impressive and merciful manner of execution, well calculated to strike terror into the bystanders.’ Mountstuart Elphinstone, the famously liberal and humane governor of Bombay, had said almost exactly the same thing half a century earlier.

Wagner’s central purpose is to demonstrate that brutality was the driving principle of the Raj. There was, he says, nothing exceptional about Dyer and nothing extraordinary about what he did at Amritsar. The bigger fish he has his sights on here is Churchill and the subtle and effective speech by which he helped the government home in the furious debate of 8 July 1920. Churchill asserted that what happened at Jallianwala Bagh was an ‘episode which appears to me without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation.’ It had to be made clear that ‘this is not the British way of doing business.’ According to Churchill, ‘frightfulness is not a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia.’

Wagner points out that this was a bit rich, coming from a man who only a few months later was to send out the Black and Tans to terrorise the Irish, and later ordered similar therapy in Iraq, bombing villages with the aid of Arthur (not yet Bomber) Harris, who had already done some ‘policing from the air’ on the North-West Frontier. O’Dwyer too was not slow to send in the RAF to bomb rioters in Gujranwala, about fifty miles north of Amritsar on 14 April, the day after the massacre. Gerard Wathen’s wife, Melicent, a more bellicose character than her husband, recorded in her diary the relief that the British all felt when they saw RAF planes patrolling overhead (Lt Col Smith, the civil surgeon, had suggested they might bomb Amritsar too, but the city was quiet by then). The aerial threat may have been in its infancy, but already it was seen as a low-budget answer to terrorism – a comforting thesis confirmed in the age of the drone.

So frightfulness was certainly available on prescription. All the same, I think Wagner is too ready to dismiss Churchill’s argument about the exceptionalism of Amritsar. In the same way, I think he is too quick to denounce Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi for depicting the massacre as an aberration in the history of British India. From his opposite perspective, Wagner’s thesis is almost as peremptory as Lloyd’s. Yes, as imperialists like Sir John Kaye were always willing to admit, ‘India had been won by the sword and must be retained by the sword.’ Yet the disjunction between imperial repression and the more or less liberal values that prevailed back ‘home’ had been painfully evident in the India debate as far back as the unequalled critiques of Burke, Sheridan and Adam Smith. That liberal critique was never silenced, though often ineffective in the face of the greed and panic of the British who were actually in India. Corrupt practices were eventually punished and cleaned up; brutal conduct was often punished and the offenders sent home. None of this palliates the racism of imperial rule, but it did soften the practice.

Wagner really only manages to make his thesis stand up by failing to pay much attention to Dyer himself. For Amritsar was unique in its horror, in the innocence of the victims and the number of them, and in the dead-eyed callousness of the perpetrator. To put it as simply as I can: no Dyer, no massacre.

We need​ to turn back to The Butcher of Amritsar to understand just how peculiar Dyer was. Nigel Collett, himself formerly a colonel in the British army who has served in many colonial outposts, exposes in painstaking and nuanced detail both Dyer’s character and his career. Reginald Dyer, always known as Rex, was the son of a successful brewer in north India. Rather oddly, he was sent to school in Co. Cork, where he saw in his teens the lootings and burnings of the Landleaguers. His first experience of warfare was much the same as Churchill’s: burning the villages and crops of dissident tribesmen on the North-West Frontier. That sort of anti-guerrilla operation was the common lot of British officers in India. What was clear from the first, however, was that Dyer ‘was just not like everybody else’. When he attended Staff College at Camberley, the commandant told some of the young officers: ‘There is a very strange officer in your batch … I think him strange; my staff think him strange; I am minded to send him away.’ And his fellow subalterns agreed: ‘He shuns our society … When we speak to Dyer, he does not appear to grasp what we say, and looks at his questioner with uncomprehending eye; he does not appear to be all there.’ Yet Rex turned out to be popular with his men, and good fun in regimental sports. He was intensely ambitious too, hard-working, and mathematically minded – for years he was obsessed with devising an improved range-finder for artillery and submitted half a dozen patents, none of which was taken up by the army. He was, in short, an intermittently autistic geek, and one with a violent temper which often ended in his knocking down people who annoyed him.

Collett makes clear that Dyer was capable of cool and decisive leadership in actual battle, as in his exemplary relief of the siege of Thal in the Third Afghan War, which immediately followed the Amritsar massacre. But he was scarcely the officer you would send to calm a fractious crowd or to find a peaceful way out of a tight spot. Collett nicely exposes the implicit conflict between the military theory of conducting small wars – roughly speaking, what is today called ‘shock and awe’ – and military law, which stipulated then as now minimum force in dispersing any unlawful assembly and firing only when absolutely necessary: principles known to Dyer from his two years at Staff College and totally disregarded by him at the Jallianwala Bagh.

Dyer was also unnervingly indifferent to the orders he was given. When at last he received an active command, on India’s western border with Persia, he disregarded his clear instructions, which were to pick up any German agents inciting disaffection. Instead, he proceeded to take over sizeable chunks of eastern Persia, much to the alarm of Chelmsford and his suite up in Simla. Rex’s uncalled-for incursions imploded only when he ran out of food and had to scuttle back over the frontier, which didn’t deter him from publishing in his retirement a boastful and largely mendacious account of his exploits, The Raiders of the Sarhad.

Equally unnerving was his insistence that in order to muster the authority required to accomplish his mission, he needed to be promoted to general. When Simla was slow to answer this impudent request, he had the regimental tailor run up a set of crossed swords and red tabs, so that he could play the part. The phrase ‘loose cannon’ might have been invented for him. Chelmsford later told George V that had Dyer not succumbed to a convenient bout of dysentery, he would have recalled him. Certainly the mess he made in the Sarhad prevented him from ever being promoted beyond temporary brigadier. It’s worth noting too that nobody actually ordered him to take command at Amritsar. The place happened to fall within his jurisdiction as commandant of Jullundur District, and he simply rolled up – and paid little or no attention to what anyone on the spot told him.

He was a catastrophe waiting to happen. Pace Nick Lloyd, it would have been unthinkable for his actions at Amritsar not to have been subjected to a searching public inquiry. Indian nationalists caricatured the Hunter Report as a whitewash. In fact, Hunter made it absolutely clear that there had been no conspiracy to take over the Punjab and that Dyer’s conduct had been deplorable. It was only the incorrigible adulation of the diehards that saved him from receiving the much harsher treatment he deserved.

For the British Raj, the long process of coming to terms with the modern world had begun forty years before the massacre, with Lord Dufferin inviting the leaders of the newly formed Indian National Congress to a garden party at Government House. It continued through the gradual Indianisation of the legal profession and the civil service and the rise of Indian entrepreneurs to the Morley-Minto reforms of 1909 and the Montagu-Chelmsford reforms ten years later. The whole thing was agonisingly slow and resisted by the diehards every step of the way, but by the 1930s they had been reduced to a rump on the Tory backbenches, mocked as dinosaurs even by their fellow Tories. It was an ungainly and unlovely process, which even Gandhi’s indefatigable resourcefulness was incapable of hurrying along. But it did move. And it would have moved faster if between them O’Dwyer and the temporary brigadier hadn’t got in the way. If only the commandant or the viceroy had sent Rex Dyer away.

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Vol. 41 No. 8 · 18 April 2019

In his review of my book Amritsar 1919, Ferdinand Mount insists that both General Dyer and the massacre were unique (LRB, 4 April). The violence of Jallianwala Bagh was all down to the personality of one officer: ‘No Dyer, no massacre,’ as Mount puts it. This despite the fact that I provide numerous examples and much evidence to the contrary: the review itself cites several other instances in which British officers in India from 1857 onward resorted to exemplary and indiscriminate massacres. Granted, there were always critics of such atrocities, yet the logic pursued by Dyer at Amritsar never went out of fashion, as anyone familiar with British military practice later on in Ireland, Palestine, Malaya or Kenya would recognise.

So why is there this insistence on focusing on Dyer’s personality to explain the Amritsar massacre? Because it is much easier to confine the racialised violence of the British Empire to the actions of a few misguided individuals than to understand it as a systemic aspect of colonial rule. To acknowledge the pervasive violence of the British Empire, however, is not about judging the past by modern standards or ignoring the brutality of other imperialist regimes. A critical approach to the history of the Empire is not the same as a critique of the Empire. Indeed, reductive labels– ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – are deeply unhelpful when seeking a genuine understanding of the complexities of the past. In 2019, people in Britain have nothing to be ashamed about, as long as they are willing to face the oftentimes uncomfortable realities of the empire instead of taking comfort in some ahistorical moral calculation according to which railways make up for massacres. We are not responsible for the past, but we are responsible for what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

Kim Wagner
Queen Mary University of London

Ferdinand Mount writes of ‘the absurd regulation that required Indians to buy platform tickets at railway stations while Europeans could stroll on free of charge – the kind of racist nonsense that would be unthinkable were India to enjoy dominion status, like Canada or Australia’. This would have been unthinkable, no doubt, in a self-governing India. But dominion status still allowed for plenty of racist exclusion – as does the dispensation that succeeded it. To pick just two examples from Canada’s dominion period: Chinese-Canadians gained the right to vote in federal elections only in 1947, and aboriginal Canadians only in 1960.

The federal Indian Act still specifies who is and is not, in principle, eligible for ‘Indian Status’ and so entitled to sundry legal benefits. The federal government has pledged to do away with this paternalism, but pledges have always been cheap, while obstacles to reform remain formidable. Racism now poses as liberal enlightenment. Non-aboriginal Canadians sometimes stoutly insist on complete equality of status, and an end to ‘privilege’. In the same breath, they’ll say that the First Nations were ‘defeated’ (an absurd falsehood) ‘and should just get over it’ (more paternalism). I would be surprised to see a truly nation-to-nation form of relationship in my lifetime.

Bob Beck

Vol. 41 No. 9 · 9 May 2019

Ferdinand Mount refers to Rex Dyer as ‘an intermittently autistic geek, and one with a violent temper which often ended in his knocking down people who annoyed him’ (LRB, 4 April). Autistic individuals are engaged in a struggle to function effectively in sensory environments that they typically experience as chaotic and distressing. When they behave in ‘challenging’ ways, they are communicating the sensory distress they are experiencing. Autism is a lifelong developmental disability; one cannot be ‘intermittently’ autistic.

Rorie Fulton
Gwernogle, Carmarthenshire

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