‘Some time the hating has to stop.’
Eric Lomax died before he could see The Railway Man completed, in 2012. His quiet dignity shines throughout this concise, moving account of his experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. Non-fiction isn’t normally my bag, but I made an exception for this autobiography. And I’m so glad I did.
Our cultural heritage is filled with the gut-wrenching horror of the Nazi concentration camps, the Holocaust and even the gruelling Gulags of Soviet Russia. Is this because many of these war crimes hit so close to our Western homes? Perhaps.
But this brave tale unearths a relatively little-known corner of the Second World War; that of the East Asian prison camps, and the work of the Kempeitai (Japan’s answer to the Gestapo).
After a swift defeat in Southeast Asia in 1942, the Allied forces’ army was captured by the Japanese. Lomax tells how ominous stories of their enemy’s ruthlessness filtered down the ranks, as the 50,000-strong army made its sluggish 15 mile journey across Malaya to face its captors at Changi.
Sprawled across vast camps, the restless army is forced to settle in for the war’s stretch. So the men, fascinated by tinkering with technology, build a radio. They’re grateful that they haven’t yet been sent to work on the infamous Burma-Siam Railway, which was tantamount to a death sentence but anxious to hear news of the action at the front.
One day, the Japanese do a surprise raid on their huts; thus begins years of torment at the hands of their enemies. Over the next few years, Lomax lives through interrogations, torture and unimaginable physical deprivations.
‘If it seems absurd to send prisoners to gaol, what our captors were in fact doing was consigning us to a lower circle of hell… If the state of Limbo […] is […] populated by ghosts suspended between human life and hell, I think I will recognise it when I see it’, writes Lomax.
The memory would continue to haunt him for the rest of his life.
There are some experiences which we must carry with us always, for better or for worse. Lomax shows that even the worst of situations aren’t irredeemable. His touching reunion with one of his tormentors, 50 years later, reminded me of JK Rowling’s words of wisdom about the troll: ‘There are some things you can’t share without ending up liking each other, and knocking out a twelve-foot mountain troll is one of them.’* Clearly a World War is another.
The movie of The Railway Man premieres in UK cinemas on January 10th. If you’re curious about what Lomax’s wife made of the film, and Kidman’s portrayal of her, The Guardian ran this fascinating interview with Nicole Kidman and Patti Lomax.
Here’s a little preview: ‘One of my sons is a real cynic and he said he couldn’t see how a beautiful blond lady could play his mother, and when he saw the film, he said: “She’s done really well, Mum, she’s really caught you.”
View the film trailer here.