The Railway Man Remembered

Submitted by edg on Thu, 11 Oct '12 8.47am

Eric Lomax, who wrote movingly about his experiences of being tortured as a Japanese POW and his subsequent reconcilation with one of his torturers, died on Monday at the age of 93.

I reviewed his book The Railway Man when it first came out in 1995 for a local magazine. I still remember his being an incredible story, providing a profound insight into the power of apology.

The film has been adapted into a major feature film with Colin Firth playing Eric Lomax and Nicole Kidman his wife, due for release next year.

In his memory, here's my original article from 1995.

Eric Lomax RIP.

Ghosts of the River Kwai

Without trains, Eric Lomax would never have met his wife – or his torturers.

His book may be a horrifying personal testimony of torture, humiliation and suffering at the hands of Japanese soldiers – but it also provides a grain of hope.

For The Railway Man, by former POW Eric Lomax, contains an extraordinary reconciliation with one of his Japanese torturers – a man he hated more than any other on Earth.

Lomax was a signalman in Singapore when war broke out, and was among the ragged legions of POWs illegally conscripted to build the murderous Burma-Siam railway.

Steam trains have in fact haunted Lomax’s life. As a child in Edinburgh, he was fascinated by their power and engineering beauty. They symbolised a world of reassuring predictability.

Later, as a POW, a railway provided a background to a brutal regime of torture. He recalls being made to stand to attention for hours in the burning sun after being caught building a home-made radio. Such an offence was often punished by firing squad.

In the case of Lomax and his four accomplices they were beaten senseless with pick-axe shafts. The doctor assigned to “mend” them counted 900 blows. The Japanese also discovered that Lomax made a detailed hand-drawn map of the railway. More interrogations, beatings and water torture followed.

To this day, he vividly recalls the cold, clinical manner of the English-speaking interpreter: “I was sick of the sight of him. I would have killed him for his endless insistence,” he writes. Lomax spent the rest of the war years in solitary confinement in the notorious Changi prison in Singapore. He survived, but his wartime experience stayed with him for years.

Once liberated, Lomax found himself in a solitary, confusing world. “I had grown up appallingly,” he writes. He was harder, colder, unemotional. The “Unbridgeable distance” between himself and his wife ended his marriage. For years he suffered nightmares, flashbacks and panic attacks.

Then, at 60, Lomax fell in love – on a train. He remarried and decided to confront his ghosts. He became the first POW to seek help from the medical Foundation for the Victims of Torture (MFVT).

“He needed time, and he he needed recognition of his tragedy,” remembers Helen Bamber. ‘It takes a long time to trust again once you’ve suffered that kind of inhumanity.”

Lomax discovered that Nagase Takashi, his hated interpreter, was still alive. Takashi had suffered nightmares, too, and had described Lomax’s torture in a book of his own.

Lomax still wanted “to do him harm”. But Patti, his wife, took control. She wrote demanding answers from Takashi. His response was so human that Lomax softened. It took time, but eventually in 1993 they arranged to meet by the River Kwai bridge.

They talked and talked.

Eventually, Lomax gave Takashi a pardon in the form of a letter.

Victims do not forget being tortured. But Lomax, speaking at his home in Berwick-on-Tweed, insists he has wiped the slate clean for this one (“just one”) remorseful man.

“He couldn’t possibly have stopped the torture with his status in the Japanese army,” he asserts in his quiet Edinburgh brogue. But at one point, Lomax says, “he represented the Japanese army to me”.

Writing The Railway Man was important for Lomax, but difficult. At one level, it was a therapeutic expression of deep feelings. At another, he wanted to write, “straight history”.

Like thousands of Pows, he believes “a permanent apology” is overdue from the Japanese government. His story is bound to help.

“But the third objective may never be achieved,” he says. “I want to get other people to think about circumstances in which they might forgive – because the ordinary person concerned with the Japanese automaticaly will not forgive. I’d like to see people think about it more.”

The Railway Man is published by Jonathan Cope