Blood on the tracks

In the war, Eric Lomax was captured and tortured by the Japanese. Fifty years later, he met one of his tormentors. By Tony Gould; The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, Cape, pounds 15.99
The night before I started reading this book I watched two television programmes. The first was about the effects of Hiroshima on the lives of three survivors; the second documented the experiences of the "comfort women" (an Orwellian misnomer if ever there was one) in Japanese-controlled Indonesia during the Second World War, and the determination of one of them to speak out years later, after hearing that some Korean women were suing the Japanese government. So in the final analysis, were the Japanese more sinned against than sinning, victims more than villains? It is a naive question, but the juxtaposition of these two programmes invites it. Eric Lomax's book eschews easy answers and offers instead one man's bitter experience of Japanese brutality and his long and lonely struggle to come to terms with its after-effects.

The danger of precising such a story is that the reader may feel there's no need to read the book, the reviewer having provided the gist of it in a more palatable form. But this will not do in this case; the book has to be read.

The bare bones of the story make it sound almost banal, if harrowing: a young Scotsman, a bit of a loner, obsessed with trains (though "trainspotter" is not a word he would use: "For me this was an almost scholarly passion, a `subject' as valid as mathematics ..."), joins up at the outbreak of war, gains a commission in the Royal Signals, is - eventually - posted to Malaya, captured in Singapore and sent to work on the notorious Siam- Burma railway. There his involvement in manufacturing and operating a radio receiver lands him in trouble with the Japanese equivalent of the Gestapo and he is beaten up, tortured, tried and sentenced to several years in prison - a relief when what you're anticipating is the death sentence. In Singapore's Outram Road prison he is nearly starved to death before escaping, first through ill health and then through a staged but nonetheless dangerous "accident", to the relative comforts of Changi, an internment camp run by its occupants.

His postwar career is conventional enough on the surface: marriage (to his prewar fiancee), children, civil service (including a spell in the colonial service in Ghana on the brink of independence), personnel management leading to an academic post in industrial relations at Strathclyde University. But beneath the surface, things are very different: he is plagued by recurring nightmares; his marriage is a kind of prison; there is no one to whom he can talk of his deepest experiences.

A chance meeting on a train (where else?) with the woman who becomes his second wife opens a new chapter in his life. But this marriage, too, is in danger of turning sour through Lomax's fatal tendency to withdraw emotionally when challenged. Only this time neither Lomax nor his wife, Patti, is prepared to leave it at that. The older he gets, the further the war recedes, the more determined Lomax becomes to avenge himself in some way on his Japanese captors; while his wife is more concerned with finding suitable treatment for his emotionally repressed state.

Like railway lines, the two aims run parallel for a while. Through the splendid Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, founded by Helen Bamber, Lomax is finally able to give expression to his bottled- up feelings and experiences, and by a truly extraordinary coincidence he learns of the whereabouts of one of his Japanese interrogators, Nagase Takashi, now a dedicated worker for peace and reconciliation. At this point in the story the waters become slightly muddied by the intervention of television. A film-maker inevitably sees the dramatic potential of a confrontation between a torture victim and his interrogator, and there is a danger that something of the deepest personal significance to two individuals will become public, staged and kitsch. Though this does not happen, and the end is genuinely moving, there remains an uncomfortable sense of cameras hovering nearby. In this, as in other parts of the book, there is evidence of highly skilful editing, so it is no surprise to find Lomax paying tribute to Neil Belton, his editor at Cape. But here, the editing is almost too skilful, playing down the involvement of television at the expense of verisimilitude. It's a quibble, I know, but it introduces an artful element in a story notable for its truth to life.

That said, The Railway Man remains the work of Eric Lomax, and his personality is its focus. From early on in the book there are echoes of Edwardian fiction, of Kipling and Conrad in particular. In attempting to explain his passion for railways, Lomax uses the phrase, "the poetry of great engines", and the attraction of engineering has moral as well as aesthetic overtones. In the Royal Signals, he writes, "our text was The Admiralty Handbook of Wireless Telegraphy, a theoretical tome in two volumes", a line that recalls Marlowe's discovery of An Enquiry Into Some Points of Seamanship in a godforsaken trading station up the Congo in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Marlowe comments: "Not a very enthralling book; but at the first glance you could see there a singleness of intention, an honest concern for the right way of going to work, which made these humble pages, thought out so many years ago, luminous with another than a professional light."

This moral sense of "the right way of going to work" informs Lomax's account, largely unconsciously I suspect, as when he compares the Burma- Siam railway with the Pyramids as great civil engineering disasters, and writes, "I knew there was something careless and therefore evil about the project". In this context, he is surely justified in rejecting the belittling label "trainspotter" as a description of his "scholarly passion".

Placed beside that, his pre-war involvement in "the Chapel" - "the moral conviction of being saved, that really I had found God, helped me survive what came later" - seems relatively unimportant (and did not long survive the war). "No one is a hero to themselves", he writes. But Eric Lomax's "stubbornness" - a word he uses frequently about himself - is undoubtedly heroic. It stiffened his resistance to the Japanese and enabled him to carry on through the long, lonely years of peace that brought him no peace, pursuing his quest to the not-so-bitter end. I'd call him a hero.