Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Book Notes: The Railway Man by Eric Lomax

Eric Lomax' autobiography is a traumatic, disturbing and sobering story - with a very surprising twist in its tale. In 1930s Edinburgh the young Lomax was an avid train-spotter (which gives the first clue to the title), who loved exploring the lines around Scotland's capital and watching engines like Gresley's famed 'Pacifics' hauling their crack London-bound expresses past his home. Alongside his job in the civil service, and his attendance at an Edinburgh church, there was little remarkable about Lomax's life - until the outbreak of WWII.

Captured by the Japanese in the fall of Singapore, Lomax was amongst the many thousands of British soldiers who shared in the ignominy of Britain's greatest ever military defeat. His experiences at the hands of the Japanese form the central narrative of this book, because they dominated the remainder of his life. While forced to work on the Burma-Siam railway construction project (the second clue to the title), Lomax helped to build and conceal a tiny radio to hear BBC reports about the progress of the war. When this was discovered, the Japanese subjected Lomax (and others) to years of physical and psychological abuse which distorted and scarred him.

It seems that in the 1940s little was understood about the psychological effects of torture, and even less about how to treat them. Despite being in a mess, Lomax was discharged from the army declared fit. This disaster was worsened by the attitudes of other soldiers who thought that POWs had 'sat out the war' and should start working; and by the public who did not wish to hear about defeats in the Far East, but only to celebrate the victories in the European theatre. He was effectively silenced by 1940s/50s Britain - when he so desperately needed to talk. Left to his own devices then, Lomax tried to build a normal life, but was unable to communicate, make decisions, cope with authority, develop relationships, handle conflict or negotiate normal human interaction. This ended up costing him many friendships, his faith and his first marriage.

The 'twist in the tale' comes in various forms - in the last years of Lomax' long life. His second wife managed to find the help he needed through the charity "The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture". This process culminated in a remarkable visit to Japan and a meeting with one of the guards who had played a significant role in his mistreatment, Mr Nagase. For decades Lomax had fantasised about killing Nagase, after he woke night after night re-living his torture in horrific nightmares. Tracking him down however lead to the discovery that his abuser had also been traumatised by the war, and had spent decades racked with guilt and remorse. In fact Mr Nagase had become a leading figure in the Japanese anti-militarism movement. Mr Nagase had fought against resurgent militarism and its associated denial of the realities of the abuses of POWs in the 1940s. Amazingly the two men not only formally exchanged repentance and forgiveness - but actually became friends.

This is an important story in many ways. It demonstrates the long-term effects on survivors of the evil of torture, and their families at a point in history in which there are many accusations that our country's allies use torture in interrogation. Water-boarding was not invented in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay - but is described in horrendous detail by Lomax as taking place in WWII. It also highlights the importance of investing in the healing of the psychological and mental effects of war as much as the more obvious physical ones. Finally though, the story is beautifully completed when decades of hate and loathing are ended with the beauty of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is unclear from the book whether and glimmers of Lomax' youthful Christian faith survived at all through his experiences. While he bitterly rails against the pettiness and stupidity of the church, he doesn't really say what he finally believed in - if anything. Nevertheless, the forgiveness he offered Mr Nagase is profoundly in line with the highest ideals of his lost faith.

The Railway Man is apparently being made into a major film this year, and Colin Firth is being cast as Eric Lomax.

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