The Railway Man – Review

This autobiography was published shortly after the novel Trainspotting. In many ways it could not be more different, except for the fact that author Eric Lomax’s passion for trains led to a sequence of events which makes the lives of the characters in Irvine Welsh’s drug-fuelled classic seem like a breeze in comparison.

Although Lomax ’s upbringing, between the wars in Edinburgh, sounds quite middle class, these were hard and unstable times in general. Right from the beginning his fascination with trains was to prove significant. While out indulging his passion for locomotives, he met a man who introduced him to the Baptist church. That’s where Lomax first encountered the woman who would become his first wife. Their chaste romance was interrupted by the outbreak of another war. However, they did get engaged before Lomax set off for Asia with the Royal Signals.

Well written as it is, one of the things that struck me about this book was the formal tone of much of the language: “On a long stretch between Sungei Patani and Alor Star, in the north west of Malaya, I realized that I needed a latrine very urgently. My purpose was becoming extremely essential…”

Do such polite descriptions of experiences, which were sometimes nothing less than horrific, reduce the impact on today’s reader? It may be partly explained as a generation thing, since Lomax was already in his mid-seventies when this (his first book) was published. But I can’t help wondering how a no holds barred description of events might read. At times, you get the impression that Lomax is playing down what he and his colleagues experienced as Japanese POW’s, even if some of the events are still shocking.

This brings to mind the ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality we often see represented in war films. Especially when centered on the officer class. Indeed, Lomax is critical of David Lean’s famous The Bridge on the River Kwai for creating a false impression: “Whoever saw such well fed, POW’s?”

In that sense, it will be interesting to see if Jonathan Teplitzky can right some of these wrongs and provide a more realistic film version. His movie of The Railway Man will be released this year or next. Colin ‘King’s Speech’ Firth is to play the lead and should be at home in the role of an officer, and in the sheltered social environment of Lomax’s youth, but will we see a more genuine portrayal of the brutal and squalid conditions? I have my doubts; but that’s a review for another day.

Nonetheless, Lomax still has a harrowing story to tell – not escapist reading for a beach holiday. The appalling conditions and suffering that Eric and other Allied soldiers endured, includes long spells of solitary confinement in tiny cells, crawling with strange creatures and filth. Medical care was only provided for the lucky ones; usually officers like Lomax, when they were in real danger of dying and their Japanese captors feared that valuable information about the war could be lost.

Physical torture was only part of it. Standing in the sun all day was one such punishment – something you might recall from David Lean’s film. Lomax was beaten within an inch of his life after he and his group had been caught trying to use radio equipment. But water torture is said to be the worst. Despite repeatedly half-drowning the victims it does not leave any noticeable marks on them.

There is no clichéd happy ending when the war is over here either. Lomax arrives back in Southampton to news that can only be described as devastating. I was surprised at this point to see I still had about a quarter of the book to read.

Of course, the road back into civilian life is a long one and is oft-neglected altogether. The main drama would seem to be over and one is expected to return to normality. But Lomax’s marriage doesn’t last long as he has serious problems adapting and dealing with the trauma of his war experiences.

In fact, it is here that the book gathers extra momentum, culminating in a fascinating reunion in later life between Lomax and the Japanese captor he hated most.


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