Long road to reconciliation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 1995, 12:00am

AS a youngster growing up in Scotland, Eric Lomax scoured the city and countryside learning all there was to know about the railway and locomotives in Britain. It was a romanticism which became an intensely personal mania during the pre-World War II steam era.

Through a wicked irony, in 1942 when Lomax was a British Army signals expert, he was captured by the Japanese in Singapore and put to work with thousands of allied prisoners on the infamous Burma Railway.

The Railway Man is Lomax's compelling account of the horrors he suffered and witnessed as a PoW, reduced to an emaciated and psychologically scarred husk, and of the half century it has taken to find peace - in himself and with his former captors.

The extraordinariness of the story he tells lies in the fact it is being related at all. Lomax suffered teeth-and bone-shattering beatings, systematic torture at the hands of the notorious Japanese Kempetai, disease, starvation and a string of other soul-destroying deprivations during his three years as a PoW. That he survived as others around him perished is a testament to his strength of character and resourcefulness.

His blow by blow descriptions of the brutality and inhumane treatment meted out later when he was a guest of the Japanese Army Imperial Prison Service in Singapore's Outram Road - 'a place in which the living were turned into ghosts, starved, diseased creatures wasted down to their skeletal outlines' - and, later, in Changi, are not for the faint-hearted.

One day he chances on a single grain of rice on the ground, scoops it up and devours it as if it would ease his gnawing hunger. About the same time he discovers that he can close his hand around his upper arm and that his stomach is dangerously close to his spine.

Rather than defeating him, the realisation that he looks like the other skeletons with skin stretched over them provides him with the impetus to self-inflict further pain and suffering in a bid to be moved into the care of other allied prisoners and doctors in Changi; hence his deliberate fall from the 17th step of a flight of metal prison stairs and his feigning imminent death. But Lomax does not set out to shock and it is perhaps this measured and sincere tone which leaves him understating some particularly brutal encounters and merely hinting at others, giving his harrowing story added forcefulness.

One is left with the impression that the writing of this book has been cathartic for a man who lived with such memories for half a century in virtual silence, unable to express his feelings to anyone except others who had been through similar ordeals.

His book is an exorcism of demons which would stir in his waking and sleeping hours, fraying his nerves, recalling his worst memories in vivid nightmares.

How he came to write this outpouring of intimate secrets and painful recollections, which he could previously not even share with his wife, is in itself a poignant part of the story.

For years after Japan's surrender, the anti-climax of his release and his return to the indifference of unknowing friends and family in Britain, he was often haunted by the image of a young Japanese interpreter - 'Lomax, you will be killed shortly' - during one of the torture sessions.

As the gulf of silence between him and his wife widened during his post-war drift through civilian and family life, the words of the Japanese interpreter kept coming back. Until one day, when Lomax read an article about a Japanese former interpreter who had dedicated his life to atoning for his countrymen's actions in World War II.

Finally they meet again and Lomax's description of this unnerving encounter in Thailand is deeply moving. His honesty left me applauding his courage, and wondering about the private hell of uncounted others unable to exorcise their demons.

The railway man, by Eric Lomax, Jonathan Cape $205