Stephen Kearney Review - December 2020
The Railway Man
One of the things that gives life its magic is the accidental, the freak, the one off, the random, the whole process of being in the right place at the right time or, alternately, the wrong place at the wrong time – the surprises! It is often not so much the event in itself, but what it can lead to or the information that emerges as a result. For instance, while reading tales of the great explorers, I often used to wonder how they managed to carry out complicated negotiations with the chiefs or kings in those exotic, faraway lands. I mean, what language did they speak? Did they just speak loudly and slowly in English? Or Hebrew? I once had a call from Israel and when I explained to the man that my Hebrew wasn’t so good, he continued, speaking slowly and loudly – in Hebrew! Strangely, most people never seem to ask about language, perhaps only occasionally referring to the almost invisible interpreter, like it was a free internet service. How often do news reports ever mention the language used by the various protagonists or issuers of statements? Only once have I ever seen this pursued in a historical setting. In relating a story of newly arrived English settlers in America in the early 17th Century, the writer details the negotiations between the immigrants and the locals through, of course, the interpreter, supplied by an agency, no doubt. So how on earth did this interpreter, this local, this Native American, this Red Indian, learn English? He could hardly have taken a correspondence course. For once, the writer decided to pursue the issue. It emerged that the man had actually lived in England for a while, having hitched his way east, and then returned home, where presumably, he set up his interpreting business in anticipation of a transatlantic flood of illegal immigrants.
I love the story told by the BBC reporter travelling by train across a very remote part of western China around 1978, something, he lamented, that would not be possible today due to time constraints and constant pressure to deliver. Out of a sense of the now prohibited idle curiosity, he dismounted at an isolated station in the Chinese equivalent of the middle of nowhere. He was soon approached by a woman who asked “Do you speak English?” A very interesting conversion followed, the woman conducting herself in flawless English. To say he was curious would have been an understatement. It emerged that she was the wife of high party official who had fallen out of favour and had been banished to a faraway province of the non-exotic type, the Chinese equivalent of the disgraced Soviet official in the Stalin era being sent to manage a logging camp in deepest Siberia. This highly educated woman was being driven out of her mind with boredom and lack of intelligent conversation. So, every week she would cycle the 30 miles to the station to meet the train on the off-chance she would find someone with whom she could have a useful, or at least an interesting, exchange of views.
Conversely, Dervla Murphy in Full Tilt, her first travel book of foreign adventures published in 1965, describes an encounter and conversation with a Bulgarian border guard who spoke fluent English. It never seemed to occur to her to ask him where he’d learnt it! I almost felt like tearing up the book in frustration. Mind you, she was a young woman at the time. Her later books demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for penetratitive inquiry and reflection.
My episode is not in the same league at all – not even within artillery range of it – but there is still something special about it, at least for me. It was in late August 2013 when I found myself in a petrol station in the Bournemouth area of England, in deepest Stinlo (Somewhere That Is Not LOndon). As I waited for my friend to pay for her fuel, I noticed a wooden rack of used books among the car accessoy selves. Anyone who has spent time going through random second-hand book stalls will know what an utterly futile exercise it usually is: normally you give up after about three books and turn your attention to something else, like gazing out the window. Many a time, when presented with a phalanx of books, like in charity shops, you don’t even make a start. You just know what the outcome will be. Ironically, the more books on display, the less likely you are to look. But this bookrack was quite small, a mere token effort. Idly, I ran my eye along the small selection and noticed ‘The Railway Man’. I’d never heard of it but I am interested in railways so I thought I’d have a quick look. Now, one of the things I’ve learnt through bitter experience is to read a little of a book before purchase. You want to know if the writer can write! It ain’t necessarily so. Don’t be fooled by sales: ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins has sold over a million copies, yet it is very badly written: I gave that up after one chapter. Anyone of a certain age would remember ‘Spycatcher’ by the rather nasty-sounding Peter Wright (d.1995). Originally projected to sell 40,000 copies , it sold over 2 million. Does this mean it was a fantastic read? No. It was a rotten, badly written, read and I gave it up after a few chapters. Indeed, Private Eye asked sarcastically if anyone knew anyone who had actually read the whole book. It was that bad. So why did people, including myself, buy it? Because Margaret Thatcher gave it the best possible marketing boost, awarding the book the holy grail of publication publicity: she tried to have it banned!
Similarly, subject matter is no guarantee of readability either. In the early 90s, the author of a new publication, ‘The World the Railways Made’ was interviewed on Radio 4. He was affable and interesting and I liked the way he talked about the impact of the railways on society in the early days. A fluent speaker, I assumed, would be a fluent writer. When the book was later offered by my book club, I snapped it up. What a let-down: I gave that up after one chapter too.
Biggest shock of the lot, however, was Save The Triumph Bonneville by John Rosamund, chairman of the Triumph Workers’ Co-operative which ran the old Triumph motorcycle factory from 1976 to 1983. Still in its cellophane wrapper when I chanced across it in a remaindered bookshop in early 2013, I could not believe my luck. The Triumph Bonneville (the 1959–83 job, not the current imposter) is very much my line of country so this book would be the most interesting in the world – from my point of view, at any rate. It couldn’t be boring if it tried. I settled down ready to devour and memorise the 440 odd pages of text and photographs. Fifty pages later, I was moved to send the following email to the publisher, a self proclaimed automotive specialist:
Save the Triumph Bonneville – the inside story of the Meriden Workers’ Co-op by John Rosamund
Dear Sir or Madam,
Being a lifelong aficionado of the old Triumph twins and a new buyer of one of the last machines to come out of the co-op, I thought myself very lucky to chance upon the book above in a discount bookstore. I settled down to a good read – and gave up after fifty pages. I found it to be laboured, meandering and tedious. What could have been an excellent story was turned into a complete bore.
I accept that John Rosamond has a very interesting tale to tell but he is no writer. Isn’t this where a publishing company is supposed to come in? Did not one editor ever look at the manuscript before it went to print? As for the reviews on your site, I assume they are either highly edited, totally out of context or downright false. I have read many books on matters automotive over the years but this is by far the worst. Indeed, it is the only book that has ever prompted me to write a letter of complaint.
I suppose that’s a first of sorts.
Stephen Kearney – on the road since ’69
In accordance with modern business practice, there was no reply.
The moral of the story is taste and try, before you buy. I tried some tasting. The front of the book announces that The Railway Man is the ‘winner of the 1996 NCR Book Award’ – whatever that is – National Cash Registers? I don’t place much store on book awards in any case. There is only one test that matters – reading! I opened the book at a random page and read the following:
Answering these questions was easy enough, but trying to make them understand the truth I was telling them was a different matter. I was floundering in the gap between their knowledge and mine, and was suddenly the victim of my whole upbringing and culture; for my interrogators were from a relatively backward society. It is hard to imagine this now, after half a century of astonishingly technological development in Japan, but in 1943 the Japanese army was a technically primitive organisation, reflecting in this the partly feudal state of its homeland. These two men sitting across the table from me simply did not know enough to judge what I was telling them, which was that the technical problems of making a transmitter were too great, and that no group of prisoners with the pathetic materials available to them could work a miracle.
I hadn’t a clue what the man was writing about but two things stood , nay, leapt, out: it was interesting and the author could stick a sentence together. Eric Lomax was in – and at fifty pence, which went to charity, it wasn’t exactly a high risk strategy.
I settled down to read this previously unheard of book – and writer. Indeed, so far as I can make out, it is the author’s one and only full length publication.
This beautifully written and fascinating book is essentially the autobiography of a lonely man, an only child, brought up in Scotland. Born in 1919, he seems to have been reared in a strict and narrow cultural environment. An obviously curious and intelligent child, he developed a relationship with the world around him and beyond through machines, railways giving him a particular delight. As he moved into his early manhood, he sought escape the strict parental discipline by joining a Chapel. It took him some time to realise that he had exchanged one rigidity for another. Written when he was in his seventies, Lomax had developed a wonderful perspective and a capacity for understanding himself and those around him, both good and bad. In simple terms, it is very clear that he completely outgrew the narrow world of his upbringing.
Agreed 19, in the pre-war part of 1939, he joined the Royal Corps of Signals, gaining his commission in December 1940. Posted to Malaya , he was captured following the fall of Singapore in 1942. It was only then, in captivity, that he saw his first Japanese soldier. It seems that Lomax, still a signals officer, was quite well treated at first, certainly better than most prisoners, probably because of his skill in telecommunications. I suppose you could say he was valuable property. Indeed, I was surprised at the amount of freedom granted to him and his immediate group, given the popular perception of Japanese repression and, indeed, brutality towards prisoners of war. For instance, I was amazed that prisoners in this particular group were paid! Not only that, they could go into some local villages under very weak guard and buy in local stores. He did point out however, that given the nature of the terrain, escape would have been nearly impossible. And then it all turned nasty, very nasty. It started when his hut was found to have a radio receiver during an apparently random search, though he later suspected an informer. Then indeed, the brutality started in earnest, noticeably more focused than the random variety dished out before, mainly at the hands of Korean guards, aping the behaviour of their own oppressors. For serious , no-nonsense, brutality you turned Japanese. In an almost Kafkaesque charade, he was then sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for being in a hut with a radio receiver.
What I particularly like about the man’s writing is the way he simply describes what happened to him. Despite his considerable sufferings, he refrains from any anti-Japanese diatribe. He describes what he saw, some of it not very complimentary to the British establishment either, and seems able to retain a refreshing distance from popular views on the subject. He observed that the Japanese seemed to be an odd mix of rigid discipline and lazy inefficiency.
For anyone researching the Malaya campaign 1941-42, I would recommend this book. While simply describing his own experiences there as part of a wider autobiography, he somehow gives a better overview and explanation of the British collapse than many apparently far more focused and academic works of double the size.
It was only when he returned to Scotland after the war that he began realising how much he had changed. He married his pre-war sweetheart, a member of the Chapel congregation, almost as though the war had never happened.
We were happy at first, as excited as any young lovers can be, but we did not know each other well enough to have signed away our lives together. She was pretty, articulate and gifted with a fine singing voice, but her culture was limited by the nature of her upbringing. Her only world had been that of the Chapel and her parents’ friends. She had stood still in the quiet determined way that people who are sure of themselves, and who have never been exposed to influences from outside their circle, can sometimes do for their entire lives.
(Try talking to a Jehovah Witness about the Natural History Museum – “I don’t need to go there.”) Lomax makes the interesting comment that some of the home population had no understanding of the returning soldiers. His real formative years had occurred during those four years in Malaya. He had a lot to tell but had a wife that had no awareness and no interest.
I was expected to behave as though my formative years had not happened. My fumbling attempts to begin a description of the effects of what my comrades and I had experienced ……… were brushed aside. She naturally felt that she had had a hard time of it too: for civilians there had been the difficulty of getting eggs, the air raid warnings, the waiting in lines. She simply did not know, and I am sure tens of thousands of returning soldiers walked bewildered into the same incomprehension. It was as though we were now speaking a different language to our own people. The hurt I felt silenced me as effectively as a gag. It was hard to talk but my wife made it easy not to.
With the passage of time, he became more and more aware of the excruciatingly narrow and petty world of the Chapel where members cultivated feuds and vendettas over utter trivia, like taking offence at receiving their posted out slice of the wedding cake a few days after some others. Lomax makes the pithy comment “These were people not even aware of their own entrapment”, later adding “They would never dream of going anywhere or learning anything new”.
This intolerance over things so surprisingly trivial was very hard for me to take. I had felt less morbid vindictiveness towards the Japanese guards …. than these seemingly normal Scottish middle class people were displaying to their own blood relatives. Marriage can be like incarceration without a key, as I was beginning to find out.
Of course relationships can change and develop throughout our lives – or not, as the case may be. In September 1968 I entered a college of technology in Dublin. I was utterly rudderless going nowhere – no change there, cynics might remark. There I met a bunch of guys who put me on to the two wheel trip – motorcycles, in other words. One in particular who rode a huge Triumph 350, gleaming in red and chrome, did more to put me on to bikes in general and Triumphs in particular than anyone else, fostering an interest that is still burning bright over 50 years later. I was always over at his place and we talked bikes morning noon and night. My first Triumph, bought in 1972, was the very one that had impressed me so much just four years before. This looked like the beginnings of a life-long friendship, in the pattern of so many that start at college or university. Yes, I gradually became aware of his limitations, and he of mine, no doubt, but it didn’t seem to matter. Then, in 1973, I went to London for six months. I looked him up on my return and we had the usual friendly meeting full of biker yapping, never thinking that this meeting would also be our last. There was no discord, no friction, no disagreement and no problem – and, truth be told, there probably wasn’t a lot else either. It was only years later when I looked back on it all, that I realised that my world had developed in a completely different way to his. Basically, I had outgrown him.
The Railway Man is far more than a book of wartime experiences and is way wider, deeper and more penetrating that the eponymous film which simply concentrates on one, relatively narrow, aspect of Lomax’s life. Indeed, railways, so central to Lomax’s earlier budding awareness of a wider world and possibilities, are, in any meaningful sense, relegated to walk on, or should I say, roll on parts. The real story is about a man who grew enormously with the passage of time, even if he was assisted by some pretty unpleasant fertiliser along the way. My old lecturer in Japanese history, herself Japanese, actually met him shortly before his death in 2012, describing him favourably as a very gentle man. He is probably one of the few who had succeeded in finally reaching the tip of Maslow’s pyramid, greatly assisted by his second wife whom he met, appropriately, on a railway journey at the age of 61. Lomax’s traumatic wartime experiences merely formed a step along the way.
This book was a real find.
The Railway Man Review (r3) ©Stephen Kearney September 2013 & August 2020