The Torturer’s Apprentice

E.S. Turner

  • The Railway Man by Eric Lomax
    Cape, 278 pp, £15.99, August 1995, ISBN 0 224 04187 8

Eric Lomax, as a young Royal Signals officer, had the misfortune to get caught up, with a third of a million others, in what has been called a ‘logistic imperative’, an enterprise more vulgarly known as the Death Railway, planned and carried through by the Japanese Imperial Army. At any point in history a logistic imperative is something to be avoided at all costs, whether it involves cutting the Americas in two or building St Petersburg in a freezing swamp. It is familiar lore that on the labour-expendable rail route from Siam to Burma each sleeper represented a human life. More than twelve thousand of Lomax’s fellow prisoners of war died of disease and vile treatment, as did an estimated one hundred thousand ‘coolies’ from neighbouring lands. Lomax, for breaking his captors’ rules, had both his arms broken in a flogging to which was added water torture; his punishment was roughly equivalent to the old-time treatment for an obstinate sailor – the cat-o’-nine-tails and a keel-hauling. Mercifully, if surprisingly, no flashbacks portraying these events were shown in the lightly fictionalised television film Prisoners in Time, which was based on The Railway Man. Given what was done in the film The Bridge over the River Kwai, that stirring symphony of false notes, it can hardly have been an easy decision for Lomax to allow his life to be re-scripted and interpreted by others. Millions will have seen Prisoners in Time, but this well-written and well-judged book is the superior article.

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