A film starring both Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman is bound to be worth watching. I therefore decided that I wanted to see The Railway Man without having much idea about what it was about, such being the ‘pull’ of actors who have previously captivated me. I knew that it was neither a violent ‘adventure’ movie nor a romcom, and almost any other genre (except perhaps a Kung Fu feature) would have been OK with me. (Pause for deep sighs from film buffs!)
It was a pretty safe bet that I’d enjoy this film, but I was unprepared for how much I’d be moved by it. It tells the story of a man, Eric Lomax, damaged by his experiences as a prisoner-of-war of the Japanese while working on the Burma railway and suffering what is these days called post-traumatic stress disorder. His surviving comrades and fellow captives, like him, now live in the same run-down seaside town in the North East and, also like him, are unable to move on. The focus of their lives is the shabby ex-servicemen’s club which they haunt daily.
So far, so good: the plot is well-constructed and the acting superlative, but there are few surprises. The film appears to follow faithfully in the footsteps of the many stories, both real and fictional, of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II and the permanent psychological damage that they inflicted on those who managed to survive captivity under their jurisdiction. As a child, I knew a number of war veterans who had also been prisoners-of-war. Those who had been captured by the Germans were fairly philosophical about what had befallen them; those who had been held by the Japanese were uniformly vitriolic about their captors and, by association, hated the whole Japanese race and all things Japanese. After the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ had burst upon the world in the 1970s, I had a colleague who would go to any lengths to avoid buying Japanese-made technology.
However, the rather stereotypical scene-setting of The Railway Man that I have described undergoes a sea-change when Colin Firth, now middle-aged, meets Nicole Kidman on a train and falls in love with her (in a rather charming parody, acknowledged in some of her lines, of Brief Encounter). It is only after they have married that she discovers that he still suffers violent nightmares – they are of almost hallucinogenic intensity – about his time on the railway and, particularly, the occasions on which he was brutally tortured; the waterboarding scene is horrifically realistic. From this point on, the film depicts his quest for the mental peace that he must seek in order to make his marriage whole and complete. The actions that he has to undertake to achieve this are drastic – they involve travelling back to the Burma railway twice – and the outcomes are surprising. Risk of spoiling prevents my revealing more, so I’ll just say that, fundamentally, The Railway Man is not so much about the atrocities committed by the Japanese military as about the nature of suffering and guilt, atonement and forgiveness. It is about the strength of the human spirit and the power of love.
There is one other comment that I’d like to add: it concerns the troubling nature of war crimes. Of course, I understand and appreciate why, in the aftermath of World War II, many prosecutions were brought for crimes against humanity. Although there is a grim irony in the concept that there should be ‘rules’ for warfare – and therefore that only some types of killing are acceptable, while torture is inadmissible under any circumstances (though even this basic tenet has been called into question in recent years) – as time goes on, the crucial difference between acts of violence ‘legitimately’ carried out under the rules of warfare and ‘atrocities’ seems to me to become ever more blurred. I’m not referring to the prosecution of those who took part in the death camps (this is a separate issue), but to the pursuit of men who were then very young, no doubt scared, soldiers, who were both acting under orders and caught up in the tumult of war. Most of these men are now nonagenarians or in their late eighties and their accusers likewise. Not only does it seem to me to be impossible to ascertain now exactly what happened then, but I also cannot comprehend how any useful purpose can be served by prosecuting these men seventy years on.
I’m thinking particularly of the man who has recently been arrested for his alleged part in the massacre that took place at Oradour-sur-Glane in 1944. German soldiers, recalled to Germany towards the end of the war from their postings further south, shot all the men in this French village and then rounded up almost all of the women and children, herded them into the church and set it on fire. Only a handful escaped. I have twice visited the site of this atrocity: the first time was in the 1980s, when my husband and very young son and I stumbled upon it almost by accident as we took a break from a long drive to the Pyrenees. At that time, the village was still deserted, the shattered houses (all were blown up or burned down) and ruined church left exactly as they had been as a memorial to those who died. The rusting, abandoned 1940s vehicles and the many ancient Singer sewing machines set out on the walls told a particularly poignant story. My second visit was much more recent. By then, the place had been ‘sanitised’ and had turned into a tourist attraction. By this process, the horror and sadness of what had happened there had been softened.
Maybe this was a good thing. I’m not suggesting that we should ‘forget’ the war; I think that those ‘historians’ who try to sweep the Holocaust under the carpet by providing ‘evidence’ that it didn’t exist are mendacious exhibitionists at their best and evil propagandists at their worst. But I do question whether any good can come from the prosecution of a man who, seventy years ago, was eighteen years old and may or may not have been directly responsible for some of the civilian deaths at Oradour. Justice comes in many forms. In order to be whole, mankind has to reconcile itself with what happened in the past and carry on with life, knowing what happened and not forgetting it, but drawing a profounder truth from the reconciliation of the demands of memory and the present. This is the ultimate message of The Railway Man. It is one of the most thought-provoking films I have ever seen.
It’s impossible to conclude my blog-posts about China without writing about the food. I’m not actually a big fan of Chinese food when I’m in England, principally because so many Chinese restaurants here adulterate their cuisine with monosodium glutamate. (The Chinese restaurant in which I worked when I was a student, which was home to the cook called Moon, star of a previous post, was an honourable exception.) If I consume this substance, which I believe is also called ‘Chinese taste powder’, I invariably get a headache and feel dizzy the following day.
However, I was assured that monosodium glutamate is never used in restaurants in China and I certainly didn’t detect it in any of the food there. I was very honoured to be treated with the utmost hospitality throughout my stay and, as food plays a big part in Chinese standards of courtesy, I was presented with what was effectively a banquet every night. Although when at home the Chinese usually confine themselves to three or four dishes, which in Shanghai always includes a soup (It was explained to me that soup helps to regulate the body temperature if the climate is hot and dry or if other foods are spicy.), when guests are taken out to eat it is not uncommon for ten or twelve main dishes to be ordered, as well as many appetisers and side dishes. These don’t all appear at once: the waiting staff bring them in one by one and place them on a huge circular glass ‘lazy Susan’ (the Chinese use the same words), which is spun slowly round by each diner in turn, with all the tantalising magic of what felt like a place at a gastronomic ouija board.
All the food that I ate in China was delicious: without exception, it was very fresh and featured many different kinds of vegetable (though an actual vegetarian would have a tough time there, as most dishes also include meat or fish of some kind). At every dinner there was also a whole sea bass garnished with herbs and spices – an expensive treat, presented to guests as part of the impeccable code of hospitality. I was only once offered a delicacy that I was reluctant to try: on my last evening in Shanghai, the pièce de resistance was a dish of pickled ducks’ tongues. One of my fellow diners told me that they tasted like mackerel, but I was too cowardly to find out if this was true!
Among my favourite foods were the exquisitely-crafted dumplings that usually appear after the main entrées. The smaller ones contain meat, the larger ones a special soup: they require eating with great care, so that none of the soup is lost.
Rice and noodles are served separately at the end of the meal, because guests are encouraged to eat their fill of the finer dishes before filling up on these staples. Desserts are simple and light, consisting usually of sweet soups (plum is a favourite) or yogurt and honey. Tea is the main beverage. Light beer is also served, but drunk sparingly. Wine was not served at any of the dinners that I ate and no alcohol was ever served at lunch.
My two Beijing dinners were particularly special. The first was at the original Peking Duck restaurant, which is close to the main campus of Peking University (The University retains the name ‘Peking’, choosing not to call itself ‘Beijing University’ because it is proud of its heritage. It is China’s oldest and most prestigious university.). This restaurant has been serving Peking Duck since the 1930s, when it invented the recipe.
Each diner is given small dishes of cucumber, chopped spring onion and plum sauce and a round box of steamed pancakes. I discovered that Peking Duck is one of the most authentic dishes served in Chinese restaurants in England. In Beijing, the duck itself was oilier and therefore richer than in the UK, but apart from that the taste of all the ingredients was similar: the key difference was the dexterity with which the waitress demonstrated how to flip the pancake on to the plate with chopsticks, fill it and form it into a neatly-wrapped parcel. None of my parcels looked like hers! As they leave, diners are given a certificate to prove that they have eaten genuine Peking Duck in this restaurant.
On my last night in Beijing I enjoyed the most special dinner of all. It was a banquet held in the ‘Emperor’s Palace’, a restaurant whose real name is the Bai’s Home Courtyard. It was originally the palace home of Prince Li of the Qing Dynasty. The courtyard is in fact a succession of formally laid-out gardens, each one containing a single-story building that once formed part of the Emperor’s palace and has now been converted into a dining-room. The buildings are guarded by young men dressed in the traditional garb of Imperial soldiers, and the waitresses are young women attired in beautiful traditional silken costumes and head-dresses.
On their feet they wear tall pattens – the platforms of these, on which the centre only of the foot is balanced, are about four inches off the ground. One of the girls told me that it takes a week to learn how to walk in these shoes. Twelve of us ate that evening and we were served throughout by four silk-clad waitresses. Our dining-room was dedicated to longevity, symbolised in the detail of the wall-hangings.
The table was round, for equality, and all the chairs except one richly covered in yellow silk; this single chair was made of intricately-carved wood. Originally, it would have been the one in which the Emperor sat. No woman ever sat in the Emperor’s chair – at least, not then!
We were served perhaps two dozen dishes at the Emperor’s Palace, some of them tiny, all of them delicious and beautifully presented. My favourites were a very special kind of smoked fish and venison stewed with chillies. The banquet lasted for about three hours. Once outside again, we discovered that it had turned bitterly cold – some of the fountains in the gardens had frozen over and the walkways as we made our way back to the street were lit with bright orange lanterns that picked out the tiny dots of silver frost on the profusion of plants flourishing on the small ponds and spilling over the low formal walls designed to contain them.
It was a magical, almost an enchanted, evening, a marvellous culmination to eight days of extraordinary new experiences. If I did not have the photographs, I might believe that I had dreamt it.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
On my travels in other countries, some of the most evocative moments have been spent contemplating rivers. I’ve stood on O’Connell Bridge in Dublin and watched the (on that occasion very murky) waters of the Liffey and remember thinking, as I looked into its Guinness-coloured depths, that it must have been entirely James Joyce’s poetic imagination that produced such a beautiful name as Anna Livia Plurabelle. I’ve seen dhows swooping along the Nile, their single white sails bending gracefully to the breeze. I’ve marvelled at the massive businesslike barges speeding along the Danube, powerful and swift as crocodiles on the move. The bridges and embankments of the Seine are still vividly precious for their romance on our honeymoon. Closer to home, as I’ve written in a previous post, I’ve admired the spectacular night-time views from Waterloo Bridge in London as the Thames makes its sudden sweep to the East. And I still feel great affection for the dear, dirty River Welland that threads its way through the town of Spalding, much humbler than these great waterways, though still, in its day, a significant bringer of prosperity to the people who dwelt nearby, just like all the great rivers of the world.
Unsurprising then, that I should have been captivated by the magic of the great Yangtze, the fourth longest river in the world, as it pours itself at Shanghai into the East China Sea. Wide and fast-flowing, the Yangtze has brought traders to Shanghai for thousands of years, making it one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities long before the rest of China emerged from its self-imposed insularity.
Even the Yangtze’s much smaller tributary, the Huangpu River that cuts right through the city centre, is a majestic waterway, which I visited first on a cold but sunny Sunday afternoon when people were promenading along the Bund, the waterfront area opposite Pudong, on a built-up walkway that enables walkers to get close to the river’s banks and where festive street food stalls abound.
Two days later, on a bitterly frosty but fine, clear evening, I was taken to the Huangpu’s junction with the Yangtze. On both occasions I was able to watch barge after nimble barge (they are longer and slenderer than the ones on the Danube) power by, almost as if in convoy, while the waters displaced by their passage lapped energetically against the shore. The barges and other ships are lit up in the evening, as is the spectacular Shanghai skyline that forms a backdrop to the Yangtze. The result is a profusion of golden lights that disport themselves against the inky blackness of the waters. The scene is dynamic, full of energy and passion, the legacy of very many years of trade, hard-won prosperity, daring, risk and chance and, I’m certain, not a little skulduggery and murder. The effect is by no means cosy, but it is exhilarating! At the back of my mind lurked the half-remembered knowledge that, in years gone by, to be ‘Shanghaied’ meant to be kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor on board one of the many ships that plied their trade to the East and, ultimately, to Shanghai. I could imagine someone creeping up on a strong young man as he stood, unsuspecting, and rendering him unconscious; imagine his anguish as he awoke, his head sore, far out at sea, unable to tell his family and friends what had befallen him… that he was on his way to China.
Every river has a personality, which I think was James Joyce’s point about the Liffey. The Yangtze’s is particularly complex: on the one hand, it courses past Shanghai, bearing its gift to this great city of enterprise and generations of toleration for many creeds and cultures; on the other, it penetrates deep into a country that until recent times was secret, withdrawn, enclosed and shut away from all outside influence.
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
This is my first full day at home after my visit to China, and I’ve just enjoyed a nice cup of tea. Tea is one of our national clichés – the universal British remedy for everything, from broken hearts to bereavement, and also the beverage that most Brits look forward to the most when returning home from foreign adventures. However, I can hardly claim to have been tea-deprived during my five-day sojourn in Shanghai or the two days I spent in Beijing. Tea is what you drink with every meal in China, and there are hundreds of different kinds. I managed to sample a few of them, sometimes in very special surroundings. It is served with some ceremony in restaurants: waiters hover with teapots and fill your cup again as soon as you’ve drained it. As with wine, special kinds of tea are recommended for some types of food: for example, a rich, smoky tea accompanied the duck that I ate in the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing (more of this in a separate post). Tea is also used in very traditional restaurants to cleanse crockery and cutlery at the table.
I had only two half-days to myself, as mine was a business trip, not a holiday, but, aided by some kind Asian colleagues, I was able to make the most of them. On the Sunday after I arrived in Shanghai, I took a taxi to the Yu Garden,
a mesmerising complex of temples, waterways and ancient shops, and, after an hour or two of sightseeing, found myself standing outside the fabled Huxinting Tea House, the oldest tea house in Shanghai (the building is about 230 years old, becoming a tea house in 1855).
Naturally, I went in and was delighted to find that I’d chanced upon a mid-afternoon lull in business, so it wasn’t too crowded.
Inside, the tea house is opulent but not flamboyant. The waitresses are dressed in a uniform based on one of the many forms of Chinese national dress and they are attentive but unobtrusive. There are scores of types of tea to choose from, some of them extremely expensive. I chose jasmine, which came in a glass jug and was accompanied by two aromatic sweetmeats.
It was quite delicious: fragrant and refreshing, exotic without being strange. It wasn’t cheap, either: it cost the same as a couple of lattes from Starbucks would have cost in the UK, which by Chinese standards is very expensive indeed. But it was well worth the price: I understand why Chinese people think that the tea house is so special and come here for a treat. It’s not only the ambience inside the building itself that gives so much pleasure; it is also being able to look out across the water of the lake in which it stands on stilts to the picturesque buildings beyond. The paths and walkways are always teeming with people and the tea house itself offers a haven of tranquillity from which to observe them, as well as a feeling of privilege. The elderly couple sitting next to me were obviously savouring every moment, whilst also engaging in a very animated conversation.
Each type of tea is served in a different type of vessel and theirs was in terracotta pots with lids, which they had refilled more than once. I’d have loved to have been able to ask them what their choice had been.
Since I came home, I’ve read about the Huxinting Tea House online and discovered that the Queen has visited it. I don’t suppose that she had to worry about the cost of her tea, but I do wonder if, having imbibed its product, Her Maj was constrained to use the establishment’s facilities. If so, I’d like to know what she made of the shaft-style convenience,
which was the first, but by no means the last, of this type of porcelain that I encountered in China. (I should add that the one in the Huxinting Tea House was spotless.)
I wanted to bring some tea home with me, but was advised against buying it from one of the specialist purveyors of tea or at the airport as being prohibitively expensive in either. On my last day in Beijing, I therefore walked to a local supermarket and bought two types of tea there, one of them a chrysanthemum tea that I’d first seen earlier in the week when it was ordered by a librarian during a conference that took place at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. On that occasion, it was served in a tall glass mug with a mash of dried chrysanthemum flowers floating on the surface of the hot water. More prosaically, I think that my own purchase will consist of more conventional-looking tea leaves, albeit made out of chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemum tea sounds unpleasant – I was sceptical until I tried it, thinking that it might taste as the half-dead ‘chrysanths’ which I remember adorning the graves in Spalding Cemetery used to smell, but in fact it is delicate to the taste-buds and very refreshing.
Going to the supermarket offered me one of only a few rare opportunities to encounter ordinary Chinese people as they went about their business. I was grateful for this experience. Once again, I was also astounded by how expensive the tea was and how greatly prized. In the supermarket where I bought mine, it was kept upstairs with the alcohol and closely guarded by a security man. It cost about three times as much as a packet of ‘builder’s tea’ in England. I wonder what Chinese builders drink? I’d like to think that their day is fuelled by an infusion of chrysanthemums!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
New Year’s Day 2014 was one of the most varied and interesting I have ever experienced. It began with breakfast in Bad Reichenhall, a small Bavarian town that nestles among the mountains on the Austrian border, on a cold but sunlit morning. My friends and I then drove to Schönau am Königsee, a traditional Alpine town just south of Berchtesgaden that has become a winter sports resort, and took a small circular walk around part of the Königssee, a lake etched so deep into the landscape that it looks like a Norwegian fjord; it’s Germany’s third deepest and well known for the echo created by its rocky walls. There is a church on the other side of this lake, but the sun was shining so brightly, with its light reflected so brilliantly on the surface of the water, that it was impossible to see through the glare.
Towards the end of the circular walk is a ski slope which is in constant use, thanks to snow machines. (Somewhat bizarrely, there is a hen-run to one side of it, complete with a wooden chicken coop on wheels and several brightly-plumaged hens.) Unable to ski myself, I marvelled at the grace and speed with which the skiers descended. There were some snowboarders, too: mostly children, who were tackling the challenge of the swift descent with extraordinary confidence and fluidity of movement.
The town itself is a bit of a tourist trap (I’m not sure what kind of Alpine souvenir a fluffy pink teddy bear represents), complete with live ever-so-genuine-Bavarian volksmusic, but by climbing beyond the car park and the town we swiftly reached the Olympic-standard permanent sled run.
The World Cup 2013-14 season for both skeleton and bobsleigh ends here on January 26th 2014, and by chance and great good fortune we were able to watch several of the national teams practising solo skeleton, which is an even hairier version of bobsleighing: the competitor lies face up, feet first, on a small sledge as it zooms down the ice track. His entire journey takes less than a minute.
One rider came to grief as he passed us and skithered on his side to the final bend, where he came to an ignominious halt and clambered in ungainly fashion over the barrier, clutching his sledge. He was embarrassed and annoyed, but otherwise unharmed.
By this time, it was getting dark, but we were keen to complete our excursion by making a short detour to the site of the Berghof, Hitler’s Alpine home and headquarters. Beyond this lies the Eagle’s Nest, the bolt-hole to which he planned to withdraw in the event of a defeat while he was in residence at the Berghof. Of course, he was in his Berlin bunker when the Allies finally closed in on him, but I was interested to be informed that, although the Berghof was first bombed by the RAF and then torched by the SS troops just before their departure, the Allies decided to leave the Eagle’s Nest itself intact. It still stands to this day, as a café-restaurant, though cannot be reached in the winter.
The Berghof itself has been reinvented as a ‘documentation centre’. It is also now a small tourist attraction, with some access to the bunker system, together with a car park, a restaurant and a shop. The ascent to it from Berchtesgaden is steep, and the road precarious: there is no barrier for much of the way and the drops below the bends are lethal. I imagined the people of Berchtesgaden and the Obersalzberg area going about their business over seventy years ago, prevented by a closely-patrolled security cordon from their earlier nineteen-thirties jaunts up the mountain to catch sight of Hitler, only vaguely aware that something ‘important’ was going on above them when Hitler’s soldier aides descended upon the town to buy supplies.
Unfortunately, the document centre was closed on New Year’s Day, so we were unable to view the grim records of the Third Reich that it houses. It may have been because of this, or perhaps owing to the beauty and almost sacred tranquillity of the place – which, save for that one short period of depraved activity, has obtained almost since the dawn of mankind – that I could gather no real sense of the evil that once lurked there. It is true that there are clues for those who care to look for them: for example, the distinctive archways that now form the windows of the shop were once part of Hitler’s garage complex, as the footage from old films, shown on a constant ‘newsreel’ in one of those windows, illustrates, but I experienced none of the deathly despair and outrage that visits to other wartime sites have prompted in me. I suppose that that in itself is a triumph: a sign that the bedrock of primeval goodness in this place has triumphed over the temporary evil that it once harboured and then cast out.
Happy New Year, everyone!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
Salzburg is a breathtakingly beautiful city that seems to exist mainly to ensure the immortality of one man: the child prodigy composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. There are Mozart cafés, Mozart restaurants and Mozart museums – and even tourist gift shops where you can buy Mozart rubber ducks and flying birds with Mozart’s face, all wearing powdered wigs. There is a spectacular concert hall where the programme includes the work of many composers, foremost among whom is – Mozart. There are Mozart chocolates, made by two rival companies: the original chocolatiers, whose business is very small and still confined mainly to the Salzburg region, and a younger, upstart firm whose aggressive marketing has been so successful that its distinctive round, filled chocolates, individually-wrapped in red foil, can now be purchased in many countries besides Austria. This company has created a Mozart grotto next to its main shop over the border in Bad Reichenhall, which features a statue of the composer, a fountain and bushes hung with winking red lights and huge baubles in its trademark silvery red.
Today, the city’s prosperity depends very much on Mozart tourism, but it was a wealthy place long before the composer’s birth. As its name suggests, its fortune was built on salt. This, of course, resonates with me, because Salt, good fortune and creativity are very much linked in my mental map. There is a famous salt mine close by the city which offers tours to visitors. We decided not to visit, as we have recently been to a similar attraction in Kraków. The Austrian one, apparently, makes a particular attempt to please family parties: its offers include enabling children to dress up as eighteenth-century peasant salt-workers.
The river that runs through the city also takes its name from salt: tolls on the salt-carrying barges created some of its wealth. Walking along the boulder-strewn riverside is a pleasing experience and there are several picturesque bridges, one of which is hung all the way along with lovers’ padlocks.
The Salzburg area has been unseasonably warm between Christmas and the New Year. There is snow here, but only high in the mountains. The local people are amazed at how mild the weather has been. Nevertheless, the people in the streets all wear hats, scarves, boots and quilted jackets or loden coats. Babies in buggies are muffled to the eyebrows. It is possible to stand in the sun and feel real warmth on your face, but as soon as you step into one of the many alleyways or just enter the shadows of the tall terraced buildings, the cold bites. There may be no snow at the moment, but you feel that it is only biding its time. February is the coldest month here: the Austrian mountain winter has really only just begun.
What does Salzburg have to offer in the way of inspiration for a crime fiction writer? On the face of it, this bright, industrious city, peopled with serene residents and laughing holidaymakers, does not seem a promising setting for dark deeds. However, in the alleyway marked ‘Juden Gasse’, with its stolpersteine or brass commemorative cobblestones, we stumble upon some of the darkest deeds that man has ever perpetrated upon man; and, not many kilometres away, lurks the Eagle’s Nest, mountain retreat of one of the world’s most sinister fantasists and almost the most prolific murderer of all time.