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.
Last week I visited Brighton for the first time in perhaps ten years. I was there because The Old Ship Hotel had been chosen as the venue for the annual academic bookselling and publishing conference for which I organise the speaker programme. I discovered that there has been an inn on the site of The Old Ship since Elizabethan times. Originally just called The Ship, it acquired its venerable epithet after another Ship hotel was built nearby – this one a mere stripling dating from the period of the Civil War. Hotels in Brighton can be evocative places. I have also stayed at The Grand, both before and after it was wrecked by the IRA bomb, on both occasions to attend the Booksellers Association Conference (I liked it better before than after) and one year spent several days in a seedy little guest house when the company I was working for forgot to book until the last minute and all the hotels were full.
Brighton itself has not changed much in ten years, although it looked very odd when I arrived, because the streets and seafront were covered in grubby snow. A moderately heavy snowfall on the day before seemed to have caused a local catastrophe in which everything – public transport, the highways, even restaurants and cafés – ground to a halt. I concluded that they’re ‘nesh’ in the South of England; we clear away snow like that in half an hour in Yorkshire! Or perhaps Brightonians – if that’s the right word – are just staggered to see the white stuff at all and it therefore strikes them down with a sort of horrified inertia.
Anyway, by midday, although it was still very cold, the snow had melted and I ventured out from The Old Ship to meet my former English teacher for lunch (more about this on another occasion). Before the conference started, I also managed to take a walk along the promenade and was saddened to see the hideous buckled corpse of the West Pier, still rising up out of the sea like a squashed daddy longlegs. The structure has suffered terminal damage since my last visit.
After presentations, drinks and speeches, dinner, more speeches and more drinks, I went to bed. I was rudely awakened at about 4 a.m. by the noise of a huge crowd outside. I exaggerate only a little when I say that it sounded like the storming of the Bastille! I began to realise that my de luxe room, with its fine view of the sea, came with mixed privileges. Looking discreetly out of the window, I saw a gang of perhaps forty youths running about on the seafront, many of them braying obscenities. And they didn’t move on – they just stayed there! Brighton has obviously degenerated since the days of Pinkie Brown, who was a better class of yob altogether.
Since it was obvious that I would get no more sleep until the mob dispersed or was moved on, I adopted my usual all-purpose tactic for dealing with adversity and took out a book. It was The Mistress of Alderley by Robert Barnard, not a novelist I’d read before. Under normal circumstances, it wasn’t the sort of novel I’d have especially enjoyed. Although the setting is meant to be contemporary, the characters seem to belong to a time warp. The mistress of Alderley herself, a retired actress called Caroline Fawley, seems to me to be straight out of the set of Brief Encounter. However, under any circumstances I should have enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Leeds which number among the novel’s strengths and, while the fracas outside continued to roar, I found the descriptions of Caroline’s genteel rural life quite soothing. The icing on the cake was that it turned out to be a sham, a pretence laid bare by the murder of Caroline’s slippery millionaire lover.
I had almost completed The Mistress of Alderley by breakfast, by which time the louts had melted away and a rosy dawn was launching itself above the dead pier.