Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Being UK-ish

For all its wonder, the English language has a notable limitation, and one felt very close to home — there is no adjective to describe our statehood. You can be English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish but not, it seems, UK-ish. The preferred term, British, is inaccurate as it excludes Northern Ireland. I fear the union will forever induce confusion until someone invents a suitable word.

I resisted blogging about the Scottish Independence referendum as the arguments were done to death and, frankly, who gives a monkeys what I think. But I will note this, for all of my life I have been acutely aware of the awkwardness that comes with the words "England" and "English". To me, even today, they sit uneasily on my tongue. Maybe it's a generational baby-boomer thing. Maybe it's my background (grew up in Portsmouth, the very British home of the Royal Navy; went to university in Wales; later lived in the US) but, to me, saying "English" when you meant "British" was the height of bad manners and a display of ignorance/arrogance towards one's Celtic neighbours, as well as being plain wrong.

For three centuries the English have suppressed their national identity, unable even to claim a national day, the reason, I suppose, why people get so worked up about the England football team for its indulgence of a flag-waving pageant by proxy. Scottish nationalism, Welsh nationalism — misplaced or not, there's a notion of romanticism at the heart. English nationalism, English Parliament, English devolution, however... To me they still sound sinister terms. I believe I will have to get used to them.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Robin and Dickie

I seem only to blog these days in memoriam. Belatedly, allow me to bid a fond adieu to Robin Williams and Richard Attenborough.

Funnily enough, I had been thinking about Williams just before the news broke about his death. I had been equating my own obsession with exercise to a sketch from one of his stand-up shows in which he likens it to drug addiction (with a street-corner hustler going, “Hey man, wanna buy some Nikes?”)

No question that, for all his brilliance, Williams was something of a tortured soul. I remember the first time I encountered him, at the Loews Hotel, Santa Monica, 1995. I had overheard him in the corridor protesting to his huge, bear-like manager/minder, effing and blinding that he didn’t want to do any press, and then, at the flip of a switch, entering the room in full-on performance overdrive. A bit like Jim Carrey in a way, rather down and maudlin but compelled to perform for an audience. Interviews with Williams were generally useless, your tape recorder just filled with stream-of-conscious babble and speaking in tongues, although, somewhere, I do have him doing and impression of myself.

Around then, he’d lost his way a little bit. A sort of post-Mrs. Doubtfire lull. He’d just made Jumanji (a film I love), but was then onto sub-standard fluff Jack and Patch Adams. The real turnaround came, of course, with Good Will Hunting. Though with films like The World According To Garp there’d never been any doubt about his strengths as a straight actor. 

Perversely, it seems accolades only ever flow for a comic when he proves himself in something “serious”. Anyone in the business will tell you they’ve got it the wrong way round. To quote Edmund Gwenn on his deathbed: “Dying’s easy. It’s comedy that’s hard.”

Edmund Gwenn's role as Kris Kringle in Miracle On 34th Street was reprised by Richard Attenborough in a rather so-so '90s version. That was just after Jurassic Park when Dickie the director had stepped back into acting as a loveable grandfather figure, thesping being his first love.

What can you possibly add about Attenborough? Just about the nicest man in motion pictures. Spitting Image thought they were sending him up with a lachrymose puppet whose every other word was “darling”, but it wasn’t a million miles from the truth. 

I met him on the set of Shadowlands in Oxford, 1992. Couldn’t have been more welcoming. I also remember him at a screening in London, in the foyer afterwards, just standing there, talking about this and that and people gathering round to listen. A magnetic charm. He suffered some cruel tragedy in later life. I’d like to think of him now as that young airman in (my all-time favourite film) A Matter of Life and Death, arriving at the top of the celestial elevator: “Its’ heaven, isn’t it?”

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Oops... Brazil Don't Win The World Cup After All!

Guess the "Powers That Be" could only carry Brazil so far. One of the most sensational international football matches of all time. Germany were as devastating as Brazil were abject.

I remember reading Adam Nicolson's excellent book, Men Of Honour, about the Battle of Trafalgar in which he attributes the Spanish fleet's capitulation to old-school Catholic fatalism. There was something about that last night — Neymar relics and all. The minute the magic was disproved by science, the world fell apart. A Football Reformation.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Brazil Win World Cup: Official (Part 2)

Does anyone seriously believe the Germans have a hope in tonight's semi-final against the hosts. I say it again, the victors were decided the moment "Brazil" was pulled out of the envelope. Nothing has happened since the shockingly-refereed opener against Croatia to suggest that FIFA and the officials are anything other than complicit in ensuring a Brazilian World Cup triumph — for political reasons as much as sporting. Watch that linesman's flag shoot up every time Germany mount an attack!

So... FIFA have privately relaxed their ban on Luis Suarez. How's that for taking a moral stand, eh? I'm fed up with critics frothing over how this is the best World Cup ever. I disagree. It is the one in which diving, formerly an occasional nefarious tactic by the likes of Suarez and Robben, has been anointed as an accepted facet of the game in every area of the pitch to be employed at every opportunity. Indeed, it is quite rare now for any kind of tackle to be made without the other party going down writhing. No wonder we all thought Neymar was crying wolf. Football is fast on the way to becoming a non-contact sport (something Platini always wanted) — except, curiously, at corners, where you can pull shirts and manhandle people to the floor like first-footers in the Boxing Day sales. It is turning part pantomime, part WWF, especially given what many now suspect about match-rigging (they quashed that Cameroon scandal pretty quickly, didn't they?).

And still the curse of the penalty kick. Two semis and a final to go. How many will be decided on pens? Two if not three. Quite possibly the third/fourth place play-off, too. Why do they still bother with that game?

Saturday, 21 June 2014

England World Cup KO "Shock"

Hate to be a smart-arse but I predicted (on record) that England would not get out of their group; they would be on the wrong end of some suspicious officiating; Suarez would do them in the Uruguay game. FIFA ranked England third in Group D which, pending the outcome of the Costa Rica dead rubber, is just about right. One of the few instances FIFA have pronounced on anything correctly.

We'll deal with the racist-abusing, biting, diving Suarez another day. Meanwhile let's look at some facts. This, everybody needs reminding, is a WINTER WORLD CUP. Sure, the equatorial cities are fairly constant in climate all year round, but the southern ones like São Paulo, Porto Alegre, even Rio, can get quite chilly. The FA placed much emphasis on conditions in Manuas. São Paulo, however, was cold, wet and not too far over the border from Uruguay, making it a home game for them with native weather to boot. Uruguay, apparently, didn't base themselves in Brazil but had remained in Montevideo up to this point, doing no tropical acclimatisation, which may account for their failure against Costa Rica in Fortaleza. They were also without Suarez. One likes to think the FA took all this into account in their intelligence-gathering. But you do wonder.

Coast Rica are good, make no mistake about it. They have a solid bunch of MLS players. Football in the US should not be underestimated. Given their victory over Italy, does England's heroic failure against the latter now say more about the Italians than it does about us?

With regard to Roy Hodgson, he seems a decent bloke whom the players like. I don't see he could have done much better with the players at his disposal. Although, as blogged previously, he should have taken Ashley Cole and, given the right circumstances, John Terry. I find it wryly amusing that poor old Roy, absolutely battered for his previous caution and preference for 4-4-2 (the formula which got England, solidly if unremarkably, to Brazil), is now being hauled across the coals for opting for youth and flair, the very thing the media was salivating over up until... er... about 10pm Thursday.

Bottom line is, England simply haven't got the players. How many would have got into the Italy or Uruguay teams on their performance in the tournament? How many English players play in the top technical club leagues — i.e. Spain, Italy and Germany? Answer: none. The only British player playing at top Continental level is Gareth Bale. Our players simply do not have the technical ability. In fact we don't even play football in this country — not the sport that other countries excel at. It looks the same, sounds the same, feels the same, smells the same. But it isn't the same. Until we start playing that game, Chris Waddle will continue with his quadrennial radio rant.

And finally, a tactical point. People talk about systems. Terry Venables said it's never about the system, it's about the players, which is probably true. But here's a thing... in the only two tournaments in the last quarter century in which England gave a decent account of themselves — 1990 and 1996 — the team played with three centre backs and two wing backs, the 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 system, depending on which way you look at it.

Before we get too misty-eyed over 1990, it should be reminded that England stunk that tournament out, too, until a player revolt forced dear old Bobby Robson to switch to 5-3-2. But suddenly, with a solid defensive line and the creative players free to roam, defensive responsibilities devolved, England looked unbeatable (Robson, bless him, still reverted to 4-4-2 in the last part of a game, just to show who was boss). Even Graham Taylor in his first few games, when he persisted with this system, looked, fleetingly, like he had a world class team. The same applied after early lukewarmness in Euro '96 when Venables adapted his "Christmas tree". And then came Glenn Hoddle. England didn't go far in 1998, but luck played a part in that. When Hoddle used wing backs, England looked impressive, too.

Football's moved on, you say. Stop harking back. I only mention it because the Dutch are currently employing this method.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Brazil Win World Cup: Official

So there we go, one game into the tournament and it's all over. The World Cup is finished. Feel absolutely sickened but not in the slightest bit surprised. Did anyone honestly expect FIFA not to instruct referees to ensure matches yield the "correct" result. Brazil 3 Croatia 1 was a travesty, but then no one — not the Brazilian Govt., not FIFA (nor one, would add, the CIA), can afford anything other than a Brazilian victory. Not with the stability of a continent at stake.

Though, jokingly, ITV's pundits warrant shooting on a regular basis, the sight of those bullet holes in the studio glass was chilling. I wrote about the entanglement of Latin American politics and football in my book Back Home (plundered, uncredited, by The Guardian in a piece about Mexico '70 on Monday). Nada ha cambiado.

And watch out for Saturday night and the referee's embodiment of FIFA's animus towards the English FA.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Rik Mayall

Sad to hear about Rik Mayall. For a student in the early '80s — living in a rancid flat and with a lifestyle and flatmates not dissimilar in aspect to those portrayed in The Young Ones — he was a comic god. Indeed, when The Young Ones went on tour and played my university at the height of their fame in, I think, 1983, it provoked a Beatlemania-esque frenzy.

I remember Ade Edmondson kicking off the show with Adrian Bastard and his Talking Penis (yep, he whipped the old fella out) and Neil (Nigel Planer) emerging from a wardrobe at the back of the stage after about half an hour, which he'd clearly been sitting in the whole time. Though it was Mayall who was the undoubted star.

Much has been written about The Young Ones and Blackadder, with very good reason. Kevin Turvey, too. But in between those, Bottom and Alan B'Stard, one show has been overlooked, Filthy, Rich & Catflap. It was sorely underrated. I kid you not, I hear the odd Mayall line in my head from that on a near daily basis. Comedy gold.

Wind back earlier and here's a clip of the first time I ever saw Mayall on telly, an early incarnation of the angry people's poet reading his composition "Theatre". Just brilliant...

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

FIFA Corruption "Shock"!

My goodness... so a multi-billion dollar corporation run by a cabal of elderly men whose votes can bestow ridiculous fortune upon applicants is susceptible to some "inducement" here and there. Who'd have thunk it? Like its ugly sister, the IOC — another body that regards itself as untouchably supranational — FIFA is as bent as bent can be and has been so for decades.

With no disrespect intended to the Brazilian hosts of the impending jamboree, the time to register a protest is NOW, refusing to allow one's national team to participate. But that's never going to happen, is it? And for the all the high-mindedness about investigation and reform, we all know that the inevitable whitewash of FIFA will result in any punitive action being token.

A boycott of Qatar 2022 (which won't happen either) could, potentially, yield a rather tasty prospect — a rogue, breakaway summer tournament, perhaps a more compact competition of 16 teams. But... nope... so petrified are the member associations of being blackballed by Blatter Inc. — even still —that they'll all kowtow eventually.

The biggest losers here will be England. With FIFA unable to disassociate a free press from the will of a government, and, by extension, its FA, the recent Sunday Times uncoverings will be seen merely as a case of sour grapes for failing to win the 2018 bid. In my mind there is no coincidence between the British press' last anti-FIFA rumblings and the denial of Frank Lampard's goal against Germany in South Africa (at a crucial point in the game, remember, when England were on the up). So brace yourself for that dodgy Suarez dive/handball and penalty to Uruguay.

You think FIFA can't determine what goes on on the pitch? 1978: Argentina 6 Peru 0, anyone? (One from any number of historic "arrangements".) As Gabriele Marcotti put it four years ago with regard to England: "And you wonder why results go against you?"

Thursday, 22 May 2014

England World Cup Squad 2014

Given the limited pool of English-born players in the Premier League, the make-up of the England squad holds few surprises. As I'm sure for many, the inclusion of a number of young players is a heartening thing, coupled with the more sober expectations this time round.

One thing, though... I do think it is a mistake not taking Ashley Cole. The question should not be over the excessive coverage for the left-back slot but in terms of the contingent of defensive players generally — yet another example of the rigidity of English thinking. Great backs can play anywhere along the line. Great coaches deploy their troops accordingly (Venables played David Platt at right back in Euro 96). Quality full-backs should be inter-changeable, left and right, especially given the preference by some teams to place wide players on the "wrong" flank these days, inviting "inside" rather than "outside" play. 

Cole was out of favour much of the season at Chelsea (a personal bit of point-scoring by Mourinho, one suspects) but had a great finish and is still one of the best. Real Madrid do not chase 33-year-old players for nothing. I can't say I would look forward to an evening out on the town with John Terry but he's still probably the top English centre-back around, too. Throw him into the mix and you'd have a back line featuring three players from the same club — Cahill, Cole, Terry. This surely wouldn't have been a bad thing?

So... Manchester City won the league. Could have told you that in August. See my article for the late Word magazine below. League position correlates directly to the size of a club's player wage bill. And does so with rare exception.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Anwar Brett

I didn't realise, till watching the BAFTAs last night, that a film journalist colleague of mine, Anwar Brett, had recently passed away. Anwar was a fixture of the junket/press conference scene and chaired quite a few Q&As. A real old-school film lover, he was a regarded critic for local and national press. I didn't know him well but he was super-friendly and a genuinely nice chap. I had no idea he was ill. I thought the BAFTA mention — up there among the Hollywood A-listers — was a classy touch.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Mission Impossible

Lone Survivor, the tale of outgunned Americans on the run in Afghanistan, is now a hit film. Culture meets the one who got away
Jeff Dawson Sunday Times Culture, 26 January 2014

In Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 bestseller, Lone Survivor, an account of his time as a US Navy Seal in Afghanistan, the author makes no bones over what held the biggest fear for him — not the Taliban, not death, but “the liberal media back in the USA”.

On the fateful day of June 28, 2005, Luttrell had been dropped into the Hindu Kush mountains as part of a four-man reconnaissance squad, its mission — Operation Red Wings — to confirm the presence of Ahmad Shah, an al-Qaeda big-beard reportedly holed up in a remote Taliban camp. While on stakeout, high on the frosty slopes, the Seals were stumbled upon by a trio of unarmed goatherds supplying the encampment. Knowing that these men would probably reveal their position, they took them captive and kicked around the moral conundrum.
“The military decision was clear,” Luttrell says. “These guys could not leave there alive.” Yet it wasn’t the Geneva Convention that prompted the Seals to turn the men loose, it was how “termination” might play on CNN. “I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many years in a civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.”
The Seals knew they had signed their death warrant. Sure enough, the goatherds bounded down to alert the Taliban. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by hardened, AK-47-toting insurgents, the Seals were engaged in a firefight to the bitter end. Petty Officer Luttrell has a message for the powers that be: “If you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.”
In the flesh, this farm boy from Texas is not what you expect of a decorated American war hero: a big, lumbering chap with an off-duty goatee, rumpled hair and full-sleeve tattoos snaking down from under his sports T-shirt. He wears shapeless old jeans and battered trainers. As he shuffles into the chichi New York hotel room, he fixes you with dark, cautious eyes, the polite yes-sirs and Bible Belt reserve incongruous in Manhattan. As if to ease his discomfort, he has brought along his golden labrador, Mr Rigby.
Luttrell backtracks a bit on the book’s rhetoric. It’s been misinterpreted. “I’m not a political person. I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy,” he insists. It’s just, once politicians have ceded a situation to the military, they should “step out of the way and let us do our job”.
That Luttrell is here is a miracle. Shot numerous times, with a broken pelvis and vertebrae, and shrapnel wounds to his legs, he tumbled down a mountainside, acquainting himself with every conifer and rock en route. Three hours later, already assumed dead by his superiors, he packed dirt into his wounds to stem the bleeding, crawled seven miles to a stream and waited for the Taliban and a videotaped blade to the neck.
Mercifully, he was discovered by Pashtun tribesmen, including Mohammad Gulab, the local police chief and son of the village elder. Under the ancient code of lokhay, the Pashtun were compelled to take in a wounded warrior of any persuasion, no matter that it would — and did — bring the wrath of the Taliban upon them. Six days on, shunted around hiding places, Luttrell was sneaked to US Army Rangers.
For his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross, as were, posthumously, his colleagues Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson. His ranking officer and best pal, Mike Murphy, earned a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest US military decoration. Luttrell’s gong hangs heavily. A Chinook helicopter with 16 backup troops had been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all on board, which made Operation Red Wings one of America's worst special-ops disasters since the Second World War. Luttrell’s book was his tribute to the fallen.
To the memorial, you can add the film version. Directed and written by Peter Berg, Lone Survivor stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch as Murphy. “They did a good job of capturing the essence of what went down on the mountain that day,” Luttrell says, though he stresses that some of what happened is still classified. But what possessed him to get into bed with Hollywood?
It turns out Berg had earned his stripes, embedding himself with a Seals platoon in Iraq for a month, doing all the necessary spadework, much as he had done for his previous war-on-terror flick, The Kingdom. Knowing the families were all going to see this film, we wanted to get it right,” Berg says. “These men go and fight because they’re told to by people they don’t know in Washington DC or Nato or the UN, and we don’t really have an opportunity to understand what that means. We need to honour not only the men who died, but the seriousness of sending men to war.”
Lone Survivor has been a runaway hit in the US. In its backs-against-the-wall action, bullets don’t eviscerate, but sting and zap like a plague of incendiary mosquitos, death by a thousand titanium-tipped cuts.
Berg has done away with the first half of the book and cut to the action, as the Seals crawl through the spectacular verdant slopes of the Hindu Kush (actually New Mexico). From the ominous vibe that descends to the satellite phone not working and their only means of summoning rescue being an ordinary mobile phone, you know it ain’t good. Crucially and fatally, that phone call can only be made from exposed high ground (for which Murphy sacrificed himself). With the encircling foe taking pops at will, the film has the feel of an old-fashioned western — as Luttrell puts it, “Little Bighorn with turbans”.
He returned to service, but was eventually invalided out. It’s no secret that he found civilian life a struggle. (He has a twin brother who is still a Seal.) When Berg met him, he was a classic example of survivor’s guilt, wallowing at home, his house a shrine to his brethren. He’s married now, happy, with three kids. “I lost my team-mates, families lost a son — but the way we look at it is, they died a good death, a soldier’s death, and you can’t ask for anything more honourable than that.”
That other hero, Gulab, who told the Taliban where to stick it, has visited the Luttrell ranch near Houston. Back home, though, his family has been forced into hiding. Eight years on, Luttrell is still trying to secure him a green card. 

Builder of Bridges

The Railway Man — The moving true story of a British POW on the Death Railway who forgave his torturer is now a film. Our critic on the impact it is having in Japan

Jeff Dawson Sunday Times Culture22 December 2013
In the late Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, his harrowing memoir of his time as a Japanese POW, the revelatory detail comes not amid the catalogue of inhumanity, but on his return to civvy street. As he resumes his desk job at the Edinburgh General Post Office, Lomax is handed the very same file he had been working on in 1939, before enlistment. “Time had stopped in this fusty government office,” he recounts, “while for me it had accelerated beyond reason.” And, thanks to a snafu over his demob date, Lt Lomax of the Royal Signals had reported for work a day late, bringing an official reprimand and docked wages — a “stain on my character”, he grumbled, that irked him till his dying day.
For Far East POW veterans, there was no Pomp and Circumstance. Shipped back after the V-J Day bunting had been binned, they arrived in a Britain neither conversant with the horrors of internment nor willing to let ignominious defeats such as the fall of Singapore (of which Lomax had been part) skew the triumphal narrative. In the days before post-traumatic stress disorder was a recognised medical condition, they were expected to suffer in silence; to step out of living hells and back into sedate old lives; to bottle it up and “get on with it”.
Lomax’s war had been particularly savage. One of 80,000 Allied troops captured in February 1942, he was transported up the Malayan peninsula to slave on the infamous Burma “Death Railway”. At Kanchanaburi, Thailand, he was caught in possession of a forbidden homemade radio, which he had built to pick up morale-boosting news on All India Radio. It was construed by his paranoid captors to be an instrument for rousing local insurgents, and Lomax was hauled off by the Kempeitai secret police. Over several days, he was tortured and beaten nearly to death.
While his bones eventually mended, his mind never did. As the decades wore on, friends saw only an avuncular man, an orderly Robert Donat lookalike with a passion for steam trains — writ large in the irony of his book’s title. But, privately, Lomax was living a nightmare, his sleep plagued with terrors, his waking hours indulging a revenge fantasy. It was directed not against the thugs who had brutalised him, but at the spindly young interpreter, his interrogator — “For his smug, virtuous complicity,” Lomax seethed. “He was centre stage in my memories; my private obsession... He stood in for all the worst horrors.”
Lomax was unable to speak of his torment, and his mental state cost him one marriage and was proving problematic for Patti, his second wife, whom he met in 1980. With her husband at rock bottom, she seized the initiative. Using information gleaned from his service colleagues, she learnt that Eric’s bête noire was named Nagase Takashi, and that he was still alive, but frail, and living in Kurashiki. She contacted Nagase and did the unthinkable: arranged a meeting between her husband and the man responsible for his 50 years of suffering. What resulted became the source of an unexpected bestseller; not a confrontation, but a cathartic and moving act of forgiveness on the part of Eric.
Next month sees the release of a new film version of Lomax’s story. An Anglo-Australian co-production, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, it stars Nicole Kidman as Patti and Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine respectively as the older and younger Eric. The story flashes between the bright, steaming jungles of Southeast Asia and the Lomaxes’ home on the grey, storm-lashed coast at Berwick- upon-Tweed, where Patti still lives.
As a full-time nurse to Eric in his final years (he died in October 2012, aged 93, after a long degenerative illness), Patti — a sprightly, engaging 76 — admits she was not up to speed with her film stars. Her introductory clip of Firth emerging from the lake in Pride and Prejudice merely rekindled a memory of when her son “fell in the garden pond”. Yet over the 12 years it took to put the movie together, both the film-makers and actors spent a lot of time with the Lomaxes, making this an officially endorsed version of events.
“I thought we’d bought the rights to a book, but we found we’d become involved in the life of a man — we were on a bit of journey with him, really,” says the screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce. “There are not just Erics who came back from Burma, but Erics who came back from Iraq. Every conflict has its Erics. One of the oldest pieces of writing about war is The Odyssey. When it comes down to it, you don’t go straight home from a war, it takes you 10 years and you have to fight loads of monsters.”
This is not the first version of the story to go before the cameras. Nagase was portrayed in the 2001 prison camp film To End All Wars. Indeed, the meeting between Lomax and Nagase at Kanchanaburi was filmed by the BBC, and became the subject of the 1995 documentary Enemy, My Friend?
It was followed soon after by a television drama, Prisoners in Time, starring John Hurt and scripted by the lauded Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden also deals with a victim confronting a torturer. Patti was not a fan of the TV film. “Oh, that was rubbish.” She hopes the new version will not only paint a more complete picture of Eric’s plight, but provide counterbalance to other misleading dramas about Japanese POWs, most notably David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, an acclaimed movie but entirely fictitious and despised by former internees, not least for its portrayed collaboration between officers and gaolers.
Lean, though, does get a nod in The Railway Man, when Patti and Eric, middle-aged divorcees, meet Brief Encounter-style in a first-class compartment on the Crewe-Glasgow express, with Patti shown making the moves, rather than the other way round. “I said, ‘You’re making me look like a tart,’” she laughs.
Fans of the book may be surprised at her central role. She’s hardly in the book, not making an entrance until the last 50 pages. “It felt to us that Patti was a much, much bigger part of the story,” says the producer/co-writer Andy Paterson, who had worked with Boyce on the biopic Hilary and Jackie. Also, he points out, there was a fundamental dramatic problem “dealing with a story in which the principal character would not talk”.
There are the other inevitable changes, the time compressions and character amalgamations that come with book-to-screen adaptations. The most significant departure from reality is in the showdown between Lomax and Nagase — set up in the movie as an ambush of the unsuspecting Japanese (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), whereas the TV-brokered reunion came about after a long period of counselling of Eric by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and two years of correspondence in which the Lomaxes had built up a fuller picture of Nagase and his postwar life.
The torturer had, it turned out, been equally haunted by his actions, swearing to dedicate the rest of his life to the railway’s 100,000 victims. After working with the War Graves Commission, he had opened a Buddhist temple at Kanchanaburi and set up a charity for the railway’s forgotten victims, the local Asian labourers.
He was still not penitent enough for Patti, who had read his 1990 book, Crosses and Tigers, in which he remarked that he felt a moment of spiritual exoneration for his part in the torture of a young British officer — unnamed but quite clearly, by description, Lomax. “I just thought this was absolutely shocking, this horrible little Japanese man saying he felt forgiven,” she says. The only person who could do that was Eric.
Nagase’s speedy reply to her opening letter was a watershed moment for the Lomaxes. “He wrote back very quickly. I couldn’t pick the letter up — I saw it on the doormat, it just looked so dirty to me,” she remembers. But the poetry of it shook them. “I think having received such a letter from you is my destiny... the dagger of your letter thrusted me into my heart to the bottom.” As Eric put it: “Anger drained away; in its place came a welling of compassion.”
In March 1993, the men met at the bridge on the “River Khwae” (such is the tourist value of Lean’s film, the Thai government renamed the Mae Klong river in its honour), accompanied by their wives. Lomax towered over his birdlike opposite number. “He began a formal bow, his face working and agitated,” he recalled. “He looked up at me, he was trembling, in tears, saying over and over, ‘I am very, very sorry.’” And thus did Lomax give him his absolution.
Nagase died in 2011. Patti says the relationship with his family never continued. “I believe they’re not interested.” Recently, when Teplitzky screened his film at the Tokyo film festival, he was warned it might ruffle a few feathers. It didn’t. “In fact, I spoke to a hundred people after the screening,” he says, “and every single one of them said, ‘Thank you for bringing this story to Japan, because none of us know or have ever heard about the Death Railway.’ That’s the more defining thing: these chapters of history have never been taught in Japanese schools.” The film is now going out on twice as many screens in Japan as was intended. Despite his involvement throughout, Eric died just months before the film was completed. While it was being shot in Berwick, however, he defied doctor’s orders to visit the set, the crew carrying his wheelchair out to the location. “That really was Eric’s premiere,” Patti says. He would not have wanted to have seen the completed film anyway, she adds. “He felt it would renew bad memories.”
On that day in 1993, walking around the Kanchanaburi war cemetery alongside the Nagases, Patti had asked Eric whether they were being disloyal to all those young men beneath the soil. His response is repeated in both the last line of his book and in the inscription that now adorns his headstone. “It was burned in my mind. He said, ‘Patti, some time the hating has to stop.’”