Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections – Frank Cottrell Boyce

7th January 2013

R & R over and it’s time to wrap up the Shadows & Reflections series for another year. We hope you have enjoyed the round up, it’s always a popular feature on the site for the reason, I think, that it gives us all the opportunity to get to know our fine bunch of contributors better.
In previous years us three ‘editors’ would have chipped in with our stories but this year the only one of us to give it up, you may have noticed, was Robin. Andrew and I apologise for our absence, it’s not that nothing eventful has happened to us, in fact quite the opposite, but currently without a confidence in my writing, I personally couldn’t work out where to start. If we were missed, fear not, all is well.

It’s an honour to close the series with the welcome return of Frank Cottrell Boyce. Frank had quite a 2012, and we salute him for the fantastic job that he did as the writer of the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony and congratulate him as the winner of The Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. With this in mind, Frank made a comment in his email that I thought I’d use to preface the piece, but before we start can I take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy new year from Robin, Andrew and myself. (JB)


After the year I’ve had it seems weird to be offering you a shadow but here it is …

Sometimes you meet a hero who behave exactly as you dreamed a hero would.

Eric Lomax was the author of The Railway Man – an astonishing memoir that twists around a horrible irony. As a boy, Eric was enthralled by the great steam trains that piled in and out of Waverley Station in Edinburgh. As a young soldier he was take prisoner by the Japanese and set to work as a slave on the notorious Burma Railway. He saw his comrades worked to death, and he was tortured for building a radio.


No one ever really recovers from the humiliation of torture. No one really regains the trust that is necessary if you’re going to love or be loved. For years Eric functioned behind a smoke screen of old school grace and evasion. He had a family but he punished them with his cool and distance. Then he fell in love in middle age with a woman he met on a train (of course). You can’t open up to happiness, without opening up to pain. Love destroyed Eric’s suave exterior and plunged him into a world of nightmares, panics, sweats and paranoia. He realised this was his one chance of happiness. So he took action, like a soldier. He hunted down the man who tortured him. He went to find him, to confront him. He faced him. Incredibly, they became friends.

Trains, wars, love, forgiveness and a hero with the elegant toughness of Roger Livesey or Robert Donat. Obviously we wanted to make a movie about Eric.

The first time I visited him at his home in Berwick on Tweed, I was a good deal later than I said I’d be. My daughter was in year six at primary school. She wanted to go on the school trip to Martin Mere bird reserve but she was very very ill – she had a serious blood condition – and we weren’t happy about her going so far without a parent. The trip was the same day I had arranged to visit Eric. So I went with her and got the coach to drop me off at the nearest Merseyrail station, then doglegged across country until I hit the East Coast mainline at York. It was an exhausting, uncomfortable journey. I spent most of it leaning against a toilet door with a pit bull sucking my ankle.

I knocked at Eric’s door full of apologies, explaining about my daughter – “I had to start my journey in Burscough”. Eric twinkled. “So that would be Burscough Bridge to Salford Crescent – Salford Crescent to Manchester Oxford Road – Oxford Road to Piccadilly – Piccadilly to York and then you’re on your way.” Exactly right. He took me into the warmth of his study where Andy Paterson – the producer – was waiting and we went through his collection of Bradshaw’s Timetables – some of them so ancient they showed the times not only of the trains but also of the mail coaches.

Eric passionately wanted his story told. So did we. Partly because the suffering of the men who were enslaved on the railway has gone unrecognised (on his return, one lady told Eric that it was a pity he never had his chance to do his bit). But also because the truth of his story is also often unreported – the truth that we are better, stronger than we think are, and that being vulnerable is part of that strength, that love can bring you back from the darkest place. But it’s hard to make any film, especially if the lead character belongs to a dying breed and all your ideal cast – Donat, Redgrave, Livesey – are long long gone. Eric always trusted us but as the years went by I felt more and more embarrassed about our failure to get this film going. It was mortifying to think of that warm, wry hero gradually coming round to the view that I was a flaky bullshitter. Andy though never gave up and never stopped working so that this year we finally got the Railway Man made. Just to give you an idea of how long it took to make. That sickly little girl from year 6 is now married. When I went back to Eric’ s house for the first time in six years, he didn’t greet me with passenger information, instead he asked me how she was. Sometimes your heroes behave in ways that exceed your expectations.

Eric was frail and old and ill but still bright and incisive and generous. Andy finagled the shooting schedule so that we’d have at least one day with a film crew near Eric’s house so that he’d be able to visit the set and swank about being played by Colin Firth. We spent the morning at the bottom of his street but he was too tired and shivery to come out. So the actors went and had lunch with him. This pepped him up enormously so he put on his bobble hat and woolly muffler and insisted on coming out to see what was going on. By then we’d moved to the top of a steep hill overlooking the harbour. It took a team of sparks to hoist his wheelchair onto the location and navigate him through the tracks and wires and cranes. It was a little bit Fitzcarraldo and a little bit Heath Robinson. When we’d settled him by the monitor, he summoned me and pointed to the dolly track on which the camera was mounted. “I’d be fascinated to learn,” he said, “what gauge that track is.” Afterwards, the star of the movie – Colin Firth – took a massive cake shaped like a steam engine round to Eric’s nursing home and allowed himself to be fussed and petted by the nurses. Eric said “this was one of the best days of my life”.

I grew up in the sixties in a Liverpool that was still in the shadow of the War. There were gaps in the streets – bomb sites – and in my life – I had no grandads – that bore witness to how recent it was. There are very few WW2 veterans left alive now. Everytime one of them dies, a link is broken in the chain that ties us to that great, defining event. In October this year, Eric died. There was just one of his fellow prisoners at the funeral – frail, dapper, covered in medals, sipping tea. I may have misheard but I think he might be the last one.

We were heart broken to lose him. All the more so because the director – Jonathan Teplitzky – was just a few of weeks short of us getting the film into a state where he could see it. He and Andy were heart-broken. We’d promised Eric he’d see that film one day. But thinking about it now, it was probably a mercy. Eric’s great achievement was to have survived the darkest place and to have left it behind. Why would he want to revisit that in dolby stereo and technicolour? What could we add to what he already knew? Thinking about it now – in a house full of the sound of children getting ready for Christmas – it seems to me that Eric’s greatest victory was that he was able to shake off the dark shadows that had hunted him and to die with heart set on friendship, cakes and love and steam trains.