Interview – John McCarthy

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John McCarthy
John McCarthy

The Railway Man tells the true story of a former British Army officer Eric Lomax, who was tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labor camp during World War II, discovers that the man responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him.

John McCarthy who was famously held captive himself in the 80s in Lebanon is a big fan of the book the film is based on and knew Eric Lomax personally. John kindly sat down with me to discuss the film this week.

How did you first become aware of Eric Lomaxs story?

I met Eric through a charity in London that helps torture survivors that we were both involved with, I became involved after my experiences as a hostage in Lebanon. It was amazing meeting this lovely old man who at this point was in his 80s tall very elegant with a very very soft Scottish accent, you really couldn’t believe this man had witnessed something so nasty in the past.

We talked shared experiences, I was this much younger man with this fresh experience and we just talked about what it was like for us both, his experience putting what happened to me massively in perspective, I thought fuck mine was bad but child’s play compared to what happened to this man!

If You didn’t know Erics story was true doesn’t it almost seem like a Hollywood tale?

Yes exactly, reminds me of that old line, the truth is stranger than fiction! And it is. Although Hollywood now would most likely have Eric throw his nemeses off the bridge at the end!

Its an extremely well made film and of course starring Firth and Kidman they are big names so people will hear Erics story through them and that’s great because not only are the performances great its such an important subject and I don’t just mean the Japanese treatment of the British and Australians which is clearly terribly important but more so understanding what torture is and what it does to people and of course the people that perpetrate it .

Your own story has been portrayed twice in film, once by Colin Firth in Hostages and again by Linus Roache in Blind Flight , were you happy with how your story was portrayed in both cases?

Yes although less so with Colin Firth in Hostages not disappointed with his performance at all but that film came out very soon after my release and I wasn’t involved with it at all so you cant really be telling my story when I haven’t even come to terms with it and it was before I wrote my book. With Blind Flight I worked on that with Brian Keenan and actually ended up becoming very close with Linus and still am, that film really did it for me I was involved with it so I was very confident on how we put the script together and the production.

Do you think The Railway Man film is a good translation of the book?

They have done a great job obviously theres a lot of flash backs which isn’t the way the book is written but they had to do that really to highlight things to get through it in time , what they do show is a man curiously devastated , we meet him on the street and think whats wrong with that old boy you know? But hes obviously totally fractured as Patti Nicoles character discovers.

In The Railway Man Lomax eventually had his chance at revenge and ultimately chose forgiveness, do you think you could be as forgiving given the same opportunity to confront your captors’?

I’ve talked about this with Brian before, it depends which guard it was really, we were abused by one or two of the guards holding us over the years, obviously the whole situation was horribly abusive you know chained up and kept in terrible conditions but in fact only a few of the guards really took advantage of that totally control they had of the situation to take it further, push and explore what the weird elements of their mind wanted to do to us and I would say that was limited to four people out of maybe forty. You have to remember most of those guys were in their early twenty’s and most of their lives had been dominated by civil war but by on large they still had a bit of humanity left in them so they didn’t seem to abuse us beyond what they had to. If one of those guys came up to me Id like to think Id be able to just shake hands, if it were one of the bad guys I don’t know what Id want to do Id hope I’m mature enough and over it by a long way to shake hands and keep moving I don’t think Id want to hit them but I certainly did when I was locked up, I would have loved to reverse roles.

People ask me do I forgive them? Well not really, I don’t have the desire or a need to, Im free and they have moved on in their world and hopefully they have all had productive lives. For Eric it was clearly very different as his life had been totally blighted by that, I was encouraged to tell my story it was totally another world for Eric , men didn’t talk about and that the fact that they had been prisoners at all wasn’t quite right you know? Where as I was a hero apparently.

Many journalists have been captured and sometimes killed while reporting in dangerous parts of the world, what is your position now having experienced being held against your will, do you think the danger is worth it for the story?

From my point of view I am wary now of going to hot war zones, Im in the middle east a lot but Im not going to Damascus this week or Bagdad which is getting violent again. I do think its important we get information on what is going on in those places as so often our governments will be involved in whats going on and making decisions on our behalf , so for the public to be informed about that is terribly important.

What do you think of the recent rise in Bloggers reporting from the front line in places like the Ukraine, good idea for free speech or should they leave it to the professionals?

I think its important that we trust our news sources so a blogger is a incredibly valuable news source if you can understand their background, its like the BBC operates on three sources to confirm everything which slows down news but ensures its credible.

Your fellow hostage Brian Keenan said upon release “I’m going to visit every country in the world, eat all the food of the world, drink all the drink of the world and, I hope, make love to every woman in the world. Then I might get a good night’s sleep” did you have similar ambitions of your own, if so have you fulfilled them?

Probably yeah but the most important thing about that is the last line of that about a good nights sleep, that’s what I would actually like most of all is to lay down and not wonder where I am in the world and if I’m safe but yes I think those ambitions sum up what one wants to go with their liberty.

The Railway Man is out on Blu-Ray and DVD from May 5th which you can order from Amazon here

I would also thoroughly recommend John McCarthys book about his experience ‘Some Other Rainbow’

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