Old Filth – not exactly an appealing title. But as is explained on the first page of Jane Gardam's novel, 'Filth' is the name Sir Edward Feathers has invented for himself - Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. He has had a successful and lucrative career as a barrister and a judge in the Far East, and has now retired to Dorset with his wife Betty.
But Old Filth's retirement is not a tranquil one. As he reminisces about his life, Gardam flashes back to scenes of Filth's childhood in Malay, where, after his mother dies in childbirth, his grieving, alcoholic father leaves him to the care of the wet nurse and then ships him off to England at the age of six as a 'Raj Orphan'. At the time (the 30's – before World War II) it was apparently common for British families living in the Far East to send their young children back to England to live with foster families and then be sent to boarding schools. The idea was to save them from tropical diseases and prepare them for service to the Empire. Sounds harsh, but that's the English for you.
The story jumps back and forth between Filth's memories of his childhood and young adulthood (including as stint as a sort of security guard and companion for Queen Mary during the war) and his present day travels around England to try to resolve the turbulent emotions which hide under his 'stiff upper lip' exterior. Anyone who has ridden on the M roads in the UK will have to laugh at his motoring adventures. But his attempts to connect and come to terms with past are poignant and powerful.
Sir Edward Feathers can be snobbish, cold, and misanthropic (he can't remember the name of the maid who has worked for him for twenty years) but in Gardam's hands he becomes a sympathetic character whose loneliness is heartbreaking.I had already admired Jane Gardam's writing in "The Queen of the Tambourine" (see blog) and I now look forward to her “The Man in the Wooden Hat”, where she tells the story of Edward's marriage from his wife Betty's perspective.
PS Don't forget our round table discussion of The Radetzky March next week. There's much to talk about – fathers and sons, the simultaneous declines of an empire and a family, historical parallels.
Happy New Year and Happy Reading!