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Old Filth

Old Filth

4.0 42
by Jane Gardam

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Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood.


Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood. Now an eighty-year-old widower living in comfortable seclusion in Dorset, Feathers is finally free from the regimen of work and the sentimental scaffolding that has sustained him throughout his life. He slips back into the past with ever mounting frequency and intensity, and on the tide of these vivid, lyrical musings, Feathers approaches a reckoning with his own history. Not all the old filth, it seems, can be cleaned away.

Borrowing from biography and history, Jane Gardam has written a literary masterpiece reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's Baa Baa, Black Sheep that retraces much of the twentieth century's torrid and momentous history. Feathers' childhood in Malaya during the British Empire's heyday, his schooling in pre-war England, his professional success in Southeast Asia and his return to England toward the end of the millennium, are vantage points from which the reader can observe the march forward of an eventful era and the steady progress of that man, Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth himself, who embodies the century's fate.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
This mordantly funny novel examines the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a desiccated barrister known to colleagues and friends as Old Filth (the nickname stands for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong”). After a lucrative career in Asia, Filth settles into retirement in Dorset. With anatomical precision, Gardam reveals that, contrary to appearances, Sir Edward’s life is seething with incident: a “raj orphan,” whose mother died when he was born and whose father took no notice of him, he was shipped from Malaysia to Wales (cheaper than England) and entrusted to a foster mother who was cruel to him. What happened in the years before he settled into school, and was casually adopted by his best friend’s kindly English country family, haunts, corrodes, and quickens Filth’s heart; Gardam’s prose is so economical that no moment she describes is either gratuitous or wasted.
Jonathan Yardley
… [Old Filth] will bring immense pleasure to readers who treasure fiction that is intelligent, witty, sophisticated and -- a quality encountered all too rarely in contemporary culture -- adult.
— The Washington Post
Paul Gray
Gardam’s novel is an anthology of such bittersweet scenes, rendered by a novelist at the very top of her form. She may have taken the name of her hero’s Hong Kong rival, Veneering, from an unattractive social climber in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, but a reading of her new novel seems convincing proof that the name Old Filth also belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
British novelist Gardam has twice won the Whitbread and was shortlisted for the Man Booker. This, her 15th novel, was shortlisted in Britain for the Orange Prize; it outlines 20th-century British history through the life of Sir Edward Feathers, a barrister whose acronymic nickname provides the title: "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." At nearly 80, Feathers, retired in Dorset after many years as a respected Hong Kong judge, is a hollow man with few real friends and a cold, sexless marriage that has just ended with the death of his wife, Betty. For the first time, "Filth" (as even Betty called him) delves into the past that produced him: a "Raj orphan" raised by a series of surrogates while his father worked in Singapore, Filth served briefly in WWII (guarding the Queen) and had a lackluster stint as a London barrister before emigrating. The flashbacks contrast British privilege and the chaos that ensues when the empire (especially Filth's childhood Malaya), starts to crumble. As Filth undertakes chaotic visits to his Welsh foster home and other sites, Gardam's sharp, acerbic style counterpoints Feathers's dryness. Well-rounded secondary figures further highlight his emptiness and that of empire. (June) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Gardam's impressive oeuvre runs to over 25 books for adults and children, including Whitbread Prize winners The Queen of the Tambourine and The Hollow Land, but her latest has the freshness and energy of a particularly brilliant first novel. Filth (short for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong") is a retired international lawyer who has recently been widowed. Left to contemplate his long marriage, the moral contradictions of his career, and the passionate hatred he harbors for his next-door neighbor, Filth keeps returning to the trauma of his childhood as a "Raj orphan," one of the countless colonial children sent away from their parents to be educated in a "home" in an England they had never known. The various meanings of "home" and the gap between the public persona and the private person are just two of the complex themes that Gardam treats here with the lightest of touches. Both witty and poignant, this work is more than a character study; through her protagonist, Gardam offers a view of the last days of empire as seen from post-9/11 Britain. Strongly recommended.-Leora Bersohn, Columbia Univ., New York Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The marvelously versatile Gardam (Faith Fox, 2003, etc.) dips into British imperial history for her extraordinary portrait of a Raj orphan. Filth is an acronym (Failed In London, Try Hong Kong) and the affectionate nickname for Sir Edward Feathers, whose distinguished career, as an advocate and judge, began in Hong Kong in 1947. His colleagues saw an "untroubled and uneventful life." Boy, were they wrong. For Eddie, son of a servant of Empire, was a Raj orphan whose common lot was to be shipped off to British foster families. Eddie's case was extreme. His mother died after giving birth in Malaya; his whisky-fueled father rejected him; he was housed with a native girl, Ada, who adored him. Eddie's first trauma will be his removal from Ada; the four-year-old is dispatched (in steerage) to a child-hating, sadistic foster mother in Wales, Ma Didds. His time with her will be his second great trauma. The story begins when Filth is an old man, living alone in the English countryside, his beloved wife Betty recently dead, then alternates fluidly between old age and childhood and youth, which had its bright spots. Filth has repressed memories of Ma Didds's regime, which he ended dramatically with the help of her other charges, his cousins Babs and Claire. Yet the horrifying memory tolls like a distant bell, and the climax comes when Filth and Babs relive it, in the presence of a priest. The wheel has come full circle; the old man is as vulnerable as a child; his spiritual journey is complete. Gardam's richly textured novel is packed with memorable sequences: Eddie traveling to Singapore, an evacuee from WW2 Britain, sharing a cabin with a half-Chinese cardsharp; back in Britain, guarding QueenMary from the Germans; much later, in shock after Betty's death, driving wildly across England to visit ancient, half-mad cousin Babs, who has just proposed to a schoolboy. One of the finest achievements of this greatly talented British author.
From the Publisher

Praise for Old Filth

"Old Filth belongs in the Dickensian pantheon of memorable characters."
The New York Times Book Review 

"[Old Filth] will bring immense pleasure to readers who treasure fiction that is intelligent, witty, sophisticated and—a quality encountered all too rarely in contemporary culture—adult."
The Washington Post

"Gardam is an exquisite storyteller, picking up threads, laying them down, returning to them and giving them new meaning...Old Filth is sad, funny, beautiful and haunting."—The Seattle Times 

"A masterpiece of storytelling."—The Dallas Morning News 

"Jane Gardam's beautiful, vivid, defiantly funny novel is a must."—The Times 

Product Details

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Read an Excerpt

Scene: Inner Temple

The Benchers' luncheon-room of the Inner Temple. Light pours through the long windows upon polished table, silver, glass. A number of Judges and Benchers finishing lunch. One chair has recently been vacated and the Benchers are looking at it.

The Queen's Remembrancer: I suppose we all know who that was?

Junior Judge: I've no idea.

Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face.

The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth.

JJ: What! But he must have died years ago. Contemporary of F.E. Smith.

CS: No. It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge and - bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH — Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap.

SJ: Hard worker. Well — the Pollution Law. Feathers on Pollution.

CS: Filth on Filth.

SJ: An old joke. He must be a hundred.

CS: Nowhere near. He's not been retired all that long. Looks a great age, though.

QR: Transparent. You could see the light through him.

CS: Magnificent looks, though. And still sharp.

QR: He's up here doing things to his Will. He's got Betty with him. She's still alive too. They've had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet. Looked after themselves.

CS: Never put a foot wrong, Old Filth. Very popular.

QR: Except with Veneering.

SJ: Yes, that was odd. Out of character.

QR: For such a benevolent old bugger. D'you think there are mysteries?

SJ: Old Filth mysterious?

QR: It's a wonder he's not just a bore.

CS: Yes. But he's not. Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar — but he's not a bore. Women went mad for him.

QR: Coffee? You going through?

CS: Yes. Ten minutes. My Clerk's packing in the next case. He'll be ranting at me. Tapping his watch.

QR: Yes. This isn't Hong Kong. Coffee? But it was good to see the old coelacanth.

CS: Yes. Yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren.

The Donheads

He was spectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean. His ancient fingernails were rimmed with purest white. The few still-gold hairs below his knuckles looked always freshly shampooed, as did his curly still-bronze hair. His shoes shone like conkers. His clothes were always freshly pressed. He had the elegance of the 1920s, for his garments, whatever they looked like off, always became him. Always a Victorian silk handkerchief in the breast pocket. Always yellow cotton or silk socks from Harrods; and some still-perfect from his old days in the East. His skin was clear and, in a poor light, young.

His colleagues at the Bar called him Filth, but not out of irony. It was because he was considered to be the source of the old joke, Failed In London Try Hong Kong. It was said that he had fled the London Bar, very young, very poor, on a sudden whim just after the War, and had done magnificently well in Hong Kong from the start. Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit.

Filth in fact was no great maker of jokes, was not at all modest about his work and seldom, except in great extremity, went in for whims. He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after retirement.

Now, nearing eighty, he lived alone in Dorset. His wife Betty was dead but he often prattled on to her around the house. Astonishingly in one so old, his curly hair was not yet grey. His eyes and mind alert, he was a delightful man. He had always been thought so. A man whose distinguished life had run steadily and happily. There was no smell of old age about his house. He was rich and took for granted that it (and he) would be kept clean, fed and laundered by servants as it had always been. He knew how to treat servants and they stayed for years.

Betty had been successful with servants, too. Both she and Old Filth had been born in what Americans called the Orient and the British Raj had called the Far East. They knew who they were, but they were unselfconscious and popular.

After Betty's death the self-mockery dwindled in Old Filth. His life exploded. He became more ponderous. He began, at first slowly, to flick open shutters on the past that he had, as a sensible man with sensible and learned friends (he was a QC and had been a Judge), kept clamped down.

His success as an advocate in Hong Kong had been phenomenal for he had had ease, grasp, diligence and flair. His career had taken off the minute he had begun to be briefed by the Straits-Chinese. It was not just that scraps of eastern languages began to re-emerge from his childhood in Malaya, but a feeling of nearness to the Oriental mind. When Old Filth spoke Malay or (less ably) Mandarin, you heard an unsuspected voice. Chinese, Malay and Bengali lawyers — though often trained at Oxford and the Inns of Court — were thought to be not straightforward but Filth, now Old Filth and after his retirement often Dear Old Filth, had found them perfectly straightforward, and to his taste.

All his life he kept a regard for Chinese values: the courtesy, the sudden thrust, the holiness of hospitality, the pleasure in money, the decorum, the importance of food, the discretion, the cleverness. He had married a Scotswoman but she had been born in Peking. She was dumpy and tweedy with broad Lanarkshire shoulders and square hands, but she spoke Mandarin perfectly and was much more at home with Chinese ways and idiom than she ever felt on her very rare visits to Scotland. Her passion for jewellery was Chinese and her strong Scottish fingers rattled the trays of jade in the street markets of Kowloon, stirring the stones like pebbles on a beach. 'When you do that,' Old Filth would say — when they were young and he was still aware of her all the time — 'your eyes are almond-shaped.' 'Poor Old Betty,' he would say to her ghost across in another armchair in the house in Dorset to which they had retired and in which she had died.

And why ever Dorset? Nobody knew. Some family tradition somewhere perhaps. Filth said it was because he disliked everywhere else in England, Betty because she felt the cold in Scotland. They both had a dismissive attitude towards Wales.

But if any old pair had been born to become retired ex-pats in Hong Kong, members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St Andrew's Church and St John's Cathedral, they were Filth and Betty. People who would always be able to keep servants (Filth was very rich), who would live in a house on The Peak, be forever welcoming hosts to every friend of a friend's friend visiting the Colony. When you thought of Betty, you saw her at her round rosewood dining table, looking quickly about her to see if plates were empty, tinkling her little bell to summon the snakey smiling girls in their household livery of identical cheongsams. Old Filth and Betty were perfectly international people, beloved ornaments at every one of the Memorial Services to old friends, English or Chinese, in the Cathedral. In the last years these deaths had been falling thick and fast upon them.

Was it perhaps 'The Pound' that drew them to Dorset? The thought of having to survive one day in Hong Kong on a pension? But the part of Dorset they had chosen was far from cheap. Betty was known to 'have her own money' and Filth had always said merrily that he had put off making Judge for as long as possible so that he hadn't to live on a salary.

And they had no children. No responsibilities. No one to come back to England for.

Or was it — the most likely thing — the end of Empire? The drawing-near of 1997? Was it the unbearableness of the thought of the arrival of the barbarians? The now unknown, but certainly changed, Mainland-Chinese whose grandparents had fed the baby Miss Betty on soft, cloudy jellies and told her frightening fairy tales?

Neither Filth nor Betty cared for the unknown and already, five years before they left, English was not being heard so much in Hong Kong shops and hotels and, when it was heard, it was being spoken less well. Many familiar English and Chinese had disappeared to London or Seattle or Toronto, and many children had vanished to foreign boarding schools. The finest of the big houses on The Peak were in darkness behind steel grilles, and at Betty's favourite jeweller the little girls behind the counter, who sat all day threading beads and who still seemed to look under sixteen although she had known them twenty years, glanced up more slowly now when she rang the bell on the armour-plated door. They kept their fixed smiles but somehow found fewer good stones for her. Chinese women she knew had not the same difficulty.

So suddenly Filth and Betty were gone, gone for ever from the sky-high curtains of glittering lights, unflickering gold, softgreen and rose, from the busy waters of the finest harbour in the world and the perpetual drama of every sort of boat: the junks and oil tankers and the private yachts like swans, and the comforting, bottle-green bulk of the little Star Ferries that chugged back and forth to Kowloon all day and most of the night. This deck accommodates 319 passengers. Filth had loved the certainty of the 19.

So they were gone, far from friends and over seventy, to a house deep in the Donheads on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, an old low stone house that could not be seen from its gate. A rough, narrow drive climbed up to it, curving towards it and out of sight. The house sat on a small plateau looking down over forests of every sort and colour of English tree, and far across the horizon was a long scalpel line of milky, chalky downland, dappled with shadows drawn across it by the clouds. No place in the world is less like Hong Kong or the Far East.

Yet it was not so remote that a doctor might start suggesting in a few years' time that it might be kinder to the Social Services if they were to move nearer to civilisation. There was a village half a mile up the hilly road that passed their gate, and half a mile in the other direction, also up a hill for their drive ran down into a dip, were a church and a shop. There were other houses among the trees. There was even a house next door, its gateway alongside theirs, its drive curving upwards as did their own, though branching away. It disappeared, as did their own. So they were secluded but not cut off.

And it worked. They made it work. Betty was the sort of woman who had plotted that the end of her life would work, and Filth, having Betty, had no fears of failure. They changed of course. They discarded much. They went out and about very little. Betty wrote a great many letters. They put their hearts into becoming content, safe in their successful lives. Filth had always said — of his Cases — 'I am trained to forget.' 'Otherwise,' he said, 'how could I function?' Facts, memories, the pain of life — of lives in chaos — have to be forgotten. Filth had condemned men to death. Had seen innocent men convicted. As a Silk he reckoned that fifty per cent of his Cases had gone wrong. In Hong Kong the Judges lived in an enclave of palaces but behind steel gates guarded night and day.

In The Donheads they felt safe behind the lock of their oldfashioned farmhouse door that could never accidentally be left on the latch. Betty gardened, Filth read thrillers and biographies, worked now and then in his tool shed. He kept his Judge's wig in its oval black-and-gold tin box on the hearth, like a grey cat in a basket. Then in time, as there was nobody but Betty to be amused, he moved it to his wardrobe to lie with his black silk stockings and buckled shoes. He had not brought the Black Cap home.

Betty sat sewing. She often stared for hours at the trees. They went to the supermarket in Shaftesbury once a week in their modest car. A gardener came to do the heavy digging and a woman from a nearby village came in four times a week to clean, cook and do the laundry. Betty said that Hong Kong's legacy was to make foreigners unable to do their own washing. After Betty died, the gardener and the woman continued to work for Filth. Filth's lifetime of disciplined charm survived well.

Or so it seemed. Looking back, Filth knew that beneath his apparent serenity the years after Betty's departure had been a time of mental breakdown and that mental breakdown in someone conditioned to an actor's life (which is the Bar) can be invisible both to the sufferer and everyone else.

And this — the event he came to see as the beginning of enlightenment — occurred one Christmas, two years on. The cleaning lady started it.

Meet the Author

Jane Gardam has twice won the Whitbread Award, for The Hollow Land, and Queen of the Tambourine. She is also the author of God on the Rocks, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and most recently, Faith Fox.

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Old Filth 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 42 reviews.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
One of the best uses of flashback that I can remember. Immensely wise, this bittersweet story is an old man's life. Gradually Gardam reveals the successes and failures of Eddie Feathers, his astonishing luck and balance amid life's rough seas. We come to respect his judgement, appreciate his wit, thank him for his humanity, and love him for forgiving the infidelities of his wife, and for his embrace of his arch nemesis. We miss him at the end. One of the great characters of British literature today. We first see eighty-year-old Feathers in retirement in Dorset, England after a long career at the bar in Hong Kong. Careful reasoning on illustrious cases over his career earns him a reputation at home and abroad and he is known to all by the sobriquet "Old Filth" (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a term usually reserved for a group of people. His mind drifts back over chapters in his life that formed and directed him, and we see him reason, and change. A remarkable performance which should earn Jane Gardam well-deserved respect and a large audience.
momwifeattorneygolfer More than 1 year ago
if you enjoy british novels...and i wouldn't use the word contemporary to describe them, you might enjoy this one. I happen to love british writing, so i am biased here. anita brookner is my favorite author. this is in the same vein. excellent writing.
Barb52 More than 1 year ago
What's all the excitement about?, I asked myself. I felt as though I were traveling through the very foggy mind of an elderly gentleman who is losing his faculties. There was far too much wondering what the author meant. Perhaps Gardam meant for readers to feel as though they were somewhat lost. For those of us without a background in the specific history of the 'Raj', many references were lost. I just could not get enthusiastic about OLD FILTH.
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SheilaDeeth More than 1 year ago
They don’t even see him, in a corner of the room, when today’s important lawyers remember Old Filth. They remember him with a touch of fond reverence—Failed In London but surely made it when he Tried Hongkong. They know he’s back in England, and his wife died, and there was that thing... maybe. But there are many “things” hiding in Jane Gardam’s novel, Old Filth: The history of England’s children, born in the Empire’s farflung corners and sent “home” because, somehow, foreign illnesses might be more dangerous than growing up without a family; the history of war, its confusion and agony and loss; and the history of law in the promise of foreign shores. Relationships slowly reveal themselves in new lights as different characters take the stage. And behind it all, almost unseen, Old Filth is almost accidentally gathering his fractured selves into one—invisible, lost, forgotten, then remembered again. The writing is pleasingly spare, inviting readers to connect the dots, and rewarding them with brilliantly evocative scenes, low-key pathos and humor, and powerful depths of character and relationships. Events shift effortlessly from past to present, from Malaysia to boarding school and university; and every mystery hides its own kind of answer, near or far, waiting for its perfect revelation. The novel is powerfully moving. The protagonist demands an almost reluctant sympathy. And the decline and fall of Empire are beautifully chronicled in the life of a lonely, oddly appealing, irascible old man. Disclosure: Our book group picked this book and I’m so glad they did.
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Recommended by 2 friends; characters got me hooked so had to read other 2 books to see what happens to everyone.
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Yourgalsal More than 1 year ago
Oh those naught Brits! This book may explain a lot. Excellent tale of Hong Kong and Great Britain Ex Pats starting just before WWII. I'm not giving anything away by saying that "FILTH" stands for "fail in London, try Hong Kong." If you're of a certain age, you'll enjoy this book. Two other books on the same theme have been written by this author. I've already started the second one.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a book that can be savored or read quickly. It works on many levels and threads neatly back and forth, as one's mind does after a long life, between the decades of a life. It deals with death and impending death, love, lust and repression, cruelty, secrets and opening up, filth and coming clean, loss and loyalty, the old and the young, the mysteries behind masks, the hurts and longings. It's grist for book clubs and sharing or for just a good read.
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Love-my-NookNJ More than 1 year ago
I have several friends who are Raj orphans so I found the book fascinating. I am looking forward to reading the follow-up book "The Man in the Wooden Hat"
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