Old Filth

Old Filth

by Jane Gardam

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Book One in Jane Gardam's Old Filth Trilogy

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781933372136
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 06/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 88,258
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.89(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jane Gardam is the only writer to have been twice awarded the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel of the Year. She is winner of the David Higham Prize, the Royal Society for Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and the Silver Pen Award from PEN. Her novels include: God on the Rocks, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Old Filth, a finalist for the Orange Prize; The Man in the Wooden Hat, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book prize, and Last Friends, finalist for the Folio Award. She lives in the south of England, near the sea.

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.

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Old Filth 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 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.
Laurenbdavis on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book. Every page is a pleasure. I admit, rather shamefacedly, that this is the first Jane Gardam book I've read, although it certainly won't be the last. This is just the sort of book I treasure -- profoundly compassionate, understated, beautiful paced, full of wit and larded with subtext. Sir Edward Feathers is known as "Old Filth" (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) and this is the story of his life. The plot, if you can call it that, spirals around, one moment he is an old man, the next a young barrister with a brilliant career,the next a happily (?) married man, the next a Raj orphan child with a horrible stammer and a broken heart. There are questions, and some answers, and mysteries, which resolve for the reader, if not Old Filth himself. The century unfolds along with his life. It is deeply poignant without a shred of sentimentality, and the brilliance of the work is that Old Filth is impossible to truly define -- as are all real people. We are a collection of experiences, memories, hopes, failures, dreams, and only a perspective greater than our own can trace a clear path through the twisting, turning trajectories of our lives. Nevertheless, at the end of the this book I felt an instant loss. How I'll miss this man. The book made him my friend. There are few fictional characters I feel that way about. HIGHLY recommended.
yourotherleft on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Old Filth is the story of Edward Feathers born shortly after the end of World War I, the son of a mother who died shortly after childbirth in the British colony of Malay and his father, a distant District Officer of the colony. At 4, he's sent back "Home" to England for schooling only ever to see his father, who never seems to have loved him anyway, for one more fleeting moment. Effectively orphaned, Eddie grows up alone, constantly estranged from those around him for one reason or another. His unhappy past doesn't keep him from success, however. Despite failing as a lawyer in London he becomes a successful lawyer and a judge in the Far East - hence his name, an acronymn for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. The opening pages of the book find Filth a retired but still unassailable old barrister whose reputation has grown to such mythic proportions that it obstructs the hard truths of a man so damaged by his past that he has found himself forever unable to love. It's only as Filth toddles gracefully into old age that he can begin to rediscover the parts of himself that he has locked away and come to terms with the dark secrets that made him the man he became.Old Filth is everything a good character study should be. The book starts out with an elderly, retired Filth who is famous among his peers but also a profound mystery. Then it begins to deconstruct the facade he's constructed, peeling back layer after layer and we begin to know and understand the man even as he unlocks the doors on his past and begins to rediscover himself. Gardam's crisp, clear prose weaves effortlessly between past and present tying together memories of the past and behaviors of the present thereby giving readers a full picture of a fragile boy always destined to lose those he loved, a boy with unthinkable secrets who became a man that always held himself at a distance from those he could have loved. By the end of the book, Filth feels like a friend with his secrets laid bare before us. Your heart will break again and again for him as he endures confusion and rejection as he tries to make connections with people whose concern for him is fleeting. You will be proud of the successful, polished, determined gentleman he became even despite circumstances that could have crushed him again and again. In short, Filth is a complicated, vivid character that smacks of reality, and a man you, like me, will begin to miss as soon as you turn the last page.
banksh99 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A lovely book, great characterizations, beautifully written.
writestuff on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Old Filth ("Failed in London Try Hong Kong") is a surly, retired Judge who begins to remember his past as he enters the final years of his life. The story is told in a series of flashbacks, taking the reader to Malaya where Filth was born, to Wales where he is fostered by the evil Ma Didds, to England where he attends school, and to Hong Kong where he finds his professional niche. Along the way, people from Filth's past surface to fill in the gaps of his memory - and a crime is uncovered.This book was hard to rate - there were moments of brilliance from Jane Gardam. She likes to play with words and metaphor, such as when Filth meets a character by the name of Loss.'Loss's defection was the metaphor for Eddie's life. It was Eddie's fate always to be left. Always to be left and forgotten. Everyone gone, now. Out of his reach. For the first time, Eddie was utterly on his own.' -From Old Filth, page 230-Gardam also uses this same style to explore the idea of revelation - a central theme in the novel.'The suitcase was immense. He got it out of the roof like a difficult birth. Its label called it a Revelation. "Revelation was once the very best luggage," said Filth. "They were revelations' because they expanded."' -From Old Filth, page 282-Gardam is a natural storyteller who writes stellar dialogue, heavy with meaning. Despite this, Old Filth is not an easy novel to read. At times the story becomes dreamlike and the characters warp into odd, almost surreal figures. Gardam's style tends to be circular, which ultimately leaves the reader with a satisfying end.Not great, but good. Recommended for those readers who enjoy literary puzzles and creative use of language.
NinaSankovitch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jane Gardam's Old Filth relates one man's life, enclosing within the history of Sir Edward Feathers the story of Great Britain in the twentieth century. Both Feathers' story and the story of Britain offer a sharply accurate illustration of justice, responsibility, and legacy, and of the damages done when justice fails, responsibility is shirked, and legacy is denied. Most profoundly, Old Filth is a compelling, very funny, and heartbreaking saga. I loved this book, its facts and its fictions, and I loved the man Old Filth himself. Gardam is a great writer and I look forward to immediately starting in on her most recent novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, in which more of Sir Edward Feathers' story is told."Old Filth" is the nickname for Edward Feathers, an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong." A successful and famous British lawyer in Hong Kong, the book begins upon his retirement to Dorset with his wife Betty. Gardam settles us into Dorset, then moves us abruptly and entirely to Malay in the 1920s, where and when Feathers is born. Too soon, he becomes a raj orphan, a phrase I was unfamiliar with but one much too commonly known in Britain itself during the heyday of the Empire. Raj orphans were those children borne by Brits abroad and sent home to England to be cared for by foster parents, for reasons of health and safety, but also just to get the brats out of the way. Too many of these children grew up with little knowledge of their parents, and even less experience of love or kinship. Old Filth recounts Feathers' shipping out to Wales from Malay (with the help of a wonderful missionary lady, Aunty May) and into the hands of a cruel and unloving foster mother, Ma Didds. Fortunately for us readers, Feathers is saved from Ma Didds, first by a Malaysian ritual and then by the English public school system (with greatest respect accorded to a character known as "Sir", ruling headmaster and overall decent chap who was based on a real-life person). Feathers' life unfolds in a series of scenes back and forth across decades and ages, in diverse war situations, personal relationships, and Empire realities. The colorful and rich scenes not only belie the seemingly staid life of Old Filth, but also illustrate the fascinating, true history of Britain in the twentieth century. Like the story of Feathers himself, Britain's story is provoking and inspiring, sometimes lamentable and often laudable. The Empire goes down, as we all know, but Old Filth survives. He believes he survived not having deserved it, but for luck. What he fails to understand is that despite having "been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone [he] loved or who cared for [him]", he survives because he was loved and cared for by a whole array of bizarre and very British characters (everyone from missionary Auntie May to Pat Ingoldby, school mate and stand-in brother to cousin Claire to The Queen Mother Mary to Cumberledge who helps him during a snowstorm at Oxford to the old gardener Garbut) -- and also due to flat out luck. Life is, after all, a mixture of love and luck with a little hard work thrown in to allow ourselves a pat or two on the back. Gardam has a genuine talent for capturing the British way of doing things, and for relating, through a mordant wit and a genuine heart, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the erratically disarming of what it means to be born British, orphan or not. Her writing is electric, wry, intelligent, and moving, and must be read for enjoyment of good story telling and enlightenment of the Empire.
brenzi on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very, very English novel; very stiff upper lip very British. I mean what in the world are Raj orphans? Never heard of it. And Gillow furniture??For an American, this novel tested my limited knowledge of the UK. But fortunately, with some help from Wikipedia and Google, and because of the elegant writing style employed by Jane Gardam, my enjoyment of this novel wasn¿t really hampered by my ignorance.It is a tale told from both ends of Sir Edward Feathers life and Gardam takes us eloquently back and forth in time and space. He was born to English parents stationed in Malaya in 1914. His mother died as a result of the birth. His father was remote and showed no interest in or love of the boy. Eddie was a Raj Orphan, as were so many Brits born in the far-flung East. That meant he was hustled away from his parent when he was a preschooler back to England where he would be raised by a foster family, then on to boarding school. Eddie¿s experience was nightmarish and haunts him for the rest of his life. Even so, he goes on to be a good lawyer and judge in Hong Kong, where he comes to be known as Old Filth, the term Filth, an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. And we¿re introduced to him, fairly close to the end of his life, in Dorset, where he and his wife Betty have retired. I loved the unique way that Gardam approached his life from both ends until they finally meet about ¾ of the way into the book. In a lesser author, this could have been dicey but Jane Gardam hasn¿t won the Whitbred prize twice (the only writer to do so) for nothing. She has finely tuned her craft.At any rate, Eddie has been abandoned and left on his own too many times throughout his young life to not have the results of that neglect leave a lasting impression. His feelings of invisibility and failure to connect with anyone leave him in an emotionally precarious place. Now, at the end of his life, he still is feeling those effects:Loss¿s defection was the metaphor for Eddie¿s life. It was Eddie¿s fate always to be left. Always to be left and forgotten. Everyone gone, now. Out of his reach. For the first time, Eddie was utterly on his own.¿ (Page 230)I was so impressed at Gardam¿s writing and the lovely way she seamed together all the threads of her unique and sad story that I¿m already looking for more of her work.
pak6th on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An intriguing look at what it was like to be a British subject, born in Asia to British parents, and sent back to England as a child to be schooled and brought up by strangers. Old Filth is a retired lawyer who had a good career in the east himself but is now living in a country village in England. His wife has died and they had no children. He looks back on his life and relationship with his two cousins and reflects on how those early years shaped him forever.
marient7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career from his early days in Southeast Asia where he earned the nickname Old Filth..FILTH being an acronym for Failed in London, try Hong Kong. He was a respected member of the English bar, but through it all he has carried the wounds of a difficult and hollow childhood.
cameling on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sir Edward Feathers, born in Malaya, brought up by Malayan villagers, a Dickensian English foster family and English public schools, becomes a guardsman to the Queen Mary during WWII, a barrister in London, and a sterling career as barrister and later judge in Hong Kong.Now retired with his wife Betty, in a quiet little town in Dorset, he finds himself retreating back through the years, especially after Betty's death. A stirring, moving and at time humorous novel, the life of Filth (nickname given to him for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong)is shared with us through his memories. His cold exterior may be explained by his having had people leave him throughout his life, the death of his best and only friend, a disastrous sexual introduction that led to a cold sexless marriage, the rejection by his father and odd relatives. But the exterior hides a man who realizes later in life, that what he's been missing has been desire, a desire for life.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the opening scene of the novel we are introduced to an empty chair at a luncheon in the Inner Temple of Barristers. It is the chair once filled by Eddie Feathers, better known as"Old Filth". As a boy he was separated from his parents by death and distance. As a man he was known by his success as a barrister in Hong Kong, thus the nickname "Old Filth" (FILTH being an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."). But what of this man who had recently left his peers and his life so materially rewarded by his success? Jane Gardam's novel, Old Filth, tells his story through the memories of a man at the end of his life, a man whose desire has faded as his body has withered. Some moments in the story enchanted this reader such as when Eddie goes off to grammar school a stutterer and is cured by the headmaster, "Sir", who provides a model for Eddie's future education. He also meets the first of the friends that would mean much to his life and his success. While his early friend Ingoldby (what an unusual name, perhaps in memory of the author & poet of the same?) would not survive the war, the Ingoldby family would provide Eddie with the family he did not have as a youth, its characters playing a prominent role in the story. Later friends, notably Albert Loss ( Albert Ross of the Coleridge poem) also are important in ways that are not evident upon their first appearance.It is the way that Jane Gardam intertwined the memories of Eddie Feathers into a coherent whole that impressed me. Her ability to demonstrate his life and memories of it through the structure of the story, along with her fine writing style, made this a very good read and an excellent novel. It is not a perfect novel and I wondered at the seeming lack of passion of Eddie Feathers in spite of his youthful desire. He seemed to be a man who built his life out of reactions to events, with enough luck and desire along the way to make quite an impact on his friends and his peers. Near the end of the novel he reproves himself, "Life ends. You're tired of it anyway. No memory. No desire. Yet you don't want it to be over. Not quite yet."(p 258-9)This is a sign of his fading life, but there is a stronger omen in the penultimate scene of the novel as he returns to Hong Kong, perhaps for the last time, when,"The black night shuddered all around the plane. When he next woke there was a pencilled line of gold drawn round each oval blind.Dawn already."We are in tomorrow," said the girl. "It's the sunrise. A happy New Year."(p 286)We do not see him waking again, but look back fondly on the story of his life with admiration for the goodness of his memories and desires. This alone made the book a pleasure to read.
RobinDawson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful novel. The time sequence and the unfolding of the novel's mysteries are handled with real skill.Gardam presents her characters with such warmth and affection.
timtom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
One of the finest stories I've read in a long time! This little jewel is not only a highly entertaining novel, full of dry humor and lovable characters, but also a very interesting foray into the little-known fate of the so-called "Raj orphans". Born to British parents in one of the former colonies of the Empire, then sent "Home" to England at a young age to warrant a proper "british" education, most of these children never or very rarely saw their parents at all, turning them into de facto orphans. Escaping their often loveless childhood, some of them became great men, such as Old Filth, a renowned Hong-Kong barrister. Retired in England, quite alone after the death of his wife, Old Filth suddenly embarks on a journey to the depths of his memory, reuniting with long-forgotten family members and finally coming to terms with his own disturbed youth...Warning: once opened, this book just won't let you go until you've finished it!
TerryWeyna on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
When I picked up Old Filth, I expected a book full of Sir Edward Feathers's reminiscences about a life at the bar in Imperial England -- specifically, in the Hong Kong referred to in the title. ("Filth" means, for a British solicitor or barrister, "Failed in London -- Try Hongkong.") After all, this book was about the life of a solicitor who ultimately became a judge, reaching the pinnacle of achievement in his profession, and in a foreign culture at that. And what is life about, for a lawyer, but his triumphs and his wretchedly unfair defeats?But this book isn't about a life at the bar. It is about the life of Sir Edward, from his earliest days on earth to his last. It is about an adult life full of wealth and regard, yet one that was not truly happy; professionally fulfilling, certainly, but with unhappiness lurking in every corner. It's a remarkable character study, skillfully written so that the reader makes discoveries from inferences while enjoying language so lovely that it sinks into the brain like a song.Old Filth skips about in time, rather like an old man's reminiscences -- an odd and sometimes confusing structure, but one that works. One moment the elderly Sir Edward is in a hotel recovering from a sprain, and the next the child Eddie is suffering at the hands of a vituperative caregiver. Sir Edward's memories range from his birth in Malay (as Malaysia was then known), to a bitterly unhappy childhood in Wales, through prep school, World War II, Oxford and to the Orient. The memories are fully lived, almost surprises to the man. They are interwoven with his discoveries of truths he deliberately avoided or literally never knew, because he buried himself in work and in the rhythms of a staid, formal and out-moded Victorian colonialism. Old Filth's declining years are full of renewed acquaintances with old enemies, distant cousins, and former lovers, who inspire new memories that come unbidden. The sturdy old man he has become gradually makes peace with his life -- and, ultimately, his death.I don't wish to say too much more about this book here, because it is so full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses. And it surprises, too, with the occasional bright happiness of a friendship of old age or the dark despair of childhood secrets. Rather, I'd prefer just to urge you to go, find it, read it, and let's discuss it. It is one of the best books I've read in years, beautifully written and extraordinarily well-plotted, and I give it my highest recommendation.
jnwelch on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"I hope you will excuse us asking but will there be funds to pay his account?""Funds have never been a trouble to him.""Thank you. We were beginning to grow very fond of him.""People do", said Garbutt, and phoned Kate, and then his wife.Old Filth by Jane Gardam is terrific. The central character got his nickname from the sardonic acronym he supposedly created for barristers - Failed In London Try Hong Kong. In fact, at one time in his life funds had been a major problem for Old Filth, also known as Sir Edward, Teddy, and Eddie Feathers. But despite his at times naive ignorance, insensitivity, cold-heartedness, aloof demeanor, and aloneness, people grow very fond of him, and the reader can see why. The reader also can see many things that people in his life cannot, and that Teddy himself cannot. Even those closest to him see only part: "Splendid. Though Teddy never noticed what he ate. 'Or anything else', she said sadly, and mistakenly."Toward the end of Old Filth I repeatedly thought of Julian Barnes' recent book, The Sense of an Ending, in which the main character tries to sort out a past he never understood. Hints of important mysteries thread through both, and revelations help explain much of what earlier appeared happenstance. Teddy endures soul-abusive ordeals in childhood, yet his wit, good looks, and natural appeal to others lead him eventually to be regarded by many as a hero in his profession and a legend of the bar. Those who know him only later in life see the dignity, presence and astuteness, knowing nothing of what he endured or how hilariously clueless he was early on. One of the great exchanges in the book, impossible to excerpt, involves his being assigned as a 19 year old to an Army contingent protecting Queen Mary, and earnestly assuring his superior that there is no need to worry about the possibility of his having sexual congress with the queen.Small details ring true and are connected up throughout the book. An address book he thought stolen proves essential to alerting relatives of his near-death hospitalization. Friendships of brief duration early in his life prove critical later. How his life appears to others deviates widely from the truth of it. And the truth of it he only incompletely grasps, with the reader knowing more but still chasing after Old Filth even at the end, having grown very fond of him and wanting to know more.
kimallen-niesen on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Old Filth by Jane Gardam is well-written intriguing portrait of the British children of colonialism. The book gives the reader a peek into the life of a civil servant under British colonialism. Old Filth was born overseas and raised first by a local nanny, then sent back ¿home¿ for his education. He worked his entire life in the legal establishment in Hong Kong, maybe not as a stunning legal scholar, but one who earned deep respect. He and his wife return to England in their retirement. The author does an excellent job of portraying Old Filth's proper behavior to the extent that it seems as if he is disconnected from life. At times it feels as if he sleep walks through life playing the role that the country and the era molded him to play.
Girl_Detective on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Filth is an acronym, supposed coined by the main character of the book, Edward Feathers:"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."Filth is easy to like, all the more so as his life story unfolds in fits and starts. It swoops in time and perspective so wildly that in the hands of a less-skilled author, the book would be dizzying instead of dazzling. Filth was one of many ¿Raj orphans.¿ Like Rudyard Kipling, these were children of English parents sent East in the name of Empire. The children were often returned at four or five to foster families in England to avoid disease, if they hadn¿t succumbed to it already.From a tragic beginning, Filth¿s supposedly golden life is deconstructed for the reader, though not to the people around him. He becomes a sympathetic, almost amazing figure, set largely against the backdrop of WWII. Several times in the book he¿s urged to write his memoirs, something he struggles with and finally gives up on. Readers of fiction are well rewarded that Gardam created his fictional one. I look forward to reading more about him in Gardam¿s story collection The People of Privilege Hill and the sequel, his wife Betty¿s story, in The Man with the Wooden Hat.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful book! It was very well written and a perfection of a portrait. I was so into his mindset that I was as shocked and appalled with priests in jeans, and partnered couples as he was. The portrait was consistent and "true" for the particular man and for life in general. It illustrates how that no matter how successfully we cover over the past, it still dominates us. Also that behind our polished humdrum lives, we each have en eventful and lonely inner life.
bohemima on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Old Filth is, simply, wonderful. It's the life story of Edward Feathers, a "Raj orphan" who became a judge in Singapore. With his wife recently dead, Edward tries to cope with his new circumstances. He reflects on his past and meets some old friends and relatives as he takes a couple of trips to renew old aquaitances and memories. The reader is treated to the thoughts of both Edward and these friends and relations. Each meeting exposes a different, and often quite startling, side of Edward.Both a fascinating character study and an exploration of individual perceptions, Old Filth is a marvelous, highly original book. Most definitely recommended.
TheAmpersand on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
"Old Filth" feels like the last book of the twentieth century, and it just might be one of its best. It tells the story of Edward Feathers, who, according to arrangements made by his father, a British colonial administrator and veteran of the First World War, was raised by surrogate parents in Britain. Childhoods like Edwards were once commonplace, and children in his situation were once known as "Raj Orphans." His childhood in Wales, his wartime evacuation from the British Isles, and his subsequent career as a lawyer in Hong Kong gives Feathers a front-row seat to the long, slow collapse of the British Empire and fills him with an abiding sense of cultural confusion. For all of this, "Old Filth" is a Modernist project in the classic sense. Edward's character is always at "Old Filth's" center, and his unfolding memories are always its motive force. Gardam's narrative functions both as a sensitive portrait of a young man of inauspicious origins struggling to achieve selfhood and a wide-ranging description of a complex social structure that has since been dismantled and is quickly fading from our collective memories. As a demonstration of how memory can be used both as a method of self-realization and tool of social critique, "Old Filth" succeeds just as brilliantly as "Mrs. Dalloway" did more than three-quarters of a century ago. Edward is alive on the page both as a flesh-and-blood character and as an unwitting participant in the rise and fall of institutions and historical movements far larger than himself. The exceptional quality of Gardam's prose also sets "Old Filth" apart. Books about the cultural conflicts created by the British Empire and its aftermath are not rare; this subject ground has been well-tilled by other Commonwealth authors such as Michael Ondaatje, V.S. Naipaul, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and another tale of post-colonial disorientation seems to win the Booker Prize every other year. To Gardam's everlasting credit, however, this familiar material seems blazingly fresh and relevant in her hands. Her description of Edward's evacuation from Britain to Sri Lanka has a luminous, dreamlike quality that communicates Edward's sense of youthful discovery perfectly. "Old Filth" hardly seems to have an author at all; it ebbs and flows as naturally as Edward's own thought processes, threatening to dissolve the barrier between character and reader completely. To write well is difficult enough, but to make it seem effortless, as Gardam often does, approaches genius. That's not a word, by the way, that I'm afraid to use in this instance. This book deserves every one of the five stars I've given it.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is the story of Edward Feathers -- Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) -- a retired judge. The story of his life is told in a series of flashbacks, and builds to a somewhat surprising and wonderfully satisfying ending.The story provides insight into the life of "Raj orphans" -- children sent by their parents to school at a "Home" they've never seen (England). Many children completely lost contact with their parents. Some, like Filth and his cousins, suffered abuse and lived forever with its consequences.The book is a bit hard to follow at the beginning -- lots of flashbacks and "flash forwards" where characters are introduced somewhat out of context. But it comes together beautifully. The author (Jane Gardam) writes dialogue exceptionally well and is a master at the use of metaphor. And while it is obvious that the story is building to a core "revelation", the journey there is every bit as well executed as the ultimate unveiling. Truly great writing.Filth himself is a wonderful character -- the kind of character I will remember long after I've forgotten the details of the story.
hazelk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was one of my favourite reads of 2009. I felt totally involved with Edward (Old Filth) and how he came to be what he was. The author cleverly lets slip little back stories plus subtle hints that there was another story going on (i.e. Betty's) that Edward is seemingly unaware of(?). It was finely paced and the writing lucid and subtle. I couldn't wait to get my hands on 'The Man in the Wooden Hat' written from the perspective of Filth's wife and published in 2009.
birdy47 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. Very charming characters, a story that pulls you in and keeps you engrossed. I knew there was a "revelation" coming up, but I didn't want it to, as I knew it would be the end of the book.