“Old Filth” by Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam’s books were recommended to me over a decade ago by my dear friend Thalia. I was reminded of this recently when The Man with the Wooden Hat, Gardam’s latest, was reviewed at NPR. Since it is a bookend to a previous novel, Old Filth, I sought that out first, and am quite glad I did.

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. 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. (17)

Filth is indeed easy to love, 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 collecion The People of Privilege Hill and the sequel, his wife Betty’s story, in The Man with the Wooden Hat.

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