Historical Fiction

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Gardam, Jane (2004). Old Filth. London: Chatto and Windus.

F.I.L.T.H. Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The central character of this novel is affectionately known by this acronym, which he may have invented. And yet despite its presence in the title, and its centrality to the career of Old Filth himself, Hong Kong is only fleetingly visible in the book. The novel demands a place in this database, however, because of its literary distinction and its subtle and poignant portrait of a structure of feeling of colonialism itself.

Sir Edward Feathers QC, approaching the end of his long life when the novel begins, has had a successful and distinguished career as a barrister and later a judge in Hong Kong. In the profession he is something of a celebrity, pointed out to younger lawyers as a monument belonging to a bygone age, though nobody knows him well and he is assumed to have had a prosaic and uneventful life apart from his professional successes. He has had a long if rather passionless marriage, and when his wife dies, it seems this private and buttoned-up man has no one at all that he is close to. As the novel shifts between the journeys he undertakes in the last months of his old age, and the memories of his early life which come back to him unevenly and unwillingly, Jane Gardam patiently uncovers the rich and complex emotional history of this uninteresting-looking man and of his British contemporaries and class.

Eddie Feathers is a “Raj orphan”, one of those many children of colonial personnel in the East – Malaya in his case – who were sent away to the “home country” to be educated, spending their formative years growing up thousands of miles away from their parents. Jane Gardam in a note acknowledges a debt to Rudyard Kipling, who told his own story of Raj orphanhood in “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” and Something of Myself. All his life Kipling was embittered at what he remembered as abuse in the house of the English family who fostered him and his sister, and what he felt to be betrayal by the parents who innocently sent him there. For Eddie Feathers, and the relatives and friends who were Raj orphans like him, there is a lifelong legacy of a recognizably English aloofness, reticence, apparent self-sufficiency and coldness. He is one of the emotionally homeless. Now in old age, we watch the first stumbling, painful and belated steps of his sentimental education.

His memories take him back to Malaya, his mother’s early death, and the withdrawal of his already eccentric and damaged father – a Raj orphan himself, and Great War veteran – into moroseness and drink. At five, little Eddie is sent to England in the charge of a missionary aunt, to be brought up in Wales, with three other children whose parents are also in the East. What happens in the house in Wales emerges only slowly and piecemeal as the novel moves restlessly forward and back, between childhood and age, circling round an event Eddie is not able or not willing to bring to light.

From the fragments of his memory, the story pieces together Eddie’s schooling, a series of tentative friendships that always seem to end in loss, a wartime journey out East to rejoin the father who is a dim memory, a reunion that is frustrated by the Japanese capture of Singapore (the father will die imprisoned in Changi), return to England, service in the army, university, and the beginnings of Eddie’s legal career. Eddie gets his first Hong Kong case through his raffish and rather mysterious friend Albert Ross – nicknamed Coleridge, of course – or Loss, a Hakka gambler and businessman, met when they were both wartime evacuees.

Hong Kong is kind to Eddie, his work as a judge and barrister brings him money and honours. Yet for all his success, he remains inhibited and emotionally somewhat disabled in his relation to others, and a mystery to himself. The novel seems to propose him as an example of those who were at the same time beneficiaries and victims of the empire, which gave them unparalleled opportunities and privileges and yet left them, as often as not, estranged from others and themselves. The damage is done. But the old age of Old Filth sees him, poignantly, trying to come to terms with that condition.

(DK)

 

 
 
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