Jane Gardam’s Old Filth is a book I began months ago. Unfortunately it was left in the plane at JFK airport, back in October. At the time – sleepy and frustrated – I’d kind of lost interest and the book was unfinished. I’d always intended to pick up a second copy at my favourite remaindered bookshop:
and this I duly did on my next visit.
Old Filth is the story of Eddie Feathers, Old Filth himself – Failed in London Try Hong Kong – a QC and judge living in retirement in the Donheads, Wiltshire, and looking back on a lifetime that began in Malaysia, and took him via abusive foster parents in North Wales, through public school, to Oxford, the war and the last days of the Empire.
That’s a brief synopsis but gives a pretty clear overview of what the book will show you. Feathers himself is an interesting character, badly treated in childhood by the British Empire, but gentle and kind, sensitive, handsome and of course intelligent. Feathers though is damaged goods, and human relationships are not his strong point.
At an early age he is plucked from the life of a native child and bundled home to Europe. At the outbreak of the war he attempts to return to Singapore on his father’s instructions, only to arrive at Colombo just as Singapore falls. These are traumatic events for Eddie, and he relives them during the trauma of his own last days.
There are faint elements of comedy in this book, and the characters are vivid and interesting. Feathers gained huge success in life, but this book looks inside at his frustrations and failed relationships, at the quiet heart of the man: it encourages us to reconsider our own experiences, to think of where their true value lies.