'Old Filth' chronicles long journey Home
Imagine people's reaction when you praise a book called "Old Filth" (Europa Editions, 290 pages, $14.95). Also, imagine the upper-class British stereotype: pompous, stiff in public, non-demonstrative, impeccably dressed,
Then, read the very British novel by Jane Gardam. You will find a character that defies stereotyping.
Gardam, a wonderful writer and only author to receive two Whitbreads, at age 78, has captured this octogenarian perfectly.
Edward Feathers, "spectacularly clean" and well dressed, is known by his colleagues as Old Filth, standing for Failed in London Try Hong Kong. He was a judge in Hong Kong and is, in 1997, a remnant from the British Empire. Humor abounds (as in his nickname and that of rescuer Albert Loss/albatross), although his life story is primarily sad as a Raj orphan.
Gardam, like Rudyard Kipling's autobiographical story, "Bye Bye Black Sheep," shows how the parents stationed in places such as India and Malaysia sent their children back "Home" to England for safety and to carry on tradition. Often, these children, raised by indifferent or cruel foster parents and aunts, never see their parents again and are marred forever by their experience.
Readers are introduced to Edward Feathers as fellow judges talk about him in play dialogue. Then, he begins his own memories, starting with his retirement with his wife, Betty, in Dorset. After his wife's death, Feathers is told his old nemesis, Veneering, another retired Hong Kong judge, has moved next door. During a blizzard one Christmas day, Feathers locks himself out of his house in his bedroom slippers and is forced to go to Veneering's. Although he can't ask a favor of this man, Veneering knows what he wants and produces a spare key that the former neighbor used to keep for emergencies. Thus, begins a bristly, yet genuine, friendship between old rivals for Betty's love.
Taken care of by gardener Garbutt and a "Mrs-er" (whose name initially he can't be bothered to learn), Feathers muses on his past in no particular order. An image defines his life: "his footprints already softened by the snow, the snow ahead of him waiting to be imprinted. He had strayed into medieval Oxford like a ghost."
A series of tragedies followed his mother's death shortly after his birth: He is raised by Malaysian Ada, and then wrenched from her at age 4 1/2 when the emotionally distant father is persuaded by his missionary sister to send him Home to England.
There, something very bad happens under his foster mother's care, while his aunts keep their distance. He is taken in by the parents of a friend, but is eventually abandoned by these unfeeling parents too. Even when he is sent for by his father, war intervenes, and 14-year-old Albert Loss who befriends him, seems to desert him. He fights against his life's recurring theme of "left and forgotten," going toward the end, for instance, to look for the cousins who shared the foster home experience with him.
It is moving how he faces the bad part of his life, changes and finally does go Home, though always alone.
Mystery about that bad period and his character's resilience and stubbornness make this a wonderful read. This novel should launch Gardam's work in this country.
By Olive Mullet