I find that when I really love a book, it’s very hard to talk or write about it. I can gush away about just how much I love it, and how it’s soooooooo good, but these are hardly incisive or acute comments. Indeed, all that happens is that I come across like an overexcited toddler.
Jane Gardam is one of my very favourite writers (see here and here for more posts about some of her other books), so I worry that this post will turn into fluffy gushiness, in which case I can only apologise, beg your forgiveness and assure you that I have tried very hard indeed to ungushify it.
I first read Old Filth a year or so ago, shortly after reading The Man in the Wooden Hat. The two books go hand in hand – Old Filth is about Eddie Feathers and The Man in the Wooden Hat is about his wife Betty. Together they make a fascinating portrait of a marriage, covering much of the same ground but shedding remarkably different light upon it.
Jane Gardam wrote Old Filth first, in 2004, and The Man in the Wooden Hat didn’t appear until 2009. In the interim she published a book of short stories, The People on Privilege Hill, which also featured Eddie Feathers. This man has evidently intrigued Gardam. Evidently, Eddie Feathers reaches beyond the pages of his book, a character too lifelike to be contained by his fiction – this is surely a novelist’s greatest achievement.
Eddie Feathers is also known as ‘Old Filth’, standing for ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’, and throughout his life is given various other names – Teddy Bear, Fevvers, Sir Edward Feathers QC – as though, just like he won’t be contained by the pages of the book, he resists a single label of a name.
We meet Filth in his old age, ‘ostentatiously clean’, his ‘ancient fingernails … rimmed with purest white’, wearing his ‘yellow cotton or silk socks from Harrods’ and his shoes shining ‘like conkers’. The book follows Filth in the wake of his wife’s death – attending her funeral, responding to letters of condolence and undertaking a peculiar roadtrip down memory lane. But Gardam interjects this with various scenes from Filth’s past – from his infancy in Malaya, his miserable childhood with foster parents in Wales, his time at public school, his aborted attempt at evacuation, his early years at the Bar – and in these vignettes, she paints a wonderful, affectionate and idiosyncratic portrait.
What is it about Filth that makes him such a remarkable character? He is a relic – ‘a coelacanth’ – something prehistoric, extinct, utterly incongruous to the present day. This is conveyed not just in his predilection for yellow silk socks from Harrods, but in the way he doesn’t know the name of his cleaning lady – who he refers to as ‘Mrs-er’ – and in exchanges like the following, when he is pulled over by the police for driving erratically and made to do a breath test:
‘You see. Perfectly clear,’ said Filth.
‘Could we help you in any way?’
‘No. I don’t think so.’
‘Your licence is in order?’
‘Yes, of course. I am a lawyer.’
‘It doesn’t follow, sir. I see that you are eighty-one?’
‘With no convictions,’ said Filth.
‘No, sir. Well, goodbye sir.’
‘There is one thing,’ said Filth, strapping himself back in his seat with some languor. ‘I do seem to be rather lost.’
‘I don’t suppose you know this address. Hainault?’
‘We do, sir. But it’s not Hainault. That is in Essex. It’s High Light. Not High Note. A house called High Light. And we know who it belongs to. We know her. It’s five miles away. Shall we go ahead of you?’
‘She is my cousin. She can never have had any Christmas cards. Thank you. And thank you for your courtesy and proper behaviour. A great surprise.’
‘You oughtn’t to believe the television, sir.’
‘Who the hell was he?’ one policeman asked the other. ‘He’s like out of some Channel Four play.’
Filth is so extraordinary that the policeman can only compare him to a fictional character – which, in a nice post-modern twist, of course he is. I love this little exchange, in part because it’s quite dottily funny but also it captures so much about Filth. He adamantly believes in proper behaviour – in decorum, in politeness, in the Law, in Christmas cards. And yet he also refuses to be bossed around, insists on having his own way, is very reluctant to ask for help.
Behind this eccentric, old-fashioned, funny old man is a terribly sad childhood. His mother died soon after he was born, he had barely any contact with his father, who sent him away to a foster home in Wales, where he was beaten. He had a brief happy time at school, largely thanks to a great friendship with a boy, who was then killed in the Second World War. His childhood is one sad episode after another. As Filth sums up, shortly before the end of the book:
‘All my life … from my early childhood, I have been left, or dumped, or separated by death, from everyone I loved or who cared for me.’
His life has been one of terrible loneliness. Perhaps it is this lack of affection, love, and even easy friendship that has led Filth to rely on formal, correct behaviour.
This mixture of Filth’s eccentric behaviour in his old age, and his terribly sad childhood is what makes Gardam’s book so wonderful. There are hysterically funny moments but built upon an aching sadness, a heart-wrenching poignancy. And all is delivered with such a light hand. Gardam gives us glimpses of Filth’s life, as many allusions to happenings as descriptions of them. It is a novel of suggestions, of blanks that the reader must fill in, dots that we must join up. No wonder Gardam couldn’t resist going back to it and filling in a few of these off-stage moments herself in her subsequent books.
But Old Filth is not just about Edward Feathers. The novel is dedicated ‘To Raj Orphans and their parents’ and Filth is emblematic of all Raj orphans, sent ‘Home’ from the East, brought up away from their parents, struggling through a later life based on this core of emptiness. Filth is extinct now. So are the other Raj orphans, so is the Empire. It is a novel about a way of life – a substantial strand of Englishness – that has now gone, but was still felt anachronistically recently. Like Kipling, Gardam has captured this life and preserved it, preventing it from vanishing without trace.
It is also a book about memory, a word that sits so close to ‘memoir’, which Filth sits down to try to write at one point. This is Filth’s memoir – his memories, tiled together to show the many sides of his life. Now he is old, and has been left by everyone who was dear to him, all he has left are these memories, which let him ‘flick open shutters on the past’. Memories sustain Filth through the end of his life, thickening what would otherwise be an empty present with layers of his past. So when the book closes with the words that Filth died ‘quite alone’, there is a double meaning in that ‘quite’. Yes, Filth has been utterly alone for much of his life – the fate of many a Raj orphan – but he has his memories for company, meaning that he is only ‘quite’ alone, not completely. In the very moment before his death, he sees his wife Betty beside him, ‘grinning away’.
I suspect this won’t be the last time I reread Old Filth, for I shall miss Filth and want to spend time with him again. Certainly, Gardam has left me with a strong, shining memory of this remarkable character that refuses to perish.
Tags: Jane Gardam