Friday, September 20, 2013

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

I don’t know how anyone can resist a novel called Old Filth… and of the 60 or so books I’ve read so far this year, Jane Gardam’s novel is easily the one that I have loved the most.  Old Filth is a novel of great wit, warmth and humor, as well as a deft psychological portrait of a man and a kaleidoscopic view of his era.  It is a novel to savor and reread.

Old Filth is Sir Edward Feathers, who coined the acronym FILTH from his own experience: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.  Feathers is a child of the now vanished Empire: he was born Malaya, to a mother who dies days later of puerperal fever.  He spends the first four and a half years of his life raised among the native peoples, shunned by his father, an overworked, alcoholic colonial administrator still recovering from the Great War.  Finally, a Baptist missionary persuades the father to send his son back to England, as is the custom, both to fend off tropical diseases and to educate the next generation of the Empire’s loyal servants. Eddie and his two “Raj orphan” cousins wind up in Wales, at the bleak house of their foster parents, Ma and Pa Didds.

What follows next are Filth’s years among unloving aunts, the usual joys and sorrows of an all-boys public school, and his father’s frantic efforts to get him (now almost 18) out of England before the start of World War II.  We also watch Filth’s growing friendship with the Ingoldsby family, which suffers terribly during the war, and whose members leave an indelible impression on Filth.

The book also touches upon Betty, Filth’s sainted wife, who may (or may not) have had an affair with his longstanding criminal court adversary, Terry Verneering, as well as the friendship he forges with his old rival late in life.

If this brief summary makes Old Filth sound like a Dickensian account of suffering populated by colorful characters, I’ve done the job poorly.  Or, at any rate, only half right.  Old Filth is indeed Dickensian, and is certainly populated with colorful characters.  But while there is indeed a thread of melancholy in the book, it is also fabulously funny and warm – two other traits that must be remembered when labeling a book Dickensian.

Filth – who is a model of impeccably-turned-out mid-century English decorum and style – may be a figure of fun to millennial Brits, but he is no clownish buffoon.  Gardam writes movingly about a man whose world has passed him by; most of the comedy in Old Filth is in Filth trying to navigate a world he no longer understands nor likes.  (Perhaps my love for both the book and its titular hero has more than a touch of self identification … but I leave that for another time.)  Here, for example, is Filth at a church into which he wandered during a road trip soon after the death of this wife.  Childless, he runs hand over a cherub before being interrupted by a priest:

The air of the church came alive for a moment as the baize door opened and shut, and a curly boy came springing down the aisle.  He wore a clerical collar and jeans.  “Good afternoon,” he cried.  “So sorry I’m rather late.  You’re wanting me to hear your confession?”


“Saturday afternoons.  Confessions.  St. Trebizond’s.  Half a mo’ while I put my cassock on.”

He ran past the weeping pile and disappeared into the vestry, emerging at once struggling into a cassock.  He hurried into something like a varnished sedan chair which stood beside the rude screen, and clicked shut its door.  The silence resumed.

Filth at once turned and made to walk out of the church, clearing his throat with a judicial roar.

He looked back.  The sedan chair watched him.  There was a grille of little holes at waist level and he imagined the boy priest resting his head near it on the inside.

It would be rather discourteous just to leave the church.

Filth might go over and say, “Very low-church, I’m afraid.  Not used to this particular practice though my wife was interested…”

He walked back to the sedan chair, leaned down and said, “Hullo?  Vicar?”

A crackling noise.  Like eating potato crisps.

“Vicar?  I beg your pardon?”

No reply.  All was hermetically sealed within except for the grille.  Really quite dangerous.

He creaked down to his knees to a hassock and put his face to the grille.  Nothing happened.  The boy must have fallen asleep.

“Excuse me Vicar.  I’m afraid I don’t go in for this.  I have nothing to confess.”

“A very rash statement,” snarled a horrendous voice – there must be some amplifier.

Filth jumped as if he’d put his ear to an eclectic fence.

“How long, my son, since your last confession?”

“I’ve –” (his son!) “—I’ve never made a confession in my life. I’ve heard plenty.  I’m a Q. C.”

There was a snuffling sound.

“But you are in some trouble?”

Filth bowed his head.

“Begin.  Go on.  ‘Father I have sinned.’  Don’t be afraid.”

Filth’s ragged old logical mind was not used to commands.

“I’m afraid I don’t at the moment feel sinful at all.  I am more sinned against than singer.  I am able to think only of my dear dead wife.  She was in the Telegraph this morning.  Her obituary.”  Then he thought: I am not telling the truth.  “And I am unable to understand the strange games my loss of her play with my behavior.”

Why tell this baby?  Can’t be much over thirty.  Well, same age as Christ, I suppose.  If Christ were inside this box…A great and astounding longing fell upon Filth, the longing of a poet, the deep perfect adoring longing of a lover of Christ.  How did he come on to this?  This medieval, well of course, very primitive, love of Christ you read about?  Not my sort of thing at all.

“My son, were there any children in the marriage?”

“No.  We didn’t seem to need any.”

“That’s never the full answer.  I have to say that I saw you touching the anatomy of the cherubs on the Tytchley tomb.”

“You what?”

“Reveal all to me my son.  I can understand and help you.”

“Young man,” roared Filth through the grille.  “Go home.  Look to your calling.  I am one of Her Majesty’s Counselors and was once a Judge.”

“There is only one judge in the end,” said the voice. But Filth was in the car again and belting on past Saffron Walden.

Most readers on this side of the pond are unfamiliar with Jane Gardam (born 1928), and that is a great shame.  She has written both novels and children’s books, and has won the prestigious Whitbread Award twice.  She was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2009, and continues to write well into her old age.  (In fact, recent years have seen her writing two sequels to Old Filth – both of which I intend to seek out.)

With the end of summer and the start of serious reading, you could do no better than Old Filth.

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