Old Filth by Jane Gardam

The terrified boy in the cupboard
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The Independent Culture

Rudyard Kipling bequeathed us one of the most famous quotations in English literature: "If you can fill the unforgiving minute / With sixty seconds' worth of distance run / Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it / And which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!" That this man was once a most unhappy son was revealed in his own short story, "Baa Baa Black Sheep", written when he was 23, and which describes his experiences as a six-year-old "Raj orphan", sent from Bombay to live in Southsea.

Jane Gardam has used Kipling's early childhood to concoct a fictional tale of an elderly former judge, Edward Feathers, known as 'Old Filth' (Failed in London Try Hong Kong). His wife Betty has just died and he is mulling over his life, his birth in Malaysia, his infancy in Wales with three more "Raj orphans" Claire, Babs and Cumberledge in the care of a cruel foster mother, Ma Didds, and his subsequently happy boarding-school days, where he befriended Pat Ingoldby. He recalls his first crush, on Pat's cousin, Isobel, a crush he could never respond to naturally. ("Eddie would finish her, as once already in his life he had finished a woman. 'I think you're bad. A bad woman.' ")

That our childhoods mould us into the adults we become is long-accepted and Gardam does not take issue with that, showing us a man whose emotional constipation is the result of a vicious childhood, begun when his mother dies giving birth to him and his father abandons him to his foster mother in Wales.

But there are reasons why Gardam has used Kipling as a model for her story, beyond merely recalling his own documented childhood suffering. Kipling lets her look back at an imperial era, now long gone; he is the inspiration for a character who embodies all that may have been admirable about that age - courage, duty, honour - as well as its opposite. The stiff upper lip means self-sufficiency and pride in Filth, so that he thinks nothing of driving about England in his eighties, or flying back to Malaysia one last time. But it also means a sterile marriage: Filth and Betty were never so "bourgeois" as to share a double bed, Filth proudly recalls, but glides over the fact that they rarely had sex either.

There is inevitably more flash-back than present-tense narrative in a story that revolves around a man at this advanced age, and Gardam's moving and magnetic novel meanders through the scenes of Filth's life, a flickering torch lighting up the darkness with short, flashing sentences. But she convincingly contrasts Filth's attitudes with a younger generation represented by Claire's son, Oliver and his lawyer girlfriend Vanessa, and which betray an appealing modesty about his own formidable reputation in the Law Courts. It could be argued that Feathers never becomes a man, never mind possessing the Earth; that he remains forever that little boy, terrified of a harsh woman who liked to lock him up in a cupboard under the stairs.

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