Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

Lonely drifters in an empire's twilight
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The Independent Culture

Mild, ageing eccentrics are Jane Gardam's forte. In her new novel she brings to life an Inner Temple legend: Sir Edward Feathers, known as Old Filth. The moniker is not derogatory. Filthy rich he may be, but the old boy has always been fastidiously clean. Women adore him, but there's been nothing grubby about his sex life (he scarcely had one). The nickname comes from a silly joke: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.

Mild, ageing eccentrics are Jane Gardam's forte. In her new novel she brings to life an Inner Temple legend: Sir Edward Feathers, known as Old Filth. The moniker is not derogatory. Filthy rich he may be, but the old boy has always been fastidiously clean. Women adore him, but there's been nothing grubby about his sex life (he scarcely had one). The nickname comes from a silly joke: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.

Filth and his wife quit that colony's "sky-high curtains of glittering lights" for Dorset, where solid, practical Betty suddenly dies. Lonely and adrift, the childless Edward suffers a breakdown. He chats to his dead spouse, feels tumescent stirrings for grey-haired Chloe from the reading group, and sets off to visit two cousins, Babs and Claire, with whom he shares a painful secret.

"Rather frightening, what grief can uncover in you," reflects Filth. Elderly acquaintances pop up in letters of condolence, in the bar of a hotel, even living next door. It's all rather unsettling. As an advocate who stammered, a successful colonial lawyer whose wife had an affair with his rival, and a judge sick with self-disgust whenever passing the death sentence, Filth is a man who "still can't manage emotion".

Like some sort of coelacanth, Old Filth amazes people by still being alive. He came into a world where District Officers like his father dressed for dinner in the jungle and now finds himself in one where the vicar is called Lucy. His mother died giving birth to him in Malaya, and he became a "Raj Orphan". At five, torn from the loving native girl who cares for him, Eddie is dispatched to Britain and fostered out to the cruel Ma Didds.

School holidays are spent with a friend, Pat. Eddie believes Pat's parents care for him; but Pat's mother comes from the same stable of damaged Empire orphans. "Most of them learned never to like anyone, ever, their whole lives," Pat explains. There's an evacuation to Ceylon by convoy, wartime conversations with Queen Mary, and a passionate coupling never to be repeated. Yet with so much darting back and forth, occasionally the narrative becomes confusing.

That said, Gardam's dialogue is sharp and true; her characters humorous and touching. She is especially good at English stiff-upper-lippery. Filth and Betty scorn first-class travel: "vulgar and only for expense-account people". The two elderly cousins - barking mad Babs and vague, girlish Claire - are well observed. So is Pat's father, the Colonel, swearing at his bees, with his dreamy wife warning everyone against telling him Hitler has invaded Poland because "He can do nothing about it and there's his favourite supper. Oxtail stew."

Like Paul Scott's Staying On, this is a novel of twilight years. It's gently old-fashioned, but poignant nonetheless.

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