Old Filth

by Jane Gardam

Paperback, 2006

Call number





Europa Editions (2006), Edition: 1st, 289 pages


Long ago, Old Filth was a Raj orphan - one of the many young children sent 'home' from the East to be fostered and educated in England. This novel tells his story, from his birth in what was then Malaya to the extremities of his old age.

Media reviews

Wat een ongelofelijk gaaf boek heeft de Britse Jane Gardam (geboren 1928) geschreven met De onberispelijke man – wat knap om zoveel personages, tijdvakken, werelddelen, historische feiten en nog zo veel meer (schijnbaar) moeiteloos te verweven tot een zeer pakkend en aangrijpend verhaal! Het verhaal is spannend, ontroerend, verrassend, meeslepend en zo kan ik nog wel even doorgaan…lees verder >
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Are you interested in venerable lawyers, the relic of empire? You will be. Do you want to know about the Far Eastern Bar? A reader of Old Filth, despite its unpromising title, will become passionately curious about such matters. This novel is surely Gardam's masterpiece. On the human level, it is one of the most moving fictions I have read for years. I shall always remember the scene in which, putting up at the garish hotel that has replaced The Old Judges' Lodging, this most ramrod-backed and disciplined of elderly men sees his wife's obituary whilst doing his stately breakfasting. He "wept silently behind his hands, sitting in this unknown place"

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
This is a very, very English novel; very stiff upper lip very British. I mean what in the world are Raj orphans? Never heard of it. And Gillow furniture??For an American, this novel tested my limited knowledge of the UK. But fortunately, with some help from Wikipedia and Google, and because of the elegant writing style employed by Jane Gardam, my enjoyment of this novel wasn’t really hampered by my ignorance.

It is a tale told from both ends of Sir Edward Feathers life and Gardam takes us eloquently back and forth in time and space. He was born to English parents stationed in Malaya in 1914. His mother died as a result of the birth. His father was remote and showed no interest in or love of the boy. Eddie was a Raj Orphan, as were so many Brits born in the far-flung East. That meant he was hustled away from his parent when he was a preschooler back to England where he would be raised by a foster family, then on to boarding school. Eddie’s experience was nightmarish and haunts him for the rest of his life.

Even so, he goes on to be a good lawyer and judge in Hong Kong, where he comes to be known as Old Filth, the term Filth, an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. And we’re introduced to him, fairly close to the end of his life, in Dorset, where he and his wife Betty have retired. I loved the unique way that Gardam approached his life from both ends until they finally meet about ¾ of the way into the book. In a lesser author, this could have been dicey but Jane Gardam hasn’t won the Whitbred prize twice (the only writer to do so) for nothing. She has finely tuned her craft.

At any rate, Eddie has been abandoned and left on his own too many times throughout his young life to not have the results of that neglect leave a lasting impression. His feelings of invisibility and failure to connect with anyone leave him in an emotionally precarious place. Now, at the end of his life, he still is feeling those effects:

Loss’s defection was the metaphor for Eddie’s life. It was Eddie’s fate always to be left. Always to be left and forgotten. Everyone gone, now. Out of his reach. For the first time, Eddie was utterly on his own.” (Page 230)

I was so impressed at Gardam’s writing and the lovely way she seamed together all the threads of her unique and sad story that I’m already looking for more of her work.
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LibraryThing member jnwelch
"I hope you will excuse us asking but will there be funds to pay his account?"
"Funds have never been a trouble to him."
"Thank you. We were beginning to grow very fond of him."
"People do", said Garbutt, and phoned Kate, and then his wife.

Old Filth by Jane Gardam is terrific. The central character got his nickname from the sardonic acronym he supposedly created for barristers - Failed In London Try Hong Kong. In fact, at one time in his life funds had been a major problem for Old Filth, also known as Sir Edward, Teddy, and Eddie Feathers. But despite his at times naive ignorance, insensitivity, cold-heartedness, aloof demeanor, and aloneness, people grow very fond of him, and the reader can see why. The reader also can see many things that people in his life cannot, and that Teddy himself cannot. Even those closest to him see only part: "Splendid. Though Teddy never noticed what he ate. 'Or anything else', she said sadly, and mistakenly."

Toward the end of Old Filth I repeatedly thought of Julian Barnes' recent book, The Sense of an Ending, in which the main character tries to sort out a past he never understood. Hints of important mysteries thread through both, and revelations help explain much of what earlier appeared happenstance. Teddy endures soul-abusive ordeals in childhood, yet his wit, good looks, and natural appeal to others lead him eventually to be regarded by many as a hero in his profession and a legend of the bar. Those who know him only later in life see the dignity, presence and astuteness, knowing nothing of what he endured or how hilariously clueless he was early on. One of the great exchanges in the book, impossible to excerpt, involves his being assigned as a 19 year old to an Army contingent protecting Queen Mary, and earnestly assuring his superior that there is no need to worry about the possibility of his having sexual congress with the queen.

Small details ring true and are connected up throughout the book. An address book he thought stolen proves essential to alerting relatives of his near-death hospitalization. Friendships of brief duration early in his life prove critical later. How his life appears to others deviates widely from the truth of it. And the truth of it he only incompletely grasps, with the reader knowing more but still chasing after Old Filth even at the end, having grown very fond of him and wanting to know more.
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LibraryThing member AMQS
I had been looking forward to this one for a long, long time, and it did not disappoint. Recommended and beautifully reviewed here by many others, Old Filth is a multi-layered, spiraling journey through the memory and painful past of Sir Edward Feathers, affectionately known as Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong). Filth was spectacularly successful as an advocate and judge in Hong Kong. He and his wife Betty retired comfortably, if somewhat unexpectedly to Dorset, a place neither of them could really ever call Home (the uncharacteristic move was prompted by the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule). Now in his eighties, and with Betty having died suddenly, Filth is reflecting upon his desperately unhappy childhood and seemingly happy, successful adulthood. Filth's memories come somewhat unbidden -- he imagines Betty addressing him; a condolence letter with unexpected meaning jolts him terribly -- and he unaccountably (and unadvisedly) ventures across the country to visit his cousins, who share a slice of his terrible past.

The book is pervasively sad. I was unaware of the plight of Raj orphans: at the time, it was customary to remove children from their parents serving the Empire in far-flung locales such as Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, or Ceylon to be fostered and educated in Britain, resulting in a near-complete estrangement from their families. In the case of young Eddie Feathers and his cousins, their foster situation was so awful it was an untouchable subject throughout the narrative, leaving the reader with the terrible knowledge that there must be a reckoning of memory before the end of the book. Sad, too, is Eddie's non-relationship with his father, who is haunted by the horrors of WWI and addled by malaria. The older Feathers is completely uncommunicative, though he does send money, leaving Eddie bewildered and in need of direction when life circumstances change, and desperate for a part of his father he can call his own.

While sad, the book is also terribly funny. Major book sections are framed by conversations about him ("What! But he must have died years ago;" or "Nothing ever did go wrong for him...Nothing much ever happened to him. Except success.") If the reader is somewhat bewildered by the non-linear narrative, the plunges into old memories, the revisitation of old grudges, the bitter rival turned best friend, the minor peripheral characters who turn out to be key actors in the story year later (or earlier), I wonder if it mirrors Filth's own bewilderment of the 20th (and 21st) centuries and the astounding changes he himself lived. I wondered, my heart ached, I laughed, and gave myself over to an extraordinary storyteller.

Old Filth is not a terribly sympathetic character, but I came to care for him deeply. Betty is something of an enigma, and so I can't wait to drop in on them again in The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells Betty's story. This is a book that would never have crossed my radar without LT, so thank you!
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
This restrained and yet intimately reflective novel provides an examination on life changing events and how we can be shaped by our experiences. The story is focused on Sir Edward Feathers, the Old Filth of the title. Gardam beautifully captures the voice of an old Raj orphan – an octogenarian if my memory serves correctly! – who finds himself at a crossroads of sorts in the twilight years of his life. He reflects on his past, memories conjured up in part by the arrival of Veneering, the Far East legal rival of his past, to the quiet Dorset community Feathers now resides in in seclusion. Gardam provides the reader with glimpsing views of our characters as though seen through paned windows, not accessed through open doors that would allow us to fully enter and embrace the characters. The access to the characters is beautifully managed as some things, as in real life, are only fleetingly alluded to, while other things are left unmentioned.

Richly told, the reader experiences our main character’s growing realization of his advancing frailty, his sometimes transient state of emotional and mental confusion and a building desire to get his moral house in order. A need to wipe the slate clean, so to speak. I really like how Gardam is able to show how Feathers’ acquaintances, family relations and former colleagues view him in comparison to the more complex and very human individual that resides behind the exterior facade he projects. Even though Feathers is a flawed character, Gardam is able to portray him in a way that made me grow to love him and his foibles. Feathers is not a character that is easily pigeonholed or categorized, even if his dated clothing and mannerisms lead one to some expected first impressions. Gardam does an amazing job capturing the past, depicting an Empire that no longer exists in our modern world, except in the lingering minds of those who were around to experience it. Filled with a number of well written passages, this is the one, describing the Raj orphans, really stood out for me:

"They were brought up like that. Most of them learned to never like anyone, ever, their whole lives. But they didn't moan because they had this safety net. The Empire. Wherever you went you wore the Crown, and wherever you went you could find your own kind. A club. There are still thousands around the world thinking they own it. It's vaguely mixed up with Christian duty. Even now. Even here at Home. Every house of our sort you go into, Liverpool to the Isle of Wright - there's big game on the wall and tiger skins n the floor and tables made of Benares brass trays and a photograph of the Great Durbar. Nowadays you can even fake it with plenty of servants. It wasn't like that in my grandfather's generation. They were better people. Better educated, Bible-readers, not showy. Got on with the job. There was a job for everyone and they did it and often died in it."

Overall, a memorable reading experience for me and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, The Man in the Wooden Hat.
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LibraryThing member John
This is a wonderful novel; it is like an old sweater that you slip into and immediately feel comfortable. Sir Edward Feathers, aka Old Filth (which stands for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) is rich and retired in Dorset with his wife Betty, after a long, illustrious, successful career as a lawyer and judge in Hong Kong. Eddie was a Raj baby, i.e. a child sent at an early age from one of the far-flung outposts of the empire to be raised in England by relatives or foster parents, depending on the circumstances. In Eddie’s case, he is torn from the arms of a loving Malay family when he is four or five years old (his father having ignored him after the death of his mother after childbirth), lodged with foster parents (because his aunts are too cheap and self-absorbed to bother with him) where he and others are abused, slotted into a British public school, then on to war service which he spent as part of the bodyguard for Queen Mary, Oxford, the bar and Hong Kong.

Betty at one point muses, “Amazed, as she never ceased to be, about how such a multitude of ideas and images exist alongside one another and how the brain can cope with them, layered like filo pastry in the mind, invisible as behind the screen…”. And this is very much the style of the novel with layers of meaning and emotions that touch, glance off each other, join, co-exist, conflict, all explored with a gentle, sure hand that rings psychologically true in all respects. This is a novel about many things: the tragedy of stunted emotional growth and being, a search for love without really understanding the search, the emotional cost of lack of communication, the heartbreak of desires that glance off each other but never connect, the needs and secrets of life and lives lived.

Despite worldly success, Eddie’s inner life is turmoil from the day he his torn out of Malaya, a turmoil that he suppresses with various coping mechanisms through life, but the sad part is that he cannot truly love and, as he cries out at one point: “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. I want to know why”. Eddie is a good man, but he is emotionally neutered from his early life. He is sexually confused, not, I think because of latent homosexuality, but because he simply could not cope with the physical and emotional intimacy of sex. His introductions to sex would be funny if they were not at the same time pathetic and bathetic. This affects his life with Betty to whom he has always been faithful, but who had to “look elsewhere” for passion and we discover, though Filth never does, that it was with a man whom Filth loathed in Hong Kong but who later in life, in England, when they were both widowers, became a friend and a comfort.

Emotionally bereft, Eddie becomes a man who finds solace and predictability and comfort in externalities and institutions: his brilliant career as a lawyer and judge, his standing and life in Hong Kong, his marriage to Betty whom he does love, in his way. The novel is told from his perspective as an old man in England and how he copes or reacts when all of these structures fall away, the final one being the death of Betty which sends him on a crazy search for contact with people who were with him in the foster home, to try to understand what went wrong there and set him on the path he had for life. The sadness is that the potential for love and caring was there, but Eddie had built such defensive mechanisms that he could not break through them himself. As a woman from his past writes to him after Betty dies: “…everyone always loved you in your extraordinary never-revealed or unraveled private world. I am one of those who know that you were not really cold.”

Towards the end of his life, Eddie finds a certain peace in coming to grips with his experience in the foster home out of which the child most abused (Cumberledge) seems, ironically, to be the one best adjusted in adult life: “I wanted to express my pity…..My pity for her. For Ma Didds [the abusive foster mother]…..I cannot bear to think about the cruelty at the core of this foul world. Or the vengeance dormant even in children. All there, ready waiting for use. Without love. Cumberledge was given Grace. That’s all I can say. We were not”.

Gardam is a wonderful writer. She reminds me of Paul Scott, in Staying On, or Seamus Deane or John McGahern in her ability to capture a lifetime of emotion in a moment, with a very light brushstroke. At one point, Eddie and Betty are discussing their wills. Betty says that she hates making wills and then, “looking away, not wanting to touch on inheritances since there was nobody to inherit. She didn’t want to see that Filth didn’t mind”.

Strongly recommended.
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LibraryThing member NarratorLady
Where has Jane Gardam been all my life? I have spent countless hours over the years trolling the aisles of UK book stores and never once remember coming across her name, yet she has authored two dozen volumes since 1974. When a friend mentioned loving this book and that "Filth" was an acronym for "Failed in London try Hong Kong", it tickled my Anglophile sensibility and I had to try it. What a book!

Filth, aka Sir Edward Feathers, and his wife Betty have retired to Dorset after a lifetime in the East where he has presided as a very distinguished and successful judge. Childless and with loads of money, Filth and Betty know no one in the UK, and it becomes apparent that they don't know each other terribly well either. This seems not to bother Filth, who is comfortable with the surface relationships he has had with people all his life. But upon Betty's death, he is forced to reflect and that leads to an intense and surprising tale.

Gardam manages to expertly achieve what so many writers cannot: she brings us back and forth in time, so that the story, which begins when Filth is eighty, takes us from past to present and back to the past again, over and over, seamlessly. It's like being taken on a toboggan ride through hilly terrain: not once did I ever feel like I would fall off and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Little Eddie Feathers was a "raj orphan", one of the hundreds of children born to British ex-pats in the East who were sent to England at an early age to be schooled. Eddie's mother has died in childbirth and his father, suffering from malaria and an horrific WWI experience, never even converses with him before sending him abroad. This pattern of being left to fend for himself continues as his aunts ignore him, his best friend abandons him and his mysterious father demands his return to Singapore as WWII is beginning.

There are so many layers to Old Filth's story that it would be impossible to write them here and would never do justice to the actual tale. Gardam's writing is perfect and her characters are beautifully drawn. Eddie's childhood fears and abandonments are presented as poignantly as the fears and abandonments of Filth's old age.

Such a story could be an unbearably sad read but luckily there is plenty of humor - wonderful, funny passages that make the book a perfect whole story. Filth takes to the road (in trips not unlike that of the butler Stevens in The Remains of the Day), and discovers himself.

I hate for a book like this to end. But it turns out that this one has a sequel, or at least a book with the same characters. The Man in the Wooden Hat is Betty's version of this story and her life with Filth.

I can't wait.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Edward Feathers's story is full of insights into a familiar character type: the high acheiving, emotionally repressed, stiff upper-lipped, superficially elegant, well-educated son of the pseudo-aristocracy that governed the former British colonies. Now a retired judge in his 80s whose wife has recently passed awy, Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) struggles to find a mooring in a changing world, and along the way, comes to terms with his past.

Summed up, Feathers's childhood was shaped by a series of handings-off. His mother died following his birth, and, with barely a single glance, his father shuttled him off to live with Malaysian locals until he was 4-1/2, at which time he was ripped from the arms of the only caretaker he had ever known and sent, along with two young female cousins, to live in a foster home in Wales. This home was not, shall we say, the ideal situation for young children, but it met Feathers senior's criteria: it was cheap. When circumstances forced him to be moved yet again, young Eddie was whisked off to his father's old prep school--a place where, fortunately, he thrived academically and made his first real friend, Pat Ingleby. On holidays spent with the Inglebys (who were properly remunerated by his father), Eddie had his first taste of what family life might be like.

But, alas, World War II intervened, bringing with it a series of losses and tragedies. Almost 18, and just as he passed the Oxford entrance exams, Eddie's father decides he should join not the RAF but the ranks of England's child refugees, and, once again, he becomes a pawn in motion.

The above "life itinerary" barely scratches the surface of Gardam's thoroughly engaging story, a story that is alternately funny and heartbreaking. Nor does it do justice to the many unique and fascinating characters in Feathers's life: his Scottish wife Betty; his judicial rival Veneering; cousins Babs and Claire (both as girls and as elderly women); Albert Loss, a fellow passenger on board a ship bound for Singapore; "Sir," the lovable prep school headmaster; and many others.

Read it--you won't be sorry.

As for me, I'm off to start Gardam's follow-up novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which apparently focuses on Betty Feathers.
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LibraryThing member LynnB
This is the story of Edward Feathers -- Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) -- a retired judge. The story of his life is told in a series of flashbacks, and builds to a somewhat surprising and wonderfully satisfying ending.

The story provides insight into the life of "Raj orphans" -- children sent by their parents to school at a "Home" they've never seen (England). Many children completely lost contact with their parents. Some, like Filth and his cousins, suffered abuse and lived forever with its consequences.

The book is a bit hard to follow at the beginning -- lots of flashbacks and "flash forwards" where characters are introduced somewhat out of context. But it comes together beautifully. The author (Jane Gardam) writes dialogue exceptionally well and is a master at the use of metaphor. And while it is obvious that the story is building to a core "revelation", the journey there is every bit as well executed as the ultimate unveiling. Truly great writing.

Filth himself is a wonderful character -- the kind of character I will remember long after I've forgotten the details of the story.
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LibraryThing member bohemima
Old Filth is, simply, wonderful. It's the life story of Edward Feathers, a "Raj orphan" who became a judge in Singapore. With his wife recently dead, Edward tries to cope with his new circumstances. He reflects on his past and meets some old friends and relatives as he takes a couple of trips to renew old aquaitances and memories. The reader is treated to the thoughts of both Edward and these friends and relations. Each meeting exposes a different, and often quite startling, side of Edward.

Both a fascinating character study and an exploration of individual perceptions, Old Filth is a marvelous, highly original book. Most definitely recommended.
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LibraryThing member TerryWeyna
When I picked up Old Filth, I expected a book full of Sir Edward Feathers's reminiscences about a life at the bar in Imperial England -- specifically, in the Hong Kong referred to in the title. ("Filth" means, for a British solicitor or barrister, "Failed in London -- Try Hongkong.") After all, this book was about the life of a solicitor who ultimately became a judge, reaching the pinnacle of achievement in his profession, and in a foreign culture at that. And what is life about, for a lawyer, but his triumphs and his wretchedly unfair defeats?

But this book isn't about a life at the bar. It is about the life of Sir Edward, from his earliest days on earth to his last. It is about an adult life full of wealth and regard, yet one that was not truly happy; professionally fulfilling, certainly, but with unhappiness lurking in every corner. It's a remarkable character study, skillfully written so that the reader makes discoveries from inferences while enjoying language so lovely that it sinks into the brain like a song.

Old Filth skips about in time, rather like an old man's reminiscences -- an odd and sometimes confusing structure, but one that works. One moment the elderly Sir Edward is in a hotel recovering from a sprain, and the next the child Eddie is suffering at the hands of a vituperative caregiver. Sir Edward's memories range from his birth in Malay (as Malaysia was then known), to a bitterly unhappy childhood in Wales, through prep school, World War II, Oxford and to the Orient. The memories are fully lived, almost surprises to the man. They are interwoven with his discoveries of truths he deliberately avoided or literally never knew, because he buried himself in work and in the rhythms of a staid, formal and out-moded Victorian colonialism. Old Filth's declining years are full of renewed acquaintances with old enemies, distant cousins, and former lovers, who inspire new memories that come unbidden. The sturdy old man he has become gradually makes peace with his life -- and, ultimately, his death.

I don't wish to say too much more about this book here, because it is so full of unexpected buried pearls, hidden amethysts and sudden kindnesses. And it surprises, too, with the occasional bright happiness of a friendship of old age or the dark despair of childhood secrets. Rather, I'd prefer just to urge you to go, find it, read it, and let's discuss it. It is one of the best books I've read in years, beautifully written and extraordinarily well-plotted, and I give it my highest recommendation.
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LibraryThing member thorold
It took me a little while to get properly involved with this novel, in which an elderly, retired colonial judge looks back on a life that is quite different from the smooth ride everyone else assumes he must have had.

Gardam is not an aggressively witty or sophisticated writer, and she doesn't do much to haul the reader in at the outset. Her favoured technique seems to be to sneak in towards something that will give us a deeper insight into her characters, but then turn back just before she gets there, leaving us dangling until the next opportunity. An approach that can be very effective, but makes this read almost more like a novel of the 1950s than one written just over a decade ago. This slightly archaic feeling is reinforced by the subject-matter, of course: there are strong echoes of Elizabeth Taylor's Mrs Palfrey in Gardam's tough-but-emotionally-scarred survivors of upper-class colonial childhoods, and of course (as she acknowledges) the voice of the most famously damaged Raj child, Kipling, is never far away. But Gardam brings in plenty of material that goes beyond the obvious - having been married to a QC for many years she is able to write about ageing barristers without making it sound like a pastiche of Rumpole (not that John Mortimer would ever take on a judge as a sympathetic main character!), and the cameo appearance of Queen Mary is a rather splendid touch. I wouldn't quite put in on my list of 100 greatest books, but it does go a step or two beyond being merely entertaining and well-researched.… (more)
LibraryThing member Bostonseanachie
This was a solid, slightly fussy, slightly old-fashioned book about an essentially orphaned ex-pat, his extraordinary judicial life, and his "return" to England (where he had never actually lived for any period of time). the "Old filth" of the title is a reference to this character as well as (mataphorically) to some of the experiences of his past -- whether traumatic or just not English enough. The nearly century-long span of the novel's telling is carried off masterfully; the moving back and forth through time was seamless. That said, this is very much character-driven and not event-driven, and I could see folks being tired by the lack of narrative drive.
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LibraryThing member Girl_Detective
Filth is an acronym, supposed coined by the main character of the book, Edward Feathers:

"His colleagues at the Bar called him Filth, but not out of irony. It was because he was considered to be the source of the old joke, Failed In London Try Hong Kong. It was said that he had fled the London Bar, very young, very poor, on a sudden whim just after the War, and had done magnificently well in Hong Kong from the start."

Filth is easy to like, all the more so as his life story unfolds in fits and starts. It swoops in time and perspective so wildly that in the hands of a less-skilled author, the book would be dizzying instead of dazzling. Filth was one of many “Raj orphans.” Like Rudyard Kipling, these were children of English parents sent East in the name of Empire. The children were often returned at four or five to foster families in England to avoid disease, if they hadn’t succumbed to it already.

From a tragic beginning, Filth’s supposedly golden life is deconstructed for the reader, though not to the people around him. He becomes a sympathetic, almost amazing figure, set largely against the backdrop of WWII. Several times in the book he’s urged to write his memoirs, something he struggles with and finally gives up on. Readers of fiction are well rewarded that Gardam created his fictional one. I look forward to reading more about him in Gardam’s story collection The People of Privilege Hill and the sequel, his wife Betty’s story, in The Man with the Wooden Hat.
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LibraryThing member ChazziFrazz
Sir Edward Feathers, a retired barrister who served as advocate and judge in Hong Kong, living in Dorset. His wife has passed away and he is now living alone. Not a very social man, he has time to remember events in his past.

Born in Malaya, his mother died at his birth and his father was too busy with his work, he was raised by native ayahs till the age of 5 when he was sent back to England to be raised by foster parents and two strange aunts. This was the way of child raising for his class of society. This was how Raj children were treated.

WWII broke out when he was of university age. His father felt the boy should evacuate England and come back to Malaya. Edward wanted to stay and go to Oxford (he passed the entrance exam and was accepted to attend after the War), or join the military. But he was put on a ship and sent off only to be out to sea for four months and have to turn right around back to England as Singapore had been taken over by Japanese. When he arrived back, after seven months at sea, he was close to dying from illness so spent month in hospital getting well. When he was released he chose to join and was assigned to the guard contingent guarding Queen Mary at a country estate. Not what he had hoped for.

Moving back and forth from the current time to his past at various events, you see the world through Old Filth's eyes and experiences as he lives through the century. His childhood, growing up, adulthood, education, marriage and life with his wife Betty. There is humour to be found in some of the events he goes through and there is sadness too. The characters that come in and out of his world are varied and memorable.

For me it was a good read. Maybe because he reminded me a bit of a special friend I had. He was also an Englisher and felt that there were correct ways to handle situations. It was not a fast read, but the more I read the more I wanted to read more.

This is the first in a trilogy and I will be reading the other two books.

Oh, and the nickname Old Filth? It's an anacronym for Failed In England, Try Hong Kong. He claims to have created it.
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LibraryThing member pgchuis
The story of Edward Feathers' life; his birth in Malaysia, childhood fostered in Wales and then at school in England, his experiences during the Second World War, his career as a barrister in Hong Kong and his retirement in Dorset. The structure is that of Filth widowed and in his eighties looking back on his past and perhaps coming to understand why his life has turned out as it did. He is viewed as a successful lawyer and judge, who has led an uneventful life, (and we learn little about his years in Hong Kong), but his early years were far from uneventful. This is a sad story about a man who has known little love and been betrayed by most of the people supposed to be responsible for him. The British Raj comes out of the story very very badly, with the exception of people like Auntie May.

There were moments of mild humour and just enough kindness to keep with book from hopelessness, but a reminder again that we do not know another person's story and how it has affected them.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
"Old Filth" feels like the last book of the twentieth century, and it just might be one of its best. It tells the story of Edward Feathers, who, according to arrangements made by his father, a British colonial administrator and veteran of the First World War, was raised by surrogate parents in Britain. Childhoods like Edwards were once commonplace, and children in his situation were once known as "Raj Orphans." His childhood in Wales, his wartime evacuation from the British Isles, and his subsequent career as a lawyer in Hong Kong gives Feathers a front-row seat to the long, slow collapse of the British Empire and fills him with an abiding sense of cultural confusion. For all of this, "Old Filth" is a Modernist project in the classic sense. Edward's character is always at "Old Filth's" center, and his unfolding memories are always its motive force. Gardam's narrative functions both as a sensitive portrait of a young man of inauspicious origins struggling to achieve selfhood and a wide-ranging description of a complex social structure that has since been dismantled and is quickly fading from our collective memories. As a demonstration of how memory can be used both as a method of self-realization and tool of social critique, "Old Filth" succeeds just as brilliantly as "Mrs. Dalloway" did more than three-quarters of a century ago. Edward is alive on the page both as a flesh-and-blood character and as an unwitting participant in the rise and fall of institutions and historical movements far larger than himself.

The exceptional quality of Gardam's prose also sets "Old Filth" apart. Books about the cultural conflicts created by the British Empire and its aftermath are not rare; this subject ground has been well-tilled by other Commonwealth authors such as Michael Ondaatje, V.S. Naipaul, and Kazuo Ishiguro, and another tale of post-colonial disorientation seems to win the Booker Prize every other year. To Gardam's everlasting credit, however, this familiar material seems blazingly fresh and relevant in her hands. Her description of Edward's evacuation from Britain to Sri Lanka has a luminous, dreamlike quality that communicates Edward's sense of youthful discovery perfectly. "Old Filth" hardly seems to have an author at all; it ebbs and flows as naturally as Edward's own thought processes, threatening to dissolve the barrier between character and reader completely. To write well is difficult enough, but to make it seem effortless, as Gardam often does, approaches genius. That's not a word, by the way, that I'm afraid to use in this instance. This book deserves every one of the five stars I've given it.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
In the opening scene of the novel we are introduced to an empty chair at a luncheon in the Inner Temple of Barristers. It is the chair once filled by Eddie Feathers, better known as"Old Filth". As a boy he was separated from his parents by death and distance. As a man he was known by his success as a barrister in Hong Kong, thus the nickname "Old Filth" (FILTH being an acronym for "Failed in London, Try Hong Kong."). But what of this man who had recently left his peers and his life so materially rewarded by his success? Jane Gardam's novel, Old Filth, tells his story through the memories of a man at the end of his life, a man whose desire has faded as his body has withered. Some moments in the story enchanted this reader such as when Eddie goes off to grammar school a stutterer and is cured by the headmaster, "Sir", who provides a model for Eddie's future education. He also meets the first of the friends that would mean much to his life and his success. While his early friend Ingoldby (what an unusual name, perhaps in memory of the author & poet of the same?) would not survive the war, the Ingoldby family would provide Eddie with the family he did not have as a youth, its characters playing a prominent role in the story. Later friends, notably Albert Loss ( Albert Ross of the Coleridge poem) also are important in ways that are not evident upon their first appearance.
It is the way that Jane Gardam intertwined the memories of Eddie Feathers into a coherent whole that impressed me. Her ability to demonstrate his life and memories of it through the structure of the story, along with her fine writing style, made this a very good read and an excellent novel. It is not a perfect novel and I wondered at the seeming lack of passion of Eddie Feathers in spite of his youthful desire. He seemed to be a man who built his life out of reactions to events, with enough luck and desire along the way to make quite an impact on his friends and his peers. Near the end of the novel he reproves himself, "Life ends. You're tired of it anyway. No memory. No desire. Yet you don't want it to be over. Not quite yet."(p 258-9)
This is a sign of his fading life, but there is a stronger omen in the penultimate scene of the novel as he returns to Hong Kong, perhaps for the last time, when,

"The black night shuddered all around the plane. When he next woke there was a pencilled line of gold drawn round each oval blind.
Dawn already.
"We are in tomorrow," said the girl. "It's the sunrise. A happy New Year."(p 286)

We do not see him waking again, but look back fondly on the story of his life with admiration for the goodness of his memories and desires. This alone made the book a pleasure to read.
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LibraryThing member yourotherleft
Old Filth is the story of Edward Feathers born shortly after the end of World War I, the son of a mother who died shortly after childbirth in the British colony of Malay and his father, a distant District Officer of the colony. At 4, he's sent back "Home" to England for schooling only ever to see his father, who never seems to have loved him anyway, for one more fleeting moment. Effectively orphaned, Eddie grows up alone, constantly estranged from those around him for one reason or another. His unhappy past doesn't keep him from success, however. Despite failing as a lawyer in London he becomes a successful lawyer and a judge in the Far East - hence his name, an acronymn for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. The opening pages of the book find Filth a retired but still unassailable old barrister whose reputation has grown to such mythic proportions that it obstructs the hard truths of a man so damaged by his past that he has found himself forever unable to love. It's only as Filth toddles gracefully into old age that he can begin to rediscover the parts of himself that he has locked away and come to terms with the dark secrets that made him the man he became.

Old Filth is everything a good character study should be. The book starts out with an elderly, retired Filth who is famous among his peers but also a profound mystery. Then it begins to deconstruct the facade he's constructed, peeling back layer after layer and we begin to know and understand the man even as he unlocks the doors on his past and begins to rediscover himself. Gardam's crisp, clear prose weaves effortlessly between past and present tying together memories of the past and behaviors of the present thereby giving readers a full picture of a fragile boy always destined to lose those he loved, a boy with unthinkable secrets who became a man that always held himself at a distance from those he could have loved.

By the end of the book, Filth feels like a friend with his secrets laid bare before us. Your heart will break again and again for him as he endures confusion and rejection as he tries to make connections with people whose concern for him is fleeting. You will be proud of the successful, polished, determined gentleman he became even despite circumstances that could have crushed him again and again. In short, Filth is a complicated, vivid character that smacks of reality, and a man you, like me, will begin to miss as soon as you turn the last page.
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LibraryThing member bell7
Edward Feathers, often called Filth ("failed in London, try Hong Kong), has returned to England after a prestigious career as a lawyer and judge. Now retired and a widower, he reflects back on his life and as the story unfolds you realize that no one can truly know a person from the outside looking in.

Old Filth is the story, told non-chronologically, of a boy who was born in Malaya and sent to England for schooling, much like other so-called Raj orphans. Old Filth himself is a bit of a curmudgeon and loner, his story sometimes terribly sad even though he's deemed "successful" by his peers. A thoughtful and understated character study.… (more)
LibraryThing member cameling
Sir Edward Feathers, born in Malaya, brought up by Malayan villagers, a Dickensian English foster family and English public schools, becomes a guardsman to the Queen Mary during WWII, a barrister in London, and a sterling career as barrister and later judge in Hong Kong.

Now retired with his wife Betty, in a quiet little town in Dorset, he finds himself retreating back through the years, especially after Betty's death.

A stirring, moving and at time humorous novel, the life of Filth (nickname given to him for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong)is shared with us through his memories. His cold exterior may be explained by his having had people leave him throughout his life, the death of his best and only friend, a disastrous sexual introduction that led to a cold sexless marriage, the rejection by his father and odd relatives. But the exterior hides a man who realizes later in life, that what he's been missing has been desire, a desire for life.
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LibraryThing member Ameise1
I am fascinated by Gardams writing style. She contrives to portray the life of Edward Feathers concise. It is exciting to read from the first page to last. Even if it is a fiction, it shows the sad fate of English children who were taken from their parents abroad and were taken to foster families in England. Their fate during their childhood impressed and they fought partly the rest of their life with this trauma. Edward was a Solicitor General and has received his facade of his life upright. This earned him not only friends but he remained despite marriage a loner who has difficulties in dealing with others. Only in old age, after the death of his wife, he faced up to its past and open towards others.… (more)
LibraryThing member streamsong
Edward Feathers retired to England after an illustrious law career in Hong Kong. He was regarded as the epitome of the British upper class: stiff upper lip matched by a stiff spine; incredibly proper with a conventional marriage and no knowledge of even his longtime servants' names.

Only his self-given ironically humorous nickname, Filth, (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) gave a inkling that there might be more to the man.

Slowly however we learn his backstory. With each puzzle piece filled in, we see a bit more of the boy, a Raj Orphan – whose father, a British official in Malaya had shipped him to England to be civilized and then educated.

Still waters run deep, as they say.

Wonderful character study, with interesting twists, and I thought it was wonderfully written as well as entertaining. I'll definitely be going on with this series.

Side note - Ms Gardam was 72 when this was published.
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LibraryThing member katiekrug
A bittersweet novel about the life of a Raj orphan and his inability to forge genuine connections with other people. While very sad in parts, it was also unexpectedly funny, and I found it difficult to put down. As Filth looks back on his long life and tries to make sense of it, we are provided a picture of one man's loneliness, failings, and desire for redemption. A wonderful, wonderful novel.… (more)
LibraryThing member SheilaDeeth
They don’t even see him, in a corner of the room, when today’s important lawyers remember Old Filth. They remember him with a touch of fond reverence—Failed In London but surely made it when he Tried Hongkong. They know he’s back in England, and his wife died, and there was that thing... maybe.

But there are many “things” hiding in Jane Gardam’s novel, Old Filth: The history of England’s children, born in the Empire’s farflung corners and sent “home” because, somehow, foreign illnesses might be more dangerous than growing up without a family; the history of war, its confusion and agony and loss; and the history of law in the promise of foreign shores. Relationships slowly reveal themselves in new lights as different characters take the stage. And behind it all, almost unseen, Old Filth is almost accidentally gathering his fractured selves into one—invisible, lost, forgotten, then remembered again.

The writing is pleasingly spare, inviting readers to connect the dots, and rewarding them with brilliantly evocative scenes, low-key pathos and humor, and powerful depths of character and relationships. Events shift effortlessly from past to present, from Malaysia to boarding school and university; and every mystery hides its own kind of answer, near or far, waiting for its perfect revelation. The novel is powerfully moving. The protagonist demands an almost reluctant sympathy. And the decline and fall of Empire are beautifully chronicled in the life of a lonely, oddly appealing, irascible old man.

Disclosure: Our book group picked this book and I’m so glad they did.
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LibraryThing member marient7
Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career from his early days in Southeast Asia where he earned the nickname Old Filth..FILTH being an acronym for Failed in London, try Hong Kong. He was a respected member of the English bar, but through it all he has carried the wounds of a difficult and hollow childhood.




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