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February 27, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Old Filth

Old Filth is the nickname of Judge Edward Feathers, the mythical figure of the international legal scene, who started the fad of practising in the Far East when the going got tough in England. Filth (Failed In London Try Hong-Kong) is Gardam’s aged hero, a character famous in the Benchers’ lunch room of the Inner Temple, first for being a hard worker, an advocate for the Pollution Law and a bit of a wit, but later, as a man who was mildly successful in a boring sort of way, and who lived a singularly long, uneventful life. The plot never really stood out to me, but after it received acclaim I gave it a try – and was pleasantly surprised.

Old Filth’s uneventful life (that his colleagues saw) consisted of a 50-year monogamous relationship with a good wife, a career that made him millions, and a body that left him reasonably healthy right up to the end, which is where we meet him. At 82 years, Filth has lost his wife, Betty, and finds himself alone with his memories. ‘Without memory and desire life is pointless’, is a phrase he dwells on, realizing that although desire has left him, his memories are still brimming. From his first Christmas without Betty, to the last Christmas of his life, we are privy to Filth’s doddery activities, interspersed with lucid memories from throughout his life. We see him as a tragic raj orphan, who was snatched from the life he knew in Malay at fours years, to be shipped to a foster home in Wales with the abhorrent Ma Didds. We see him as a stammering public school boy whose best friend was lost in the war. We see him as a soldier to Queen Mary. As a lover. As a murderer. As a penniless London lawyer. As a rich Hong Kong judge.

In a precise, believable voice, Gardam lets us feel what it is like to be old and alone, surrounded by people who have forgotten or never knew you. After a Christmas dinner of anchovy toast and claret with an equally aged nemesis from the bar, Filth phones the only relatives he has left – the cousins with whom he was originally fostered. Babs’ public school accent reminds Filth so strongly of his late wife that he reacquaints himself with the Rolls and heads to her part of England. He finds her disappointingly batty and unhygienic. Not knowing how to help her, he carries on to his next cousin, Claire. Claire, the perfect child bathed in light, even as a diabetic old woman is beautiful.

Every meeting he makes, and every familiar paddock he drives past, fuel his compelling, upsetting, sometimes hilarious and often surprising memories, to the extent that after almost a whole year without Betty, he is living more in memory than in the present. The only days he hasn’t properly recaptured are from the Far East. After a false alarm heart attack, Filth makes the decision to gather up the last pieces of his past, and books a plane ticket.

It may seem like I’ve given away a lot of the plot. Not so! Even if I have leaked some of the details, the joy of this book is in the perfect characterisation of a rich and varied cast. Gardam’s controlled, sympathetic – and witty voice delighted me. She deserves all the accolades she has been given and above all deserves to be read.

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