Like a bracing draught of quinine water, the beautifully written Old Filth by Jane Gardam is both astringent and purifying; it’s good for you and, it turns out, has more than a little kick. If you are fascinated by the effects of the Empire on Britain and its subjects, this novel will be like adding gin to the tonic—the perfect sundowner situation, a salute to the dying day with a fascinating companion, the titular Old Filth.
Filth stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong” and is the nickname of Teddy Feathers. He is a Raj Orphan from Malaya sent “Home” to England before World War II by his distant, shell-shocked father. We meet Teddy as Sir Edward Feathers, an 89-year-old distinguished, but diminishing former judge and lawyer who has retired back to England, and whose beloved wife has just died. Flashbacks to horrors and happinesses are interwoven with his process of mourning as his life story unfolds.
This is an intensely felt novel, both comic and sad; Teddy’s acerbic remarks about the modern era alone are worth the cover price, but equally compelling is the book’s unbendingly unsentimental attitude towards life. At the end of the book he says “I have always been alone,” but the scope and power of Old Filth (the man and the novel) lie in the relationships he has with people from his housekeeper, whom he calls “Mrs.-er” to Queen Mary, whom he guarded while she was a London evacuee.