Jane Gardam, Old Filth. Abacus, 2018. First published 2004
Mrs TD and I discovered a new walk yesterday. It starts at Feock church, on a headland divided by branches of the River Fal by Carrick Roads. I’ve written before about this village, the sturdy little church, its obscure patron saint, and its fine lych-gate and venerable yew trees.
Mrs TD passed on to me a book she’d just read, and what a good recommendation it was. Jane Gardam was born in a district of Redcar, N. Yorkshire – where I attended grammar school. Old Filth deals with the long life of a retired advocate and judge, Sir Edward Feathers, said to have invented the uncomplimentary acronym of the novel’s title: Failed in London, Try Hong Kong. After an undistinguished career as a jobbing lawyer in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, he’s given the opportunity to ‘try Hong Kong’ and the ‘Far Eastern Bar’, where he flourishes.
The novel deals mainly, however, with the ways Feathers’ childhood and youth scarred him emotionally and made him into the cipher he appeared as an adult to his contemporaries. The novel is bookended by dismissive, pejorative comments about his outwardly uneventful, unexciting and unimaginative life by some of his surviving legal community:
Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit…He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after his retirement.
Gardam’s narrative demonstrates brilliantly and movingly how little we can know about a person’s depths – the truth of them – from the exterior they construct and present to the world.
His widower father showed him no affection, and had him shipped at the age of four back to England – like so many other ‘Raj orphans’. His foster mother in Wales treated him and the other children in her care with cruelty bordering on sadism. Other events in his early life show his capacity for hiding his emotional scars while searching desperately for the love and affection so long denied to him by those who should have cared for him.
The narrative is complex in structure, with frequent flashbacks to different stages of his development, each one subtly indicating what shaped him into the outwardly competent but aloof figure he became. We gain a gradually focusing picture of his loving but not entirely satisfactory relationship with his wife, Betty. At the novel’s start Eddie is in his eighties and Betty has recently died. As the narrative proceeds we hear about the secrets that haunt him, the relationships, heartbreaks and experiences that moulded him.
It’s a deeply felt portrayal of a conflicted, damaged life, and an indictment of the heartlessness of the powerful elite British who ran ‘the colonies’ of their former empire, ensuring they exploited every natural resource, while tainting the lives of all who came into contact with them.
Back to our walk yesterday. We followed a path down to the foreshore of a creek at Penpol and Point. A group of ten swans cruised majestically up the ebbing tide, then spoiled the elegant look by breaking up into aggressively lunging squabbles.
We followed another, unknown path back across fields high above the creek. The views were lovely – on a rare day this summer in Cornwall of clear blue sky and sunshine we could see Carn Brea monument high above Camborne, some fifteen miles away.
Back at Feock we walked a little way across a field to gaze at Carrick Roads below. There were handsome but very large cows gazing at us inquisitively; Mrs TD isn’t keen on cows, so I went ahead alone to take the picture below. Earlier the footpath passed beside a field with glamorous-eyelashed alpacas, and again Mrs TD insisted on hurrying past, avoiding eye contact with them as they sauntered over to look at us. They looked affronted but amused.