Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

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.

Jane Gardam Old Filth coverMrs 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.

Penpol creekWe 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.

Carrick cows



12 thoughts on “Jane Gardam, Old Filth – and Feock again

  1. Skipping the book review as I have a copy of Old Filth on the TBR and would rather not know anything more about it in advance.

    You’re lucky to have such a variety of different options close to hand for your walks. And so close to the sea, too. Lovely views.

    • I hope you enjoy the book, Jacqui; I’m sure you will. Yes, we’re lucky to have such gorgeous scenery so near to us. Even the cows are picturesque – though Mrs TD is less keen.

  2. Excellent review of Old Filth, I recently read it and thoroughly enjoyed it. A sad story, but of that colonial time I suppose. I’ve recently bought ‘The man in the wooden hat’ the second in this trilogy and the story from Betty’s perspective, I hope to start it soon and shall look forward to your review if you read it. Great photos as always.

    • It was, Karen. Seeing the alpacas in rural-coastal Cornwall was a bit of a surprise – but then I recall there’s a farm full of them that can be seen from the train between Truro and St Austell.

    • I’m glad my walking chronicles are pleasing! Interesting how we can read the same text with such different responses- I did find the structure of Old Filth a little fussy.

  3. I read and enjoyed Old Filth a long time ago when I was married to the Ex … who was a barrister.
    I can certainly attest to the truth of the exterior presented being so different to the man within. A powerful, aggressive, tenacious advocate in court, always fighting for the underdog, was a uxorious, gentle, mild-tempered husband and father. (Yes, we’re still friends.)

  4. My comment has vanished again! I loved your walk, thank you for sharing. I love Gardam but sadly couldn’t get into this one, I think the male character and the setting made it unlike her other novels, which was a real shame.

    • Sorry you’re still having problems, Liz. Your original comment did come through to my admin page for approval – I’ve been busy today so have just got round to responding

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