Book One in Jane Gardam's Old Filth Trilogy
Sir Edward Feathers has had a brilliant career, from his early days as a lawyer in Southeast Asia, where he earned the nickname Old Filth (FILTH being an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong) to his final working days as a respected judge at the English bar. Yet through it all he has carried with him the wounds of a difficult and emotionally hollow childhood. Now an eighty-year-old widower living in comfortable seclusion in Dorset, Feathers is finally free from the regimen of work and the sentimental scaffolding that has sustained him throughout his life. He slips back into the past with ever mounting frequency and intensity, and on the tide of these vivid, lyrical musings, Feathers approaches a reckoning with his own history. Not all the old filth, it seems, can be cleaned away.
Borrowing from biography and history, Jane Gardam has written a literary masterpiece reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling's Baa Baa, Black Sheep that retraces much of the twentieth century's torrid and momentous history. Feathers' childhood in Malaya during the British Empire's heyday, his schooling in pre-war England, his professional success in Southeast Asia and his return to England toward the end of the millennium, are vantage points from which the reader can observe the march forward of an eventful era and the steady progress of that man, Sir Edward Feathers, Old Filth himself, who embodies the century's fate.
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Jane Gardam is the only writer to have been twice awarded the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel of the Year. She is winner of the David Higham Prize, the Royal Society for Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and the Silver Pen Award from PEN. Her novels include: God on the Rocks, shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Old Filth, a finalist for the Orange Prize; The Man in the Wooden Hat, finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book prize, and Last Friends, finalist for the Folio Award. She lives in the south of England, near the sea.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Scene: Inner Temple
The Benchers' luncheon-room of the Inner Temple. Light pours through the long windows upon polished table, silver, glass. A number of Judges and Benchers finishing lunch. One chair has recently been vacated and the Benchers are looking at it.
The Queen's Remembrancer: I suppose we all know who that was?
Junior Judge: I've no idea.
Senior Judge: It seemed to be a famous face.
The Common Sergeant: It was Old Filth.
JJ: What! But he must have died years ago. Contemporary of F.E. Smith.
CS: No. It was Old Filth. Great advocate, Judge and - bit of a wit. Said to have invented FILTH — Failed In London Try Hong Kong. He tried Hong Kong. Modest, nice chap.
SJ: Hard worker. Well — the Pollution Law. Feathers on Pollution.
CS: Filth on Filth.
SJ: An old joke. He must be a hundred.
CS: Nowhere near. He's not been retired all that long. Looks a great age, though.
QR: Transparent. You could see the light through him.
CS: Magnificent looks, though. And still sharp.
QR: He's up here doing things to his Will. He's got Betty with him. She's still alive too. They've had a soft life. Far Eastern Bar. And made a packet. Looked after themselves.
CS: Never put a foot wrong, Old Filth. Very popular.
QR: Except with Veneering.
SJ: Yes, that was odd. Out of character.
QR: For such a benevolent old bugger. D'you think there are mysteries?
SJ: Old Filth mysterious?
QR: It's a wonder he's not just a bore.
CS: Yes. But he's not. Child of the Raj, public school, Oxford, the Bar — but he's not a bore. Women went mad for him.
QR: Coffee? You going through?
CS: Yes. Ten minutes. My Clerk's packing in the next case. He'll be ranting at me. Tapping his watch.
QR: Yes. This isn't Hong Kong. Coffee? But it was good to see the old coelacanth.
CS: Yes. Yes, indeed it was. Tell our grandchildren.
He was spectacularly clean. You might say ostentatiously clean. His ancient fingernails were rimmed with purest white. The few still-gold hairs below his knuckles looked always freshly shampooed, as did his curly still-bronze hair. His shoes shone like conkers. His clothes were always freshly pressed. He had the elegance of the 1920s, for his garments, whatever they looked like off, always became him. Always a Victorian silk handkerchief in the breast pocket. Always yellow cotton or silk socks from Harrods; and some still-perfect from his old days in the East. His skin was clear and, in a poor light, young.
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. Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit.
Filth in fact was no great maker of jokes, was not at all modest about his work and seldom, except in great extremity, went in for whims. He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after retirement.
Now, nearing eighty, he lived alone in Dorset. His wife Betty was dead but he often prattled on to her around the house. Astonishingly in one so old, his curly hair was not yet grey. His eyes and mind alert, he was a delightful man. He had always been thought so. A man whose distinguished life had run steadily and happily. There was no smell of old age about his house. He was rich and took for granted that it (and he) would be kept clean, fed and laundered by servants as it had always been. He knew how to treat servants and they stayed for years.
Betty had been successful with servants, too. Both she and Old Filth had been born in what Americans called the Orient and the British Raj had called the Far East. They knew who they were, but they were unselfconscious and popular.
After Betty's death the self-mockery dwindled in Old Filth. His life exploded. He became more ponderous. He began, at first slowly, to flick open shutters on the past that he had, as a sensible man with sensible and learned friends (he was a QC and had been a Judge), kept clamped down.
His success as an advocate in Hong Kong had been phenomenal for he had had ease, grasp, diligence and flair. His career had taken off the minute he had begun to be briefed by the Straits-Chinese. It was not just that scraps of eastern languages began to re-emerge from his childhood in Malaya, but a feeling of nearness to the Oriental mind. When Old Filth spoke Malay or (less ably) Mandarin, you heard an unsuspected voice. Chinese, Malay and Bengali lawyers — though often trained at Oxford and the Inns of Court — were thought to be not straightforward but Filth, now Old Filth and after his retirement often Dear Old Filth, had found them perfectly straightforward, and to his taste.
All his life he kept a regard for Chinese values: the courtesy, the sudden thrust, the holiness of hospitality, the pleasure in money, the decorum, the importance of food, the discretion, the cleverness. He had married a Scotswoman but she had been born in Peking. She was dumpy and tweedy with broad Lanarkshire shoulders and square hands, but she spoke Mandarin perfectly and was much more at home with Chinese ways and idiom than she ever felt on her very rare visits to Scotland. Her passion for jewellery was Chinese and her strong Scottish fingers rattled the trays of jade in the street markets of Kowloon, stirring the stones like pebbles on a beach. 'When you do that,' Old Filth would say — when they were young and he was still aware of her all the time — 'your eyes are almond-shaped.' 'Poor Old Betty,' he would say to her ghost across in another armchair in the house in Dorset to which they had retired and in which she had died.
And why ever Dorset? Nobody knew. Some family tradition somewhere perhaps. Filth said it was because he disliked everywhere else in England, Betty because she felt the cold in Scotland. They both had a dismissive attitude towards Wales.
But if any old pair had been born to become retired ex-pats in Hong Kong, members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St Andrew's Church and St John's Cathedral, they were Filth and Betty. People who would always be able to keep servants (Filth was very rich), who would live in a house on The Peak, be forever welcoming hosts to every friend of a friend's friend visiting the Colony. When you thought of Betty, you saw her at her round rosewood dining table, looking quickly about her to see if plates were empty, tinkling her little bell to summon the snakey smiling girls in their household livery of identical cheongsams. Old Filth and Betty were perfectly international people, beloved ornaments at every one of the Memorial Services to old friends, English or Chinese, in the Cathedral. In the last years these deaths had been falling thick and fast upon them.
Was it perhaps 'The Pound' that drew them to Dorset? The thought of having to survive one day in Hong Kong on a pension? But the part of Dorset they had chosen was far from cheap. Betty was known to 'have her own money' and Filth had always said merrily that he had put off making Judge for as long as possible so that he hadn't to live on a salary.
And they had no children. No responsibilities. No one to come back to England for.
Or was it — the most likely thing — the end of Empire? The drawing-near of 1997? Was it the unbearableness of the thought of the arrival of the barbarians? The now unknown, but certainly changed, Mainland-Chinese whose grandparents had fed the baby Miss Betty on soft, cloudy jellies and told her frightening fairy tales?
Neither Filth nor Betty cared for the unknown and already, five years before they left, English was not being heard so much in Hong Kong shops and hotels and, when it was heard, it was being spoken less well. Many familiar English and Chinese had disappeared to London or Seattle or Toronto, and many children had vanished to foreign boarding schools. The finest of the big houses on The Peak were in darkness behind steel grilles, and at Betty's favourite jeweller the little girls behind the counter, who sat all day threading beads and who still seemed to look under sixteen although she had known them twenty years, glanced up more slowly now when she rang the bell on the armour-plated door. They kept their fixed smiles but somehow found fewer good stones for her. Chinese women she knew had not the same difficulty.
So suddenly Filth and Betty were gone, gone for ever from the sky-high curtains of glittering lights, unflickering gold, softgreen and rose, from the busy waters of the finest harbour in the world and the perpetual drama of every sort of boat: the junks and oil tankers and the private yachts like swans, and the comforting, bottle-green bulk of the little Star Ferries that chugged back and forth to Kowloon all day and most of the night. This deck accommodates 319 passengers. Filth had loved the certainty of the 19.
So they were gone, far from friends and over seventy, to a house deep in the Donheads on the Dorset-Wiltshire border, an old low stone house that could not be seen from its gate. A rough, narrow drive climbed up to it, curving towards it and out of sight. The house sat on a small plateau looking down over forests of every sort and colour of English tree, and far across the horizon was a long scalpel line of milky, chalky downland, dappled with shadows drawn across it by the clouds. No place in the world is less like Hong Kong or the Far East.
Yet it was not so remote that a doctor might start suggesting in a few years' time that it might be kinder to the Social Services if they were to move nearer to civilisation. There was a village half a mile up the hilly road that passed their gate, and half a ...
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