Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my struggle to finish reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-book long cycle of books taking place mostly in London between the two World Wars. The short review of Dance? Don’t bother. I read six out of the twelve books and was basically bored silly the whole time, as Powell was much more interested in looking at different social strata of England pre-1939 and characterizing them poorly than actually telling any kind of story. Last week I tore through much better book, that in 250-some pages accomplishes what Powell couldn’t in his thousands, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is the first of a trilogy of books set in the declining British Empire that just concluded last year with Last Friends. After this book, I am eagerly awaiting picking up that one and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat.
The aged Sir Edward Feathers is better known as “Old Filth” to his fellow Queens Counsels of England, FILTH being an acronym that stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth began life as a “Raj Orphan”, the son of a colonial administrator sent back to England for his education and safety. This great novel follows Filth from birth through to his tough interaction with the modern day after the death of his beloved wife Betty. Along the way he gets mixed up with public schools, Oxford dons, a brief (and hilarious) Army stint and eventually success in Hong Kong. It recalls the humour of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, the exotic colonial locales of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster, and is equal to them all in quality.
As I noted earlier, I really loved this book. It is at turns hilarious, incredibly sad and a fascinating glimpse at a culture I know very little about. Raj Orphans, who I’d never heard about previous to the book, had a pretty tough go of it, as in addition to being taken from their families they were often put in foster homes and often mistreated. Filth forever feels torn between his two nations, as he was happiest in Malaysia (Kotakinakulu) with his native friends, but he never truly belonged due to his status and his race. He goes on to ping pong between social groups and organizations for the rest of his life, in a matter not too different from Jenkins, the ostensible main character of Dance to the Music of Time.
There’s some uproariously funny stuff here; my favourite part was when Filth finds himself a part of Queen Mary’s protection retinue during the Second World War, as his stutter would make it tough for men to understand his orders, and his social standing makes it difficult to use him as a grunt. It’s a fun interlude, and another look at something I’d never even thought about before: of course the Royals had to have been secreted away in case the Germans reached the mainland. This is again tinged with tragedy, though, as it’s while he’s ostensibly protecting the Queen that his first love affair falls apart like skeins from a ball of yarn. He also learns to drive using a tank, the only vehicle around.
I do wish I’d seen more of Filth’s success in the Far East, as his Hong Kong adventures are often alluded to but never fully explained. I’m hoping to see more about this time period in the second novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of his wife Betty. The third book, Last Friends, is the tale of Filth’s great nemesis of his courtroom days, the delightfully named Terry Veneering, who only appears a couple of times in this one.