Adventurous life of Raj orphan

Old Filth

Jane Gardam

Chatto and Windus, 14.99

EDWARD Feathers - known as ‘Old Filth’ - is living out an obscure retirement in Dorset. A successful lawyer and then judge in Hong Kong, he and his wife Betty returned to a Britain they hardly knew. The novel slips effortlessly back and forth through time as Filth recreates his past.

A ‘Raj orphan’, he spends his early years in Malaya, only to be wrenched away to Britain. With his two cousins he is fostered to the brutal Ma Didds before being abruptly shipped out after a mysterious event.

Subsequently, young Eddie attends public school, where he finds a surrogate family with his friend Ingoldby. But even this is provisional - when tragedy strikes the family he finds himself excluded from their grief.

His father summons him to return home before the outbreak of the Second World War and he feels once again torn from a world he is beginning to understand. His father’s decision brings tragic consequences, but also opportunity.

The elderly Filth lives comfortably with his memories until Betty’s sudden death brings an end to their genteel, amiably distant relationship.

He embarks on a bizarre journey across the country, sparked when his cousin’s voice on the telephone reminds him of his dead wife’s. In the heightened unreality of grief, he has a series of adventures and finally resolves the mystery of what happened to Ma Didds.

The story is peopled by agreeable British eccentrics. The politics of Empire are not discussed. Filth and his fellow Raj orphans never even consider such questions.

Gardam has drawn on Rudyard Kipling’s childhood in her portrayal of the young Eddie, but this, too, is treated playfully, as the precocious Eddie points out the parallels between his life and the poet’s to his headmaster.

The poignancy of Filth’s life is counterpointed with comedy based on misunderstanding. Filth’s distance from modern British life allows Gardam to look askance at it. Filth is at times bewildered as he copes with the indignities of age, the pain of loss and the lingering of desire.

But even at its most confusing it is a gentle, kindly world he inhabits, where everyone is decent and helpful and - aside from servants and hotel staff - reassuringly middle class.

At the heart of the book is loss and an aching longing for a sense of home which Filth, for all his experiences, never had.

Perhaps Gardam is suggesting that despite their apparent privileges, Filth and his contemporaries are the Empire’s forgotten victims.

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