Review: Old Filth

November 22, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Old Filth

This is so much fun! It’s the longest character sketch you will ever read. What plot there is revolves around Old Filth (short for Failed In London Try Hong Kong), an old barrister/judge whose wife has just died, and what happens to him in the next month or two, but it keeps flashing back to his past. But see, it’s not really a plot, it’s just a string of episodes whose purpose is to elucidate the character of Old Filth, aka Edward Feathers. It’s like saying the rosary on a gorgeous silver chain where every bead is a jewel, and when you lean down you can see a whole story in the depths of each. It’s like an awesome obituary that has enough space to go off and elaborate on every interesting episode, although by the end you still haven’t found everything out. My only complaints are that the occasional long letter tends to be overly expository and awkward, and that the “big secret” of the book is kind of overwrought. But in general, the writing is light and solid and well-done; Gardam is one of those writers who has a knack for using a great many verbs besides “be” and “have” and “do,” and the reader doesn’t notice it except to think that the writing is extremely tight, warm and precise. Plus Old Filth is a great character. The overall tone reminds me a little of Remains of the Day, with all its stuffy Britishness, but that might come from all the Empire stuff—much of Eddie’s life took place in Asia. Very good calm little read. Highly recommend.


Heat such as Eddie had never known blasted land and sea. The smell of Africa was like chloroform. Inland from the port were dancing-hot tin sheds, one with a red cross on it, asphalt, some apologies for shops, and RAF personnel in vests and shorts. More black people stood about in the shadows beneath the trees. Beyond the white strip of beach the mango forests began and Albert Loss sat down neatly under a palm tree and ate one, first peeling off the skin with a little knife from his pocket, then sucking. He took out a notebook and began to make calculations. Eddie ate bananas and thought about the buttermilk girl, with some satisfaction.

He watched the rollers of the Atlantic. “I think I’ll bathe,” he said. “Get rid of the banana juice.” He licked his fingers and ran down to the sea and was immediately flung back on the beach. He tried again and was again spat out. He lay with a ricked back and a badly grazed knee as the waves slopped over him with contempt.

“The sun’s dangerous,” Loss announced from the edge of the jungle.

But Eddie, exalted to be free, warm, deflowered and full of bananas, lay on in the sand. The dangerous part of the journey was over. They had seen no U-Boats, and there would be none on the next ship for they were out of range now. They were taking the Long Route down Africa to the Cape, and out to Colombo to refuel. Then Singapore and safety. And the next ship might be better. Even comfortable. A Sunderland flying boat suddenly roared from beyond the mangoes and came towards him along the sea, bouncing like a loose parcel chucked from hand to hand. It blundered to an uncertain lopsided stop some way out. Bloody planes, thought Eddie. I want to sleep. He was sated, different, happy.


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