Many writers pen promising coming-of-age novels. Few master the parting-of-the-aged novel as Jane Gardam does in Old Filth.
Gardam’s great skill is in making old age as perilous an adventure to navigate as adolescence. Compassionately and humorously she describes the gaffes and awkwardness of a man in his late 70s and early 80s, complete with emotional angst, impulsive actions, sexual moments, embarrassing predicaments, harrowing driving and self-discovery. Body and mind have regular surprises in store. In place of pimples, raging hormones and growth spurts, there are creaky bones, forgetfulness and memories flooding the mind. Like a 13-year old, this elder, Old Filth, is often out of place in the world.
What kind of filth is old? And who might be old and filthy?
Certainly not the honorable retired Judge Edward Feathers, formerly of the Far East, now residing in Dorset, described as “spectacularly clean.”
On page one we learn Old Filth’s an acronym for “Failed In London Try Hong Kong,” said to have been invented by Feathers, who now bears it as a nickname.
Old Filth has carefully established his stately persona. Few suspect what lurks beneath such distinguished exterior. Two peers talk:
“Pretty easy life. Nothing ever seems to have happened to him.”
Some of that nothing:
· Born in Malaya. His mother died in childbirth. His father ignored him.
· Raised until age 5 by natives, then sent to Wales as “a Raj orphan,” to be raised in foster care with two cousins, Babs and Claire as well as the unrelated Billy Cumberledge. The children suffer some unspeakable damage and are sent separate ways.
· Boarding school where Edward undergoes a thorough and strict education under the direction of the headmaster, “Sir” and meets fellow student, Pat Ingoldsby, whose family impacts his life.
· A life-changing, near deadly, ship voyage during WWII.
· Edward enlists and passes the war holding knitting yarn for one of England’s celebrities.
· Poor, he goes to Hong Kong where he makes a fortune and then retires to Dorset and the quiet life with Betty, his wife.
· They determine to make their “Wills.” But who are they to leave all to?
· Betty dies. Her secret life, her secret wishes revealed.
· Old Filth falls apart, revisits his cousins and his failures. He distributes Betty’s treasures.
· A few years later he meets the one man he disliked most in his life, Terry Veneering, who becomes his best friend, an event called the beginning of “enlightenment.”
· Enlightenment means coming to terms with his childless marriage, his childhood actions.
· He takes another life-changing journey.
Old Filth’s story spans nearly a century and traverses continents. He and his acquaintances are impacted by two world wars, the end of the British Empire, even 9/11. Given span alone, Gardam’s work is edifying and extraordinary.
But it’s in describing the bumbling mind and gawky body, the ordinary challenges and odd preoccupations of old people that Gardam’s work truly gives pleasure with her gentle humor.
Filth ruminates in the bath, “idly watching his old greying pubic hair floating like fern on the delicious hot water.”
Followed by: “He turned his lanky frame so that he was on all fours, facing the porcelain floor of the bath, balanced on his spread hands and his sharp knees (one of them none too excellent), and slithered his feet about to get some sort of purchase near the taps. Slowly the long length of his arose, feet squeaking a little.
Images layer themselves. Water in the drain becomes a former river. Filth’s mind often segues from the present to daydreams of the past. Later, past and present merge when Filth falls ill.
Filth drives his old Mercedes on a busy roadway he has not negotiated before. His mind speeds up and drifts as it observes the roadway, and two trucks fence him in: “Two dragons, Machiavellis, each carrying a dozen or so motor-cars on its back, like obscene, louse-laden animals…” One toot and yer oot,” as the bishop said to the old girl with the ear-trumpet. Wherever did that come from? Too much litter in old brains.”
And it is on this journey he confirms he no longer fits in.
Having survived – just barely – the motorway, he goes to a small cafe where he sits at a plastic table. “The waitress looked at his suit and tie with dislike. The man at the next table was wearing denim trousers with his knees protruding, and a vest. Brassy rings were clipped to all visible orifices.”
Such contrast with youth is further underscored when Feathers meets a young lawyer Cousin Claire’s son’s romantic partner, Vanessa. The chapter serves as a nexus on one of the book’s main themes – work and marriage. Two lawyers from different times, each insults the other. Vanessa makes assumptions about his career. Filth makes assumptions about her partnership. Both also have chance encounters with the local vicar, who seems to have the uncanny ability to read their souls. For Filth the encounters offer moments of understanding his marriage with Betty; for the younger lawyer the meetings with Filth and the Vicar change the course of her “partnership.”
Throughout Old Filth, old filth is revealed but we are offered only glimpses of Betty – though we often hear her voice in conversations Filth has with her after she’s gone. The next book in Gardam’s trilogy, The Man with Wooden Hat, (which I just bought) promises to reveal more.
She’s already interesting. Just before her death in the early pages of Filth, she fondles tulip bulbs and recalls the feel of a man’s scrotum. Instead of planting bulbs, she drops the pearls she’s wearing – those she calls “the guilty ones,” as opposed to “the famous ones” her husband gave her into the ground. Both sets, like seeds, pass on to a new generation in Old Filth– and are associated with children in different ways. Her voice and her actions provide plenty of intrigue to propel the reader into the next volume.
While a coming-of-age tale tells the story of becoming, this leave-taking one slowly reveals how Edward Feathers becomes what he becomes, and includes the unbecoming. Old Filth also leaves behind a lingering sweetness and sadness. Only a writer with intimate knowledge of the aging process could write such a book. Gardam, now 84, had this published in 2004, with the subsequent volumes, The Man with the Wooden Hat in 2009 and Last Friends just this year (2013).
They are among the pearls she’ll someday leave behind.