Critical Assessment

“Anglophile readers wondering who their next favorite British writer will be need look no further than Gardam, who, despite having won numerous literary awards and been short-listed for the Booker Prize, is not nearly as well known in the U.S. as she deserves. The title of this, her twelfth novel, seems to promise that satiric bite British authors do so well, but although there’s plenty of sharp humor here, the book has many other moods. Sir Edward Feathers – called Filth (even by his wife, Betty) for ‘Failed in London Try Hong Kong’ – is now retired and living in Dorset after a distinguished career as a barrister in the Far East. Betty’s sudden death sends him on both a real and an imagined journey to rediscover his past as a ‘Raj orphan’ born in Malaya but shipped back home early and brought to manhood at the hands of a variety of surrogate parents and guides, some good, some bad. For everything else Gardam’s richly layered story and acute observation provide, this is finally a portrait of old age, offered with unflinching realism but also deep compassion.”

Mary Ellen Quinn, “Gardam, Jane. Old Filth,” Booklist, May 1, 2006.

First Excerpt

“He was sitting now in another railway carriage looking, above the man sitting opposite, at a pre-War watercolour reproduction of a happy artless English family on a sunny English beach. The other picture frames below the rack held patriotic slogans and he wondered if the sand-castle country scene had been deliberately preserved. The clean-cut daddy; the Marcel-waved mummy; the innocent little one; the happy dog, Towser. Presumably in some people’s memory? He closed his eyes to keep them from tears. He dozed and found himself in a richer place, a sleep-laden, dripping dell with drops on every great leaf, the clattering of banana leaves, black children dancing in foetid puddles on the earth – earth beaten hard as concrete with dancing feet but which could become in moments under the warm rain a living mud. Laughter. The smell of sweet hot skin. He was being tossed up high in someone’s arms and he was looking down again upon a brown face, white teeth, gloriously loving eyes.”

Old Filth_1Second Excerpt

“‘It’s the luggage that really bothers me,’ said Garbutt.

“The suitcase was immense. He got it out of the roof like a difficult birth. Its label called it a Revelation.

“‘Revelation was once the very best luggage,’ said Filth. ‘They were “revelations” because they expanded.’

“‘They were them heavy things that went out with porters,’ said Kate. ‘Can’t we get you one borrowed? From that Chloe?’

“‘Absolutely not,’ said Filth.

“‘No way,’ said Garbutt.

“‘Get something on wheels with a handle, then,’ she said; and ‘What’s this, there’s something written on it in brass studs?’

“‘ISLAM,’ Filth said.

“‘Well that settles it. You can’t carry that. You’ll be thought a terrorist.’

“‘Islam was the name of a distinguished lawyer in Brunei. A friend. He gave me the suitcase to bring back our presents. We bought a great many – they have so little there. It was the least we could do. Buy and buy.’

“‘Let’s get it open then,’ said Garbutt.

“Inside were lurid hessian table mats, cross-stitched sacking table cloths, wilting saris and some indestructible straw matting. There was also a heavy little bundle of amethysts. He had sometimes suspected Betty of light-hearted smuggling. He sent all the other stuff to a church sale and asked Garbutt to scrub the case and polish it. It came up a treat.”