Meet Edward Feathers, also known as Sir Edward, Teddy, Fevvers, or Old Filth. Filth is an acronym nickname that stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong, to describe lawyers who weren’t successful in England and found easier success in the Far East. Now back in England, the death of his wife causes Edward to reexamine the events and people of his childhood and how they shaped him.
Old Filth, composed and wealthy, initially appears to have had a soft life. As Gardam explores his past, the reader sees instead a painful childhood that teaches him toughness, a life of hard luck and tragedy that reveals a surprisingly complex and fascinating character, and a grown man struggling to understand his own identity. The author weaves in and out of time and space and changes perspectives, a style that is both riveting and calls for a deft narrator.
Graeme Malcolm and his posh British accent bring Old Filth to life, complete with his occasional stammer. A prolific and versatile narrator, Malcolm has performed everything from children’s books (Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux) to a John Lennon biography. He shifts easily among locations and perspectives, and captures Old Filth’s bewilderment, as a person who never quite fits in his place or time, with poignancy and humor.
Jane Gardam, a venerated author who has won the Whitbread Award and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, completely captures a world gone by, when men still changed their shirts before dinner and England was an empire. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s life as a “Raj Orphan” a British citizen born in the Empire, raised by surrogate parents, then torn from his loved ones to be schooled in England Gardam explores themes of love, loss, home, and family with crisp yet moving prose. The more emotional scenes are told without heavy-handed sentimentality and are all the more effective and haunting for it.
Old Filth is a must-listen for Anglophiles, listeners who enjoy memorable characters, and a perfect choice for book clubs. (Check out a companion book, The Man in the Wooden Hat, also performed by Malcolm, that tells Filth’s wife’s story.) Jane Gardam and Graeme Malcolm combine their talents for an exquisite listen. Julie MacDonald
FILTH is a lawyer with a practice in the Far East. A few remember that his nickname stands for Failed In London Try Hong Kong. But Old Filth is not as pompous as people imagine, and his past contains many secrets and dark hiding places.
©2004 Jane Gardam (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
This beautifully written, elliptically told story is matched by a narrator of great skill and discretion -- rather like Filth himself, a lawyer who became rich by disappearing into his work, whose colleagues, finding him unknowable, assume there's nothing to know. There is, it turns out, a lot to know about Edward Feathers, all of it dramatic, human-scaled and utterly satisfying. Gardam tells his story with delicacy, wit and empathy for both Filth and the reader. (Filth experiences a torturous childhood, a topic I personally find almost unendurable in a book. Gardam covers it intelligently, without sensation or prurience). Especially wonderful are the secondary characters, drawn with almost Dickensian verve and particularity. ALL the characters are surprising and sharply drawn.
I had put this one off as everywhere I turned folks raved about the book. Finally, I decided to see for myself what all the hype was about. I was a truly cynical listener as the story started; now I want to rave about it, too! The characters, setting, plotting ... it all works beautifully. Terrific narration made the experience even better.
I appreciate the reviews that others have given this, and I believe Graeme Malcom did a great job narrating. I understand the notion of spare but elegant and deep writing, the interplay between past and present, and the propriety of convention in masking drama of the past. But, I kept having to repeat sections to get their sense and to catch the drama...and while it was usually there, it seemed to be of a lower interest voltage than I was hoping for - certainly some intriguing elements, but overall, I could not find Old Filth to be especially more sympathetic than I would find anyone who lived a complex life. I stopped listening about two hours before the end. But I know that others, almost certainly of more astute sensibilities than I possess, have reason to enjoy this read/listen. It just did not work so well for me.
Old Filth has been reviewed by writers more accomplished than I, but I have to say that the book touched me deeply. There are few modern novelists who are capable of laying a sympathetic foundation for revelations characters make in later life. I appreciated the patient way Jane Gardam lays out this story of resilience in Edward Feathers, the protagonist, and in minor characters, too. Although I am a modern-ish woman, I could identify with the abandonment experienced by Eddie Feathers (as a Raj child) and the confused understandings associated with his own needs for love. The fact that the character explores the impact that abandonment has had on his life and then works in very late life to reconnect with others is an important lesson. We are never too old to reflect on our past and then work to repair our errors. Any of us who have made a childhood pact can understand the burden the demand for secrecy can have, especially if one feels honor bound to uphold the pact throughout a life time. What amazed me is that betrayal Edward Feathers experienced did not keep him from caring for others or staying true to those who helped him. This is a wonderful character study, rich with description and with just enough plot to hold the listener's interest. The reading is wonderful, as well -- not overly done.
I just finished this-- listened 2 times which is unusual for me but I needed to listen a second time for some of the nuances I missed first time around. This is the story of a distinguished lawyer and judge told back and forth thru time. Old Filth--'failed in London, try Hong Kong', is a Raj Orphan. Dark but in a dry, British, 'stiff upper lip' sort of way. The narrator is perfect for the job. This book would be a great book club selection-- lots to discuss. I just downloaded 'The Man in the Wooden Hat' which is his wife's story.
Edward Feathers's story is full of insights into a familiar character type: the high achieving, emotionally repressed, stiff upper-lipped, superficially elegant, well-educated son of the pseudo-aristocracy that governed the former British colonies. Now a retired judge in his 80s whose wife has recently passed away, Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) struggles to find a mooring in a changing world, and along the way, comes to terms with his past.
Summed up, Feathers's childhood was shaped by a series of handings-off. His mother died following his birth, and, with barely a single glance, his father shuttled him off to live with Malaysian locals until he was 4-1/2, at which time he was ripped from the arms of the only caretaker he had ever known and sent to live in a foster home in Wales with two female cousins. This home was not, shall we say, the ideal situation for young children, but it met Feathers senior's criteria: it was cheap. When circumstances forced him to be moved yet again, young Eddie was whisked off to his father's old prep school--a place where, fortunately, he thrived academically and made his first real friend, Pat Ingleby. On holidays spent with the Inglebys (who were properly remunerated by his father), Eddie had his first taste of what family life might be like.
But, alas, World War II intervened, bringing with it a series of losses and tragedies. Almost 18, and just as he passed the Oxford entrance exams, Eddie's father decides he should join not the RAF but the ranks of England's child refugees, and, once again, he becomes a pawn in motion.
The above "life itinerary" barely scratches the surface of Gardam's thoroughly engaging story, a story that is alternately funny and heartbreaking. Nor does it do justice to the many unique and fascinating characters in Feathers's lie: his Scottish wife Betty; his judicial rival Veneering; cousins Babs and Claire (both as girls and as elderly women); Albert Loss, a fellow passenger on board a ship bound for Singapore; "Sir," the lovable prep school headmaster; and many others.
Read it or listen to it--you won't be sorry. Graeme Malcolm was the absolute perfect reader.
As for me, I'm off to start Gardam's follow-up novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which apparently focuses on Betty Feathers.
I loved this story and narration. Why haven't I read all of this author's books? I will now - I promise. Wonderful characters, settings, descriptions....all of it! I'd even listen again, which is very very rare for me.
I loved this book and the performance, but I was shocked to see that the last page of the book IS NOT INCLUDED! And it's an important final scene. Makes wonder what other pages have been lost in books which are supposedly "unabridged"
The writing is beautiful and unexpected.
I hope Audible will re-issue this book in its entirety.
The narrator had just the right tone and inflection for this rather tongue-in-cheek yet poignant story...even has a surprise at the end! Highly recommend.
Thanks to Graeme Malcolm, the reader, for getting me through this novel, which allowed me to appreciate its entire scope and mastery. I have been reading several English WWII novels/pieces of nonfiction lately--not sure why--so my sense of change, societal and personal loss, and general doom and gloom has been high, and several times I wondered why I was listening to this meticulous tale of a man at the end of his life. . . but, ultimately, the book served to 1. wow me with Gardam's writing skill, and 2. remind me of the value and wonder of every individual's experience, encouraging me to simply pay attention to other people and their lives. One of the reasons I stuck with Old Filth in the darker parts at the start was that Jeanne Ray, author of Calling Invisible Women and, more notably, mother of Ann Patchett, listed it as one of her favorite books just as I was about to start listening to it, and that serendipitous mention (along with Cornflowerbooks Blog's rave opinions about Gardam in general) kept me going. And I'm glad I kept going. The novel is rewarding, beautifully written, and full of images and experiences that make it rich and wonderful. Not an easy read by any means (and probably not one to take on during a dark time of your life, in fact), but well worth the investment.
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