This book by Jane Gardam, Old Filth (2006) is one I wanted to like. Gardam is a fine writer and the title, with its shades of irony, appealed. It’s an acronym for Failed in London, Try Hong Kong and it refers to Old Filth himself, a judge who spent his career in Hong Kong and has retired to England as the book begins.
Since reading Rudyard Kipling’s biography I’ve been curious about the Raj Orphans, the children of British parents posted to the far east who were sent alone at about age six to be raised at “Home” in order to escape the perceived dangers of disease in the east.
The system held dangers of its own as the quality of the foster care varied greatly and some children – Rudyard Kipling was one of them – suffered under sadistic people who had the children entirely at their mercy. Such was the case with Old Filth, who with two cousins were sent to Wales where they were beaten and abused.
But alas, Filth, the man, was as unlikable a character as I’ve met in some time (and that says something when I’m reading in The Prime Minister about Ferdinand Lopez.) He is described throughout the book as having been beloved, respected, appreciated by nearly everyone he encountered, a few felons excepted.
The author wanted the reader to see through this superficial view of him to the flawed man beneath whom people never saw and to forgive him his faults because of his dreadful youthful experiences. That didn’t happen. The other characters weren’t well realized and the plot, such as it was, drifted about without a real point.
This is not a bad book. It’s a mediocre book that could have been a very good one.