Old Filth by Jane Gardam

This is an enjoyable novel: well written, with layers of meaning and an engrossing plot. The title refers to the nickname of a retired lawyer and judge, whose career was based in Hong Kong. He ended up there as part of the flotsam and jetsam of the British Empire in its final years, as it fell apart during and after the Second World War. The nickname is an acronym of ‘failed in London try Hong Kong’, which I have actually come across before in real life.

The book gives a nice insight into the dramatic and strangely beautiful world of ‘Raj orphans’ – people born in or otherwise closely connected to the British colonies in the 1930s and 1940s and who ‘returned’ from them to Britain, the ‘mother country’

It is also a novel about social class – a British obsession and, as anyone who has lived in Britain would agree, a pronounced feature of British society – and the characters in this book are all, as most colonial expatriates were, upper class.

I have always been a little bit envious of people who have lived overseas in childhood. Not only because of the enduring value of knowing other languages naturally and without having to learn them by study but also because of the expansive view it can leave of the world and its possibilities. Not always, of course – I have met some narrow-minded boors, as well, who have had that experience.

The characters are all both enhanced and blighted by these experiences. Their emotional lives are stunted and twisted, echoing a familiar theme among those describing the British upper classes. But their love of other cultures remains and is reflected well in the book.

This is a good read but might, perhaps, be less enjoyable for the reader not familiar with British post-colonial angst.


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