Laughable … Good judge … Travelling alone. Quite alone.
The final lines of Old Filth above are filled with pathos as they could sum most of us up in the final four words. We all of us travel alone at the end, no matter how busy our lives and how many we have in our family.
I’m not giving much away because Filth is already in his 80s when we meet him at the start of the novel and having worked in Hong Kong most of his life the people in England know very little about him, even those at the Temple Bar who know of his work. These fellow lawyers are used to both introduce us to Filth at the start of the novel and tell us of his death at the end. Old Filth (Failed in London, try Hong Kong) is the book group selection for this month. There is a good turn of phrase and it is fairly light-hearted so far. A silk, then a judge in Hong Kong Filth has returned to the English countryside. Now in his 80s and alone, but with help for household tasks, he is living next door to the one man he couldn’t stand in Hong Kong. They steadfastly ignore one another until one snowy Christmas Filth finds himself locked out of his house in a snowstorm. Filth was a Raj orphan and most of the novel is told in flashback. Various characters come and go throughout the decades and the delight for the reader is that we always know more than he does about why people are acting as they do and that much more is going on than he understands. The peripheral characters such as his wife Betty are actually the more interesting ones and I suspect that it is no coincidence that a companion novel was written afterwards called The Man In The Wooden Hat which tells Betty’s life in greater detail. In fact some of the peripheral characters could make a series of novels as the sketches drawn make the reader want to find out more. There is one surprise at the end of the novel which is alluded to throughout about Teddy’s experiences as an evacuee with the foster mother from hell and another about how Teddy managed to go out to Hong Kong in the first place. The flyleaf says the novel is a masterpiece because it seems so slight when you read each sentence but the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts. Imagine a life without love as a child! We don’t know we’re born.