“Lawyers, I suppose, were children once” ( Inscription on a statue of a child in the Inner Temple Garden in London)

The book tells the life of Edward Feathers, barrister and judge, known as “Old Filth” and considered to be the originator of the phrase”Failed In London Try Hong Kong”.  Alternately comic, tragic and reflective this is an immensely satisfying story as it weaves together the parts of Filth’s life, till we discover the unspoken secret of his childhood. The story is almost always from his perspective and moves between past, present and near present.

Filth is thought by the other venerable members of the Inns of Court to have had a long and uneventful life, but the reality, as it is gradually revealed to us, is very different. Born in Malaya to a colonial family, his mother dies from childbirth and his father, a World War I survivor is too shell-shocked, from war and the loss of his wife, to look after the boy, so he is brought up by the servants until he is exported HOME, to be fostered and educated in England, as a Raj Orphan. 

The time frame is from the the mid-1920’s to after September 11th 2001, although there is little between the end of the war in 1945 and 2001, other than slivers of information of how he and his wife led their lives in Hong Kong. There is a large part of the “story” that is only hinted at, but has a major impact on the man Edward Feathers finally is. His relationship with his wife is barely touched upon,  but there is loyalty and betrayal in there.

Jane Gardam can really bring a setting to life, no word wasted, in particular I enjoyed her descriptions of the train journey to and from Oxford in the middle of wartime , and the Bolton house of Edward’s two eccentric maiden aunts. 

As Old Filth reflects on his life the reader is drawn into reflecting on “LIFE”.  To a friend asking why he hasn’t written his memoirs  Filth says ” I’ve grown my image. Took some doing. I’m not going to upset it now.”  

Do we all create the image we wan’t others to see – or are we more open now?

For me the most telling part of the book is when Sir Edward is talking about his life to a priest whilst he is recovering from a sopposed heart attack . The priest describes him  as a hero in his profession and he replies with a story about moving his chambers to a newly built office block and being taken to the basement of the old building  by his Clerk who shows him “..a sea of Briefs, three feet deep, bundled up with pink tape. We don’t know what to do with it, we’ve decided to get a firm in to throw it on a dump. That was years of my life. Years and years” The priest replies “It’s not often made that clear to us”

For anyone who, like me, writes reports which end up being archived, this is such a reality check.

I enjoyed this greatly, with one complaint – I really wanted to know more about Betty’s (his wife) life who had also been a Raj orphan and worked in Bletchley Park during WWII,  but that would have been another book.