Have you ever had that experience of starting to read a book and then realising that you've already read it? This happened to me with Old Filth. My sister pulled it out of my mum's heavily-laden bookshelves over Christmas and kept exclaiming about how much she was enjoying it. So when she'd finished, I nabbed it off her. Testimony to quality of the writing is the fact that, even once I'd cottoned on to the fact that I was treading familiar territory, I carried on reading. I've just reached the end and I've now ordered the other two books in the trilogy.
We meet the character of Old Filth in old age, but quickly learn that in his heyday he was an international lawyer with a practice in the Far East. Filth is an acronym that stands for Failed in London Try Hong Kong, although it seems that Filth himself was successful in both places. But he hasn't had a particularly happy life, the blame for which, we deduce, can largely be placed on the fact of his being a Raj Orphan. It seems utterly barbaric in the 21st century to think of tiny 4- or 5-year old children being wrested from their parents and shipped home to Great Britain where they would live with foster families or relatives - often very distant ones. It was unusual for such children to see their parents more than once every five years or so. Ostensibly, the reason given was that India or the Far East or wherever was too dangerous for the young; too many diseases with no cure. But of course the underlying issue seems fundamentally to be that of racism. Children were usually brought up by local childminders and ayas, and that exposed them to a culture that wasn't considered 'suitable', plus there was always the danger they would become too attached and begin to think that they, themselves, were Indian, Malaysian or whatever. They needed to live in 'civilisation', ie. nice, white, starched and stiff-upper-lipped British society. Poor Eddie Feathers, aka Old Filth, and all those like him. It's a wonder any of them turned out even remotely normal.
Standing up for red-heads everywhere!
I have to admit to never having read any of Zadie Smith's novels. I've tried White Teeth about three times and never got beyond the first twenty pages. She is widely regarded as one of the UK's most talented and inspiring writers so I know it's me, not her. But I firmly belief that life is too short to force yourself to read stuff just because you should/everyone else has/it's a bestseller. I learnt that lesson with Captain Corelli's Mandolin, quite frankly the most over-hyped, monotonous and long-winded book I've ever made the mistake of ploughing through to the bitter, boring end. Anyway, despite the fact that I haven't read any of her oeuvre, I was reading an article about her and her talent the other day. I was somewhat dismayed to read this:
In typically post-modern fashion, Smith disarmed criticism by reviewing White Teeth herself in Butterfly, a literary magazine. "This kind of precocity in so young a writer," she wrote, "has one half of the audience standing to applaud and the other half wishing, as with child performers of the past (Shirley Temple, Bonnie Langford, et al), she would just stay still and shut up. White Teeth is the literary equivalent of a hyperactive, ginger-haired, tap-dancing 10-year-old."
As a red-head (NOT ginger) myself, and the mother of three beautiful red-heads, this is the kind of comment that makes my blood boil. Smith is using the adjective 'ginger-haired' to emphasise exactly how irritating, undesirable and unappealing this imaginary child is. That's how being 'ginger-haired' is used; never as a compliment. But substitute 'ginger-haired' with any descriptor that draws attention to skin colour and it would be completely and totally unacceptable. As someone who is black, surely Smith should be aware of this? I'm officially fed-up of being the butt of cheap jokes - especially from those who should know better. It's too easy to bandy these kind of jibes around without a) being aware of the hurt they cause and b) taking into account how they entrench and spread prejudice.