I’ll be your mirror

The coelocanth that is Sir Edward Feathers does more than just look full and lovely on the page. The fact of his being a coelocanth gives him the ability to reflect back to the reader a wide slice of history—and the reflection is from a surface that many readers will be familiar and comfortable with because it is like a pure Englishness outside of time, a reflection that doesn’t go blurry or wobbly because we know where we stand with coelocanths. They have been around for a long time.

When Feathers dies, basically in the present time, he’s nearly 90 years old. That means his life, and the books about his life, have coincided with a great number of historical events both familiar and unfamiliar. The late Empire in Southeast Asia, the interwar period back Home, WWII in Europe and Asia both, and everything that happens afterward: the slow rebuilding of Europe, with much new rising from the ashes, and the rapid expansion of money and power in the East, where Filth can still make a fortune though everything is already changing. Filth, never changing, is the perfect filter for all this upheaval.

Of course, this is painful for Filth himself. The world he grew up in is long gone, and the world he built an adulthood in is fast crumbling. After his wife’s death, driving across England to visit a long-lost cousin, he has an onrush of the grumpiness of elderly people driving mixed with a much more profound sense of complete loss of his place in the world:

Seemed to be a great many foreign buggers driving the lorries, steering-wheels left-hand side where they couldn’t see a thing. Matter of time no doubt when they’d be in the majority. Then everyone would be driving on the right. Vile government. Probably got all the plans drawn up already. Drive on the right, vote on the left. The so-called left, said Filth. Not Mr. Attlee’s left. Not Aneurin Bevan’s left. All of them in suits now. Singapore still drives on the left, though they’ve never heard of left. Singapore’s over, like Hong Kong. Empire now like Rome. Not even in the history books. Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.

This last, “Lost. Over. Finished. Dead. Happened.”—how easy to ascribe it only to elderly grumpiness, to say it’s little more than a plea from an octagenarian to “get off my lawn!” It is that, to be sure, but it also carries an awareness that Filth has truly seen the end of a major era of history, an era that created him, set him on an unpleasant path in its own service, and then dumped him back to a “Home” that was never home, that he never understood or felt a part of. His home was wiped off the face of the earth by history, just as his wife—the only other thing he had close to a home—had been wiped off the face of the earth by mortality.

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