For all the wit that flashes brilliantly through its pages, Last Friends left me with a feeling of sadness. Sadness is a vague term, and I suppose it was a vague feeling. A malaise. Nostalgia. A sense of things that have gone, lives that have passed, ended, and how little survives them.
Last Friends is the final book in Jane Gardam’s magnificent trilogy about Raj orphan-lawyer Eddie Feathers, affectionately known as Filth – Failed In London Try Hong Kong. Gardam began with Old Filth, continued with The Man in the Wooden Hat (in which she looked at the story from the point of view of Filth’s wife Betty) and now she concludes with the story of Terry Veneering, Filth’s great rival in law and in love.
Gardam has a brilliant method of capturing the lives of her characters, building them up through flashes of memory, instances in the past that haunt them in the present. In Old Filth, Betty’s death prompts Filth ‘to flick open shutters on the past’, and so we learn about his life, from his childhood in Malaya, to his foster parents in Wales, to prep school and his early years at the Bar.
In Last Friends, both Filth and Veneering are dead. Who remains to flick open the shutters on their past?
Nobody really knows a thing about another’s past. Why should we? Different worlds we all inhabit from the womb.
So reflects Dulcie – one of the last surviving friends of Filth, Betty and Veneering. Her thoughts accompany us through a great deal of the book. The other ‘last friend’ is Fiscal-Smith, who begins as a tedious hanger on, but ends up coming across as quite endearing.
Do we all inhabit ‘different worlds … from the womb’? This question seems to me to be at the core of Gardam’s Filth novels. In each book, she looks at the same characters but takes a different angle. With this new slant, all sorts of alignments and symmetries, previously unseen, are revealed. It is the same world, and yet that sameness is made to feel alien; it is a different world, and yet it is revealed to be essentially the same.
In Last Friends, Gardam turns her authorial eye to Terry Veneering – Filth’s ever-present rival. She does this with tremendous skill, for throughout the other books Veneering has been cast with little sympathy. He is the antithesis to Filth, so we can’t help but dislike him. He is brash, drunk, loud, uncivilised. Added to which, he had an affair with Betty. What a genius Gardam is to turn this on its head and make us now understand Veneering, sympathise with him, even a little at the expense of our sympathy for beloved old Filth.
Veneering’s childhood seems indeed to be in a completely different world from Filth’s. He was born in the Northern village of Herringfleet to a coal woman and a Russian spy, disguised as an acrobat. And yet, these worlds aren’t so different after all. Veneering has a surprising meeting with ‘Sir’, Filth’s influential prep-school teacher. Indeed it is Sir who gives him his Dickensian name. There is also Veneering’s first glimpse of Betty – then Elizabeth Macintosh. And, just the day before this glimpse of Betty, he has his first case against Filth. Different worlds, but the same world; these lives were destined to cross with each other from the very beginning.
While Gardam looks back on Veneering’s beginning, this is really a novel about endings – and what comes after the end. These lives are over, and yet the novel is testament to the way Filth and Veneering live on in the memories of other characters. So long as Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are around, we feel that Filth and Veneering haven’t quite disappeared.
Although they are far from reliable memories. There is a poignant moment when Dulcie realises she can’t quite remember what her dead husband looks like:
Oh Willy! She tried not to think of Willy in case, once again, she found that hse had forgotten what he had looked lie. Ah – all well. Here he came up the stairs, his fastidious feet, balancing teacups. Deeply thinking. Oh, Willy! So many years! I haven’t really forgotten what you looked like. ‘Pastry Willy’ – but you grew quite weather-beaten after we came Home. It’s just, sometimes lately you’ve grown hazy. Doesn’t matter. Changes nothing.
Memories fade and then what are we left with? Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are painfully old too and not long for this world. Who will survive them? What will survive of this generation of wonderful characters?
To this end, Gardam brings in a younger generation. Anna and Henry have moved into Veneering’s old house, and plan to turn it into a B&B. They rifle through the attic, finding his old things, wondering at the stories which lie behind them. They also look after Dulcie very well.
Then there are moments like this, when Dulcie decides to get some eggs from the local farm:
There was a wooden box hung on a field gate. It had been there fifty years. You took out the eggs and left the money. Beautiful brown eggs covered in hen shit to show how fresh they were. Today she opened the flap of the box and there were no eggs and no money but a dirty-looking note saying, Ever been had?
She was all at once desolate. The whole world was corrupt. She was friendless and alone. Like Fiscal-Smith she had outstayed her welcome in the place she felt was home.
It is terribly sad. Living has changed from being a triumph of survival to a case of outstaying your welcome. Dulcie is so old that perhaps she’d be better off dead like Filth, Betty and Veneering. The world today is too ‘corrupt’ for these marvellous old creatures, who’ve lived such long extraordinary lives. These ‘last friends’ are the very end of that generation, and we are left thinking that once they perish, there will be nothing left of them.
Yet we can comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we have Jane Gardam, who preserves these lives with warmth, humour and respect. I long to re-read the other books now, and am quietly hoping that she might be persuaded to turn the trilogy into a quartet.
Just a little coda to say that I will – I hope – be survived by little Daphne, who has spent her first week chez EmilyBooks being particularly sweet. For those of you who are itching to see more of her, here she is attempting to eat my wellies. What can I say, we both share a love of all things yellow!