Posts Tagged ‘tortoise’

Last Friends

May 28, 2013

Last FriendsFor 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.

Jane Gardam

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!

Daphne eating my wellies


Top Five Literary Tortoises

May 20, 2013

Big news this week in the world of Emilybooks.


Meet Daphne!

This beloved belated birthday present from the husband joined us on Saturday morning, when we went and bought her from a very friendly pet shop in Essex. You’ll be pleased to hear that she is settling in well – enjoying bathing in the warm rays of her special heat lamp before pootling off to explore our flat.

Daphne on the rug

It is very peculiar trying to get on with my work while Daphne is here, scrabbling around. It is lovely to have a bit of company, a wise reptilian companion. I feel sure that we are already establishing a rapport – funny things like we both yawned at the same time this morning. And she wouldn’t touch her breakfast until I started munching my bowl of cereal. Perhaps I’m reading too much into this.

As I am so tortoise-brained this morning, and to welcome this marvellous little creature into the world of EmilyBooks, here are my Top Five literary tortoises.

Esio Trot

Esio TrotAlfie from Esio Trot must come first.

This is a delightful tortoise love story, written by Roald Dahl, and illustrated by Quentin Blake. Shy Mr Hoppy pines for Mrs Silver, who lives in the flat below. They strike up a friendship over her tortoise Alfie, who she worries won’t grow. Mr Hoppy comes up with a very clever plan. He writes down the following words on a piece of paper:









He tells Mrs Silver to whisper this spell to her tortoise three times a day and, he assures her, Alfie will get bigger. They are of course normal words written backwards!

Mr Hoppy bulk buys tortoises in all different sizes and when Mrs Silver is out, reaches down to her balcony and swaps Alfie for a very slightly bigger tortoise. And so on… Mrs Silver is at first thrilled that Alfie seems to be getting bigger, but of course women have a habit of changing their minds and are never happy with something for long…

Having bonded over Alfie, Mr Hoppy plucks up the courage to ask Mrs Silver to marry him and everyone – including the original Alfie – lives happily ever after. Who knew tortoises could be such a fruitful conversation opener?!

Esio Trot

The Tortoise and the Hare

Yes, there is Aesop’s fable, which we all know so well, with its moral that slow and steady wins the race. I have to say, little Daphne is surprisingly speedy. Look at her go!

Daphne and duct tape

The Tortoise and The HareI am thinking, however, of the novel by Elizabeth Jenkins, which I wrote about at length here. This wonderful, too-often overlooked novel from the 1950s is another tortoise love story, although rather more complicated, adult and with only a metaphorical tortoise.

Lovely, gentle self-effacing Imogen is married to brute of a bullying barrister husband Evelyn. Their neighbour – stout, brash Blanche Silcox – makes a play for Evelyn … which of these utterly contrasting women will win?

What is so clever about Jenkins’s book is that as you read it, you’re forever questioning who is the tortoise and who the hare. I suppose it depends a little on where you think the finish line is. Is Evelyn really the prize, or is it independence and freedom from such a brutish man?

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead RevisitedThe poor tortoise in Brideshead Revisited has been horribly abused. Julia come into the drawing room telling Lady Marchmain to look at the Christmas present that Rex has given her:

It was a small tortoise with Julia’s initials set in diamonds in the living shell, and this slightly obscene object, now slipping impotently on the polished boards, now striding across the card-table, now lumbering over a rub, now withdrawn at a touch, now stretching its neck and swaying its withered, antediluvian head, became a memorable part of the evening, one of those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake.

Just a few pages later, the poor tortoise, jewels and all, is said to have buried itself. We learn this soon after Charles Ryder leaves Brideshead, telling himself he shall never go back, and that:

I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.

A diamond-encrusted tortoise would get you far indeed into the nether world. Not as far, however, as Catholicism, as Waugh is keen to point out.

Brideshead tortoise


momoThere is a wonderful tortoise called Cassiopeia in Momo by Michael Ende. I read this book when I was about ten and for years felt terrified of the sinister Men in Grey, who:

had an uncanny knack of making themselves so inconspicuous that you either overlooked them or forgot ever seeing them… Since nobody noticed them, nobody stopped to wonder where they had come from, or indeed, were still coming from, for their numbers continue to grow with every passing day.

I used to associate them with men in suits. Perhaps that’s the point. It is a wonderfully anti-establishment children’s book.

Momo is a little orphan girl, with a knack for listening to people. When the Men in Grey turn up, they persuade everyone that they have to ‘save time’, which results in them stopping doing everything fun and always being in a rush. It’s an awful trick, of course. Everyone becomes miserable thanks to their time-saving, but the Men in Grey need everyone else’s time to survive, smoking their sinister cigars of hour lilies. Yes, it is a surreal book.

Momo fights against the grey men with the aid of Professor Hora and his tortoise, Cassiopeia, who can see half an hour into the future and – better yet – can communicate, helping Momo by making words appear on her shell.

 Michael Ende with tortoise

Apparently Michael Ende had a soft spot for tortoises. I don’t blame him!

Baby tortoise

Tortoises by DH LawrenceI shall end with D.H. Lawrence’s beautiful poem about a baby tortoise:

You know what it is to be born alone,

Baby tortoise!

The first day to heave your feet little by little from the shell,

Not yet awake,

And remain lapsed on earth,

Not quite alive.

A tiny, fragile, half-animate bean.

To open your tiny beak-mouth, that looks as if it would never open

Like some iron door;

To lift the upper hawk-beak from the lower base

And reach your skinny neck

And take your first bite at some dim bit of herbage,

Alone, small insect,

Tiny bright-eye,

Slow one.

To take your first solitary bite

And move on your slow, solitary hunt.

Your bright, dark little eye,

Your eye of a dark disturbed night,

Under its slow lid, tiny baby tortoise,

So indomitable.

No one ever heard you complain.

You draw your head forward, slowly, from your little wimple

And set forward, slow-dragging, on your four-pinned toes,

Rowing slowly forward.

Wither away, small bird?

Rather like a baby working its limbs,

Except that you make slow, ageless progress

And a baby makes none.

The touch of sun excites you,

And the long ages, and the lingering chill

Make you pause to yawn,

Opening your impervious mouth,

Suddenly beak-shaped, and very wide, like some suddenly gaping pincers;

Soft red tongue, and hard thin gums,

Then close the wedge of your little mountain front,

Your face, baby tortoise.

Do you wonder at the world, as slowly you turn your head in its wimple

And look with laconic, black eyes?

Or is sleep coming over you again,

The non-life?

You are so hard to wake.

Are you able to wonder?

Or is it just your indomitable will and pride of the first life

Looking round

And slowly pitching itself against the inertia

Which had seemed invincible?

The vast inanimate,

And the fine brilliance of your so tiny eye,


Nay, tiny shell-bird.

What a huge vast inanimate it is, that you must row against,

What an incalculable inertia.


Little Ulysses, fore-runner,

No bigger than my thumb-nail,

Buon viaggio.

All animate creation on your shoulder,

Set forth, little Titan, under your battle-shield.

The ponderous, preponderate,

Inanimate universe;

And you are slowly moving, pioneer, you alone.

How vivid your travelling seems now, in the troubled sunshine,

Stoic, Ulyssean atom;

Suddenly hasty, reckless, on high toes.

Voiceless little bird,

Resting your head half out of your wimple

In the slow dignity of your eternal pause.

Alone, with no sense of being alone,

And hence six times more solitary;

Fulfilled of the slow passion of pitching through immemorial ages

Your little round house in the midst of chaos.

Over the garden earth,

Small bird,

Over the edge of all things.


With your tail tucked a little on one side

Like a gentleman in a long-skirted coat.

All life carried on your shoulder,

Invincible fore-runner.

Isn’t it brilliant?!

Let us hope that little Daphne will inspire me to similar great heights of tortoise literature.

Daphne coming out

And yes, that book on to which she is climbing is none other than The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins.