Last Friends ~ Jane Gardam

last-friendsThe first time I picked up a Jane Gardam book would have been in the primary school library I supervised during the 1970s.  Horse, which tells the story of a village coming together to preserve a local chalk figure, was then and is still now one of my favourite books for children.  Like all Gardam’s work, it catches the minutia of human interaction with precision and love and I have put it in the way of generations of eight, nine and ten year olds just coming to independence as readers.  Later, I discovered her novels for teenagers such as Bilgewater and A Long Way From Verona and finally, through The Queen of the Tambourine, came to know her books for adults.  Since then I have automatically read everything she’s published, even her short stories, and those of you who know me will realise just how much of an accolade that is.  And, it was in a short story that the character of Edward Feathers, known as Old Filth, first emerged and thereby marked the beginning of the trilogy that bears his name.  

The three books look back over the entwined lives of Edward Feathers and Terry Veneering, rival lawyers almost from the time their careers begin, and rivals also for the love of Betty, the woman who becomes Old Filth’s wife.  Old Filth belonged to Feathers, The Man in the Wooden Hat to Betty and now in Last Friends we learn about the life of Terry Veneering and the childhood that moulded him and which was, in many ways, responsible for the animosity between him and Feathers.

But, as the novel begins, Vennering is already dead and Dulcie, an old friend to all three of the main characters, is returning home to Dorset after his memorial service and desperately trying to avoid having to offer hospitality to Fred Fiscal-Smith, who in truth doesn’t wait to have it offered but simply announces that he is coming to stay.  Gardam may describe Fiscal-Smith as born to be a background figure but it through his memories that we come to know Veneering’s story.  The son of a Northumbrian coal-woman and a man who may or may not be a Russian spy, by a series of strokes of luck he not only escapes the horrors of the Second World War which kills both his parents and many of his school friends but manages to scramble his way to a remarkably good education and qualify for the Bar.  However, always aware of his background and conscious of the many differences he perceives between himself and those around him, he is as much responsible for the distance that grows between himself and his colleagues as are they. While many attend his memorial service it is hard to know how many are there because they liked or admired him and how many simply present for the bun fight.

Gardam, of course, doesn’t shirk from letting us know that there may be ulterior motives involved in her characters’ actions.  In many respects the beauty of this novel lies not in the action described but in the penetrating character sketches and the astute use of language by means of which she reveals the flashes of insight that those characters have into the reality of their own and others’ situations.  I could fill page after page with her perceptive one-liners but then you might not feel the need to go and read the book for yourself, so here are just four examples to whet your appetite – the first with apologies to my American readers.

…clearly only Americans were historians now.  They have so little of it.

and to balance that, a sly hit against our own English customs.

…High Table, where senior silks and judges were leaning about like a da Vinci frieze.

Some, rather than being slightly snide are much more penetrating about the human condition.

Sometimes…one should take a long hard look at old friends.  Like old clothes in a cupboard, there comes a moment to examine for moth.

And an observation that those of you who have any acquaintance with sleep problems will understand only too keenly

Sleeplessness had ceased with dawn and now they were all bemused by late heavy slumber.

In case you were wondering you don’t need to have read the previous two novels in order to enjoy this, but why anyone would want not to have the pleasure of reading the entire trilogy I can’t begin to imagine.  I know that the first thing I wanted to do when I finished Last Friends was go and find my copy of Old Filth and start again from the beginning.

Like all Gardam’s work, this is a novel in which every word is placed with a precision that takes my breath away and if you aren’t moved to tears by a last sentence that I am not going to reveal, then I have to say I pity you.

With thanks to Little Brown Book Group UK for providing this novel.

29 thoughts on “Last Friends ~ Jane Gardam

    1. If you like children’s books and you enjoy ‘Horse’ then you might want to read ‘Kit in Boots’ as well. Another absolute winner.

  1. I’ve read Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, have Last Friends here ready to go but where is the time? I’ve also read a couple or three stand-alones by Gardham. She’s special – love her – got to get into Last Friends soon. Thanks for the review.

  2. I’ve tried and failed with Jane Gardam before, Alex – I think it was Queen of the Tambourine – but your review and quotes make me think I should try again, if only to find out what that last line is.

    1. Ah there was the teaser, Susan. But we can’t all like the same thing can we? Try ‘Old Filth’ if you are going to give Gardam a second chance. You might find coming in at the end of the trilogy difficult.

  3. I, too, loved that trilogy, and a friend pointed me to Bilgewater. Wonderful. What I admire is her ability to gesture so gently and so powerfully to things offstage. You are just meant to get it and to keep up, and I love it that she keeps her readers working.

    1. Yes, exactly. Just half a sentence and a whole world opens up, doesn’t it? One of the problems I can sometimes have is that I get diverted by memories simply because of one well placed word.

      1. I think if I was asked to name a writer who was quintessentially English (as opposed to British) Becky, Gardam would be one of those who came to mind most promptly.

    1. I think these are the type of book that would appeal to you, Ali. Do try ‘Old Filth’ or if the premise behind that doesn’t appeal then think about ‘Crusoe’s Daughter’.

  4. I began with Bilgewater and can still recall the effect it had on me; she is an amazing writer. You remind me that I haven’t read her in a while, though, and have Filth sitting on my shelves waiting to be opened. I’m sure its moment will come.

    1. That is a brilliant name for a character – Terry Veneering. I have not read Jane Gardam yet and this makes me want to look her up.

    2. Make sure it’s a long moment, Litlove, because I’m fairly sure that once you’ve started on the trilogy you’ll want to complete it.

  5. I’ve read Old Filth and have both The Man in the Wooden Hat,and Last Friends still waiting to be read – now you’ve given me this nudge I really must read them soon. Actually I’d forgotten I’ve got them!! Sometimes I wish I could read multiple books and that I didn’t have so many unread books that they weren’t double shelved with yet more books piled up on top (which is where these are).

    1. I am desperately trying to do something about that situation, Margaret, because my shelves simply won’t take any more weight. The second book, as is so often the way, is, I think, the weakest but then I can think of a lot of authors who would be glad to have something as good as that as their best book. Do get round to them. I think they are your sort of book.

  6. I’ve only recently learned about Jane Gardam (through blog reviews – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a review of her books in the magazines or the papers here), and I was pleasantly surprised to find at least some of her books in our libraries. I am really looking forward to exploring her books.

    1. Lisa, I am so envious of you, having all those wonderful books to read for the first time. I would start with something like ‘Crusoe’s Daughter’ or ‘Queen of the Tambourine’ to get a real flavour of what she writes.

  7. I’ve read all three and loved this one the best, I think, though Old Filth is also wonderful.

    1. I’d be hard pressed to choose between the two, Harriet, although I think you’re right that the second is perhaps a tad less strong.

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