The 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.