Last Friends is the final volume in her trilogy based around the story of Sir Edward Feathers (“Old Filth” – Failed in London, Try Hong Kong), a successful lawyer and later a judge who spent much of his career as a property and construction lawyer in the Far East. In 2010 I wrote about the second book in the trilogy, The Man in The Wooden Hat and am now delighted to be writing about the final volume, Last Friends which homes in on the life of Sir Edwards staunchest rival Terry Veneering.
As the book opens we find that Old Filth and Terry Veneering are recently passed away. Ending their lives in a quiet Dorset village, only Dulcie, the widow of an old Hong Kong judge survives to remember the great men. Dulcie, herself ancient and frail, is about to go up to London with her daughter to attend Terry’s memorial service, a difficult challenge for her and one which is going to lead her on one more final adventure of her own.
The story moves back and forth through the years as it tells the story of Terry Venerring, brought up in a down-at-heel industrial town on the cold and windy North-east coast of England. His mother had a flourishing domestic coal business which she had developed herself, going round the streets of back to back terraced houses with an old wagon hitched to a cart-horse,
Three days a week she clopped round the town on the cart through all the back streets, shouting “COAL” in a resounding voice. The lungs of a diva. “Coal today”, she shouted, and from the better houses of the iron-masters in Kirkleatham Street the maids ran out in white cap and apron, twittering like starlings. “Three bags now, Florrie,” and watched her heave herself down off the dray, turn her back, claw down one sack after another with black gloves stiff as wood. She adored her work.
Terry’s father was a mysterious Russian, arrived off a boat and claimed by Florrie as her own, married in haste, but with no regrets, as soon as she fell pregnant with young Terry. The Odessan suffered with a terrible back complaint. Confined to bed, he was visited by mysterious friends and always seemed to have money for his Vodka and other necessities.
As Terry grew, he became an exceptionally bright lad with an independent spirit. Given to wandering the desolate beaches of his home town,
The crane-gantry of the blast furnaces turned delirious blue at dusk, but he was not to be a painter. He noted and considered the paintbrush flicker of flame on the top of each chimney leaning this way and then that, but he sat on his pale beach noting them and no more. He had no idea why he was drawn to the place, the luminous but unfriendly aprons of lacy water running transparent over the sand, the waxy, crunchy black deposits of sea-wrack, slippery and thick, dotted for miles like the droppings of some amphibian. The derelict grey dunes rose up behind him, empty except for tall knives of grey grass.
The story is of Terry’s climb from his inauspicious start, helped up along the way by benevolent adults who took an interest in him. If you glance at the cover above you will see Terry walking along the beach with the first of these, Peter Parable, an elderly solicitor, a deeply Christian man who asked Terry to help him gather sea-coal from the beach.
My name is Peter Parable, senior partner, and you I believe to be Florrie Benson’s boy? I was briefly at school with your mother. I am being obliged to ask for your help.’ Terry’s Russian eyes watched on. ‘I am a man of principle,’ said the creature. ‘I am not in the least interested in children. I am not of a perverted disposition.
Peter Parable knows Terry’s headmaster, and meeting him one day while out walking says to him,
You have a boy at school who in my professional opinion – and opinions are my stock-in-trade as a lawyer – is remarkable. They’re going to put him in the Works when he leaves you next year and you have to stop it. He must go to the university. He already verges on the phenomenal.
The two men manage to get Terry a scholarship and his course is set, but not without many mishaps along the way.
We see Terry launching himself into the legal profession as a young man. It is just after the war and London is a mess of broken buildings and joblessness. With no resources of his own, once again Terry depends on luck and good hunches, soon landing a position in Hong Kong where the earlier books in the trilogy find him with the legendary Old Filth (Sir Edward Feathers) and Old Filth’s wife Betty, who slips into Terry’s heart as his life long-love despite her marital attachment, destroying his capacity for finding a life-partner anywhere else.
In between the episodes in Terry’s life we move back to the present day and read of Dulcie’s life in Dorset and her contacts with the few surviving members of the exalted circles she used to move in. Jane Gardam is a master of describing the desire of the elderly for independence while daily their lives become more dependent on relatives and carers. This could be just a sad tale of old age, how glory descends into just a few crumbs left on the table, yet somehow Jane Gardam enables her readers to share in the small triumphs of ageing Dulcie as she takes one final journey up to Yorkshire and ultimately manages to forge a new and unexpected future for herself.
As I read Last Friends, I was aware of being in the hands of a master-writer. She is like an artist, creating a likeness in just a few brush-strokes of phrasing. The shifts between eras do not disrupt the story but seem to flow into one another seamlessly. Some remarkable scenes could be short stories in themselves but the way they pile up, one on another, gives a rich, multi-layered drama with a times the qualities of a Shakespearian tragedy. The economy of the writing is remarkable. This is not a long book by any means but seems to cover a vast amount of ground and a huge range of characters who seem to jump off the page.
I have now reviewed three trilogies by English writers on this website, all of which are about as near perfect as you could expect. In my view all three of them qualify as classics of English writing. They are Jane Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy referred to is in this article, Gerard Woodward’s Jones Family trilogy and William Nicholson’s Sussex trilogy beginning with The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life. The quality in all nine of these books is superb and each one has that capacity to make you feel a great sense of loss when they come to an end.