With tongue gently in cheek, Jane Gardam begins Last Friends, the third book of the Old Filth trilogy, in epic grand style:
“The Titans were gone. They had clashed their last. Sir Edward Feathers, affectionately known as Old Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) and Sir Terrence Veneering, the two greatest exponents of English and International Law in the engineering and construction industry and current experts upon the Ethics of Pollution, were dead…
How they had hated. For over half a century they had been fetching up all over the world eye-ball to eye ball, Hector and Achilles, usually on battlefields far from home, championing or rubbishing, depending on the client, great broken bridges, mouldering reservoirs, wild crumbling new roads across mountain ranges, sewage works, wind farms, ocean barrages and the leaking swimming pools of moguls.”
How I have loved Gardam.
“Last Friends,” begins, after the summary introduction, with a funeral and ends with …… a surprise.
The last of the central figures of “Old Filth” and “The Man with the Wooden Hat,” – the venerable Edward Feathers, Old Filth himself is mourned. Betty Feathers and Terry Veneering have already passed. Edward Feathers’ secrets were spilled in in Filth; those of Betty in ‘Wooden Hat.” The deceased Veneering’s will be revealed in “Last Friends,” whose story is framed and partly told by those who outlast them all.
The always-peripheral Fiscal-Smith, “born to be a background figure,”
and Dulcie served as best man and matron of honor at the Feathers’ wedding. They reunite at Filth’s funeral and provide occasion for the rest of the tale. After the funeral Fiscal-Smith, ever the freeloader finagles a stay at Dulcie’s. The following evening the two return to the church and get locked in and spend a frigid night wrapped in church vestments to stay warm. The funny awkwardness that ensues is reminiscent of a cold snowy day near the beginning of “Filth” when Feathers was locked out. He had to seek refuge at the home of his archenemy Veneering.
Relationship havoc happens when doors lock.
Gardam sandwiches Terry Veneering’s exotic story between bookend-pieces of Fiscal-Smith and Dulcie’s tale in much the same way she sandwiched Betty Feathers’ story inside the covers of Albert Ross. Fiscal-Smith is the only one who knows of Veneering’s colorful past. Florrie Benson fell for a disabled Russian circus performer and perhaps spy named Veneski or Venski. Terry is the product of their love – and love’s attachment (while Filth is the product of abandonment.)
Opponents Filth and Veneering are in other ways opposites: Filth’s exceptionally clean, tall, buttoned-down and handsome while Veneering’s disheveled, rakish, blond and flashy. However, their stories often parallel each other’s and intersect with the same characters making small appearances in both stories.
Each is orphaned in a different way. Each endures a childhood with trauma. Each has a benefactor. Filth had Albert Ross providing opportunities and protecting him, Veneering has Peter Parable Aspe, a solicitor who pressures Mr. Smith, the head of a private school, to take young Terry on scholarship. War intervenes in both lives in similar ways. The bombing of London that sent Edward Feathers away on a life-changing sea voyage he endures, takes Terry on one he escapes. Who wouldn’t try to escape the clutches of a prep school master and wife named Mr. and Mrs. Fondle?
Oh how perfectly Dickensian!
While references to Coleridge may have been at the heart of “Wooden Hat,” playful homage to Dickens – the author so many have compared Gardam to -- is central to Last Friends. Sir – the same Sir that changed Filth’s life at boarding school renames Terry: “This is a very serious matter. Your name henceforth will be Veneering. Yes. Delightful. Polished. In Dickens, Veneering (look up Our Mutual Friend) is an unpleasant character and you will have to redeem him.”
What an appropriate naming. Terry is the mutual friend of both Feathers. For each, he represents something quite different. For the venerable Edward, he’s a veneer – someone not quite trustworthy, whose polish is but a thin layer. For Betty, he’s venereal, meaning of or relating to sexual pleasure, erotic desire.
As if that weren’t enough, Veneering’s early life is shaped by those who forage for coal and at a pivotal point Veneering even makes a visit to Dickens’ home, shakes hands with his ghost and finds his inheritance and true vocation. Dulcie’s former husband Pastry Willy (much older, now deceased) has a hand in redirecting him. (Pastry Willy was also Betty’s uncle and the judge who married the Feathers).
Having learned what we can about Veneering’s exotic origins, readers return to the Dulcie- Fiscal Smith story. We get a glimpse of the home of the perennial bachelor and with characteristic Gardam style, it warehouses objects we recognize such as a bicycle that played an important role early in the story. Like other objects – a dress, two sets of pearls, a rose chair, and a tree that looks like a hen from earlier parts of the trilogy, Gardam has endowed the bicycle with a history so it too becomes sentimental for the reader.
Aah. Such sentimentality and nostalgia. Romance, too.
How I will miss these characters, who have over the course of the three books become my dear old friends too.
While I won’t reveal the delightful ending, suffice to say, in Last Friends those who last become truly friends --at last.