“You have to buy this, my friend said, thrusting Jane Gardam’s Old Filth at me.
We were standing at a table full of donated second-hand books, a fundraiser for our club.
“Why would I want to read a book called Filth”?
“Because it is very funny and a terrific read. Filth stands for “Failed in London Try Hong Kong. It’s about the Brits who went East to manage the British Empire.”
I read Old Filth and loved it. I searched out its sequel The Man in the Wooden Hat, and when the last of the trilogy, Last Friends, came out a few weeks ago, I devoured it. Then I started at the beginning and read them all again.
Sir Edward Feathers QC, a renowned judge by the end of his career, begins by “failing” in London and ends as a wealthy lawyer in Hong Kong. He is tall, good looking, always immaculately turned out – the first paragraph of the first book establishes this – and invariably called Filth, even to his face. He began life as a Raj orphan, a child of a Brit in the foreign service, sent home to England at 5 to live apart from his parents and to go to school. Like his cousins and the woman he eventually marries, Elizabeth Macintosh, and many other such children, his personality is shaped by that experience. Eddie and his cousins have a particularly bad start because their foster mother is such a sadist that the children wish her ill- with spectacular success.
These children know duty and loyalty but very little warmth and affection. The third main character, Terry Veneering, comes from a “lower” class, is brought up by loving if poor parents, is capable of love and spontaneity and is, of course, universally looked down upon as crass, despite the fact that he is every bit as successful as Filth both in Hong Kong and England. He is also Filth’s arch rival in love and law, but by a quirk of fate, ends up living next door to him in retirement. When he finds this out, Filth thinks to himself, “Well, thank God, Betty is gone.”
So it is not a spoiler to report that the novels end in death. Indeed they begin with death and only then go back to report the anarchic beginnings before World War II -Eddie’s childhood – and shortly after the war – his marriage to Betty in Hong Kong with a few glimpses of life at the height of his career and retirement to Donheads St Ague, in Dorset, southern England.
How can novels that begin with death be so entirely upbeat and genuinely funny? A secret known only to those of us like Gardam who have reached a certain age? (80 is the new 50!)
Gardam writes in episodes and flashbacks and uses incremental repetition. Some events like the wedding and Betty’s sudden death in her tulip bed are described more than once, sometimes in the same words but always with additional insight and variations on the initial telling. Old Filth tells Edward’s story, The Man in the Wooden Hat is more from Betty’s point of view and Last Friends is mostly Veneering’s although two peripheral characters, Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith, survive the other three and it is they from whom the novel takes its title. Or perhaps not. Perhaps in the end, even enemies are friends, at last.
The reviews for Last Friends are a mixed bag – some raves, some forgiving and some absolute pans – but personally, I wouldn’t take tea with those who panned it. Courtney Cook in the Los Angeles Review of Books (April 18, 2013) “Read Jane Gardam”, began by introducing readers to Gardam’s Queen of the Tambourine (1991), Crusoe’s Daughter (1985) and God on the Rocks (1978), before she gets to the trilogy. She calls Gardam’s books “a taxonomy of madness” by which she means “extreme confusion due to circumstances you can’t understand, can’t control and can’t possibly have foreseen”. Eddie Feathers, for example, is evacuated from wartime England to safety with his father who is serving in Shanghai. It takes months for his ship to near its destination just in time for the fall of the colony and, so, Eddie finds himself England-bound once more. Before he is carried off on a stretcher, he has spent the better part of a year on one ship or another. There are all sorts of dire happenings referred to – Japanese internment camps, bombing raids, ships torpedoed -if not actually depicted, but always with Gardam’s sure touch. Courtney Cook says one of the writer’s strengths is the way she handles death: “People die left and right in her books … and it’s horrible and it’s funny in that way that makes you feel badly and then all right again.”
Whenever I am reading a Jane Gardam novel, I feel optimistic and even happy about life.
I loved Last Friends because it gave me more of three characters I had come to like. I learned about Veneering’s early life in Herringfleet and the series of miraculous choices and interventions that kept him alive and prosperous into his old age, and, I suppose, because the trilogy muses on aging, an experience one finds oneself caught up in willy nilly despite the eternally youthful inner self.
Jane Gardam said, “What I don’t want is to be called an octogenarian. I saw ‘Octegenarian Jane Gardam’ and I thought ‘Blow me!’ I mean I am but that’s not the point.”