Last Friends is the conclusion to a trilogy of novels which began with Jane Gardam's masterpiece, Old Filth. Spanning almost a century and two continents, it shows us the End of Empire from the perspectives of two titans of international law, Filth (Failed in London Try Hong Kong) or Sir Edward Feathers, and his arch enemy Sir Terence Veneering, and Betty, who married one but loved the other. When Last Friends begins, both are dead – as is Betty. Having retired to a Dorset village and become neighbours after 50 years of hatred, Filth and Veneering ended their days as almost friends; what remains is the mystery of who Veneering was and how he acquired his Dickensian surname.
Only "ancient little Fiscal-Smith", a much less glamorous lawyer on the Northern Circuit, knows the full story and as he wends his way back home after a memorial service at the Inner Temple, we learn Veneering's secrets. Born in Teesside to Florrie, a grimy giantess who heaved coal around the grim industrial town of Herringfleet, and a crippled Cossack dancer from Odessa, Terence is remarkable for his blond looks and precocious intelligence. A commissioner for oaths, one Parable Apse, saves him from poverty in return for his help on a deserted beach, but Terence's gifts also evoke dislike from the sinister head, Fondle. Gardam goes on to describe with razor-sharp economy how snobbery can hurt.
As in Crusoe's Daughter and The Queen of the Tambourine, Gardam's theme is the resilience of the human spirit. Veneering, the villain of the original story, is now revealed as a boy with none of the advantages given to public schoolboy Feathers, whose own Kiplingesque suffering he never perceives. It's a startling reversal, and one shared by Fiscal-Smith who also emerges as a much more poignant figure. How Terence gets out of Teesside and a poverty-stricken childhood, and makes a fortune as a colonial lawyer, is a fairy tale, but feels real as he escapes being blown up on the Atlantic convoy, gains an Oxford education, and inherits a set of chambers.
Lives connect, interconnect and fail to connect in this odyssey. Terry never knows his heroic mother has seen him leave Teesside on the train, just as she never knows he has seen her. Gardam shuffles time like a pack of cards, her engagingly flawed characters remembering small details which the reader can laugh at or grieve over. She teases us with incomplete trains of thought, a foray into a film-script, dialogue, dreams; her buoyant wit carrying us through youth and age. As a tale of how brashness conceals vulnerability it is increasingly moving.
Despite being the only novelist to win the Costa Prize twice and being short-listed for both the Booker and the Orange, Gardam is one of our most overlooked authors. Now in her eighties, she writes about love, death, loneliness, money, and madness with such gentle ferocity that she is often compared to Jane Austen, though a closer analogy is with Samuel Beckett. The "Old Filth" trilogy should be read by anyone who has ever been interested in how we become who we are – especially if that person becomes a lawyer .
Amanda Craig is the author of six novels, including 'A Vicious Circle' and 'Hearts and Minds' (Abacus).Reuse content