Jane Gardam is quite a decorated literary figure in the United Kingdom, especially as a writer of children’s books. However, she is not that familiar a figure globally.
“Last Friends” is part of the “Old Filth” series that was extremely successful. The protagonists are all set in the time when the sun had not yet set on the British Empire and Hong Kong was one of the many celebrated colonial bastions.
Sir Edward Feathers or Filth (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong) and his rival in law and love Sir Terence Veneering battle it out in the engineering and construction industry, for over five decades. However, as fate would have it, both end up settling in the same quiet Dorset village of Donhead St Ague within walking distance and end up being friends.
Keeping in tradition with Gardam’s slightly dark sense of humour, the book opens with the death of both foes turned friends. And the main protagonist is a vague-minded widow of a former colleague, Dulcie, aided by Fred Fiscal-Smith — a man who is so friendless that he deludes himself into being great pals with the likes of Feathers and Veneering.
As the tale unfolds like a crisp autumn morning, the reader shifts in time, from the memorial to Hong Kong and back in Dorset. And as the conversation goes, you discover the story of Veneering’s love for Feathers’ wife Betty, with the hint of infidelity and longing.
There is almost an undercurrent of sadness, especially in Fiscal-Smith and his loneliness and of ageing, when after a certain point, the people, places and memories are no longer around to remind you of the joy of being. But, when you start to feel a bit morbid, Gardam drops a delightful gem of extremely droll humour and you can almost laugh it off, especially with the actions of Dulcie and crew.
There is this exchange between Veneering as a young boy and a school master who has been sent to rescue him after he abandons the ship that was meant to take him to Canada, to escape the war.
The master, simply called “Sir”, claims that he runs a clean school and questions the young man on his own alma mater, to which he replies: “I don’t know what you mean, Sir. Mine was run by a man called Fondle.”
“Last Friends” is about friendships towards the sunset of your lives and how they change when mortality lurks into view.
Gardam has a delightful style of writing that makes you wonder why the world is not more familiar with her work. She’s a prolific writer with a hint of the Wodehousian.
I expect the last of the series to be well received and enjoyed by her regular readers and all others who might chance upon it and discover a world of character quirks, dry humour and definitely some element of the theatrical.