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Sir Edward Feathers, QC, began his existence late in life in Jane Gardam's novel Old Filth, first published in this country in 2006. The title comes from Feathers's sobriquet, an acronym of Failed in London Try Hong Kong. Since then the old servant of Empire has popped up three more times in Gardam's work: in the title story of the collection The People of Privilege Hill and subsequently in the novels The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends. If you have not read any or all of these works, you have a literary treat before you.
When we first meet Feathers in Old Filth, he is nearing eighty, has been retired for years after a brilliant career as barrister and judge in Hong Kong, and now lives in the little village of St. Ague in Dorset, alone, his wife having died fairly recently. He finds he has locked himself out of his house in a Christmas snowstorm and is forced to seek shelter in the house of his only neighbor, his fellow ex-colonial, archenemy, and legal nemesis, Sir Terence "Terry" Veneering, QC, a thorough bounder in Feathers's opinion ("jumped-up, arrogant, blustering, loud, cynical and common"), who, most appallingly, has chosen this quiet spot for his own retirement. The two old men form a cautious relationship that serves as a catalyst for the surge of memories that propels the series.
Passing back and forth through the years, Old Filth presents the unfortunate episodes that went into making Feathers the emotionally buttoned-up, tamped-down case that he is. Born in a British colonial station in Malaya to a mother who died days after his birth, he was shunned by his father, cruelly separated from his doting native caretaker at the age of five, and sent to Britain as a "raj orphan." He ended up sharing with two distant cousins the horrors of a grotesquely abusive foster home, a place modeled after that described in Rudyard Kipling's autobiographical short story "Baa Baa, Black Sheep." Freed, after four years, from this "house of desolation" by an act that haunts him for the rest of his life, he is sent to a decent school, then evacuated during the war, bound for Singapore. In the event, the port falls to the Japanese as his ship approaches — and young Feathers is taken back to England, the vessel now laden with desperate British refugees.
In marriage Feathers sought a helpmeet who, above all things, would promise never to leave him, and this he finds with Betty, another colonial whom he met in Hong Kong. The union was long and quiet, but only because the couple never spoke of the fact that she had had a sexual liaison with Veneering, a rather large fly in the ointment that only exemplary English reserve could leave unmentioned. In the Far East, they lived the life of respectable, well-to-do representatives of the British Empire, "members of the Cricket Club, the Jockey Club, stalwarts of the English Lending Library, props of St. Andrew's Church." But all of that now exists only in memory: Hong Kong has reverted to Chinese rule; Feathers and his ilk have returned Home (as even the colonials who were born in the East call it), back to that "little ragged-edged off-shore island" (as the prickly Veneering would have it).
The second and third novels in the sequence are not so much sequels or "prequels" to the first as augmentations. As the trilogy advances, the supporting characters from Old Filth emerge from the gloaming with their own life histories, altering, and occasionally exploding, our first understanding of what had occurred. Feathers's wife, Betty, a hazy figure in her first outing, takes the central role in The Man in the Wooden Hat. Also playing a larger part than before is the owner of that curious headgear (which is not wooden, in fact, though very strange and possessed of marvelous properties). This is an Asian dwarf called Ross or Loss — he permits both — whom we met earlier on the aborted voyage to Singapore but who seems to have originated in a fairy tale. Indeed, there are aspects to all the novels that have a fairy-tale quality, including that wondrous hat, a hidden silver stream, and two pearl necklaces.
Despite all the sadness and badness, Old Filth and its successors are comedies, though, to be sure, comedies of a melancholy hue. Throughout the series, Gardam summons much piquant satire out of the courteous, well-educated, impeccably dressed Feathers's and his old friends' exposure to the barbarities of modern England: its brutal highways and aggressive drivers, its squalid public amenities, the triumph of self-assertion over reticence, the cultural ignorance of the Oxbridge-educated young, and a general resentment of what used to be considered "good form." ("Filth ate toasted tea-cake at a plastic table.... The waitress looked at his suit and tie with dislike. The man at the next table was wearing denim trousers, with his knees protruding, and a vest. Brassy rings were clipped into all visible orifices. Filth went back to the car for a quick nap but the rhythmic blast of the passing traffic caused the Mercedes to rock at three-second intervals.") Even the little Dorset village in which Feathers has made his home has been taken over by wealthy London professionals. Ancient dwellings stand empty during the week, serving merely as picturesque second (at the least) homes for weekend getaways.
The unlovely (though handsome) Terry Veneering shows what he's really made of in Last Friends. With its precedent in Mr. Veneering of Dickens's Our Mutual Friend, his name never seemed to fit especially well (except in that Feathers considers him an abominable parvenu). Now we learn that it was slapped on him by a schoolmaster and that his original name was Venetski and that he was the son of a circus performer from Odessa and a mother from Teesside in the North of England. He, like Feathers, was meant to be evacuated during the war but at the last minute left the ship, the ill-fated City of Benares (torpedoed and sunk by the Germans).
Last Friends also sheds light on the monumental cheapskate and sponger Fred Fiscal-Smith. ("Fiscal-Smith had trouble with the ticket inspector, who was slow to admit that you have a right to a first- class seat with only the return half of a Basic, Fun-day Special to another part of the country.") We also see a good deal more of Dulcie, a dotty ex-colonial widow, "a tiny woman in grey moleskin and a hat made of what could have been the feathers of the village rooks. It was a hat bought forty years ago in Bond Street for the Queen's birthday in Dar-es-Salaam where Dulcie's husband had been an easy-going and contented judge even at a hanging." All these old customers are infirm in body, wandering in mind, and lonely, very lonely, marooned by old age and exiled from the scenes of their vital years. For all that, Gardam treats them with kindness and humor, and the series ends on a splendidly unexpected and entirely satisfying note.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.
Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers
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 Terence Veneering, the two greatest exponents of English and International Law in the engineering and construction industry and the current experts upon the Ethics of Pollution, were dead. Their well-worn armour had fallen from them with barely a clatter and the quiet Dorset village to which they had retired within a very few years of each other (accidentally, for they had hated each other for over fifty years) mourned their passing and wondered who would be distinguished enough to buy their houses.
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. That they had in old age finished up by buying houses next door to each other in a village where: there was absolutely nothing to do must have been the result of something the lolling gods had set up one drab day on Olympus to give the legal world a laugh.
And the laugh had been uneasy because it had been said for years—well, everyone knew—that Edward Feathers' dead wife, Betty, had been the lover of Sir Terry. Or maybe not exactly the lover. But something. There had been something between them. Well, there had been love.
Elizabeth—Betty—Feathers had died some years before the arrival of Sir Terry next-door.
Her husband, Old Filth, Sir Edward, the great crag of a man seated above her on the patio pretending to shoot rooks with his walking-stick, a gin and tonic at his elbow, had, quite simply, broken his heart.
Birds and beasts were important to Old Filth. Donkeys' years ago his prep-school headmaster had taught him about birds. It was birds and the language of the natural world and the headmaster whose name was briefly 'Sir', who had cured him of his awful child-hood stammer and enabled him to become an advocate.
His house, Dexters, lay in a long narrow dell off the village hill, bird-haunted and surrounded by trees. Beyond his gate, up the same turn-off and out of sight, Veneering's house stood at the top of the view. His taller, darker trees hung over the lane but the rooks ignored them. 'Rooks,' thought Old Filth, 'choose their friends. They will only abandon a friend if they have fore-knowledge of disaster.' Each night before sleep and each morning Filth lay in his bed straight as a sentry, striped Chilprufe pyjamas neatly buttoned, handkerchief in breast pocket carefully folded, and listened to the vigorous clamour of the rooks and was comforted. So long as he could hear their passionate disputations he would never miss his life at the Commercial Bar.
He did rather wish they had been cleaner birds. Their nests were old and huge. Ramshackle and filthy. Filth himself was ostentatiously clean. His finger nails and toe nails were pearly (chiropodist to the house every sixth week: twenty-five pounds a time) his hair still not grey but curly, autumnal bronze. His complexion shone and was scarcely lined. He smelled of Wrights coal-tar soap—rather excitingly—a commodity beginning to be rare in many parts of the country. 'He must have had something to hide,' said young barristers. 'Something nasty in his wood-shed.' 'What, Old Filth!' they cried, 'Impossible!' They were of course wrong. Eddie Feathers Q.C. had as much to hide as everybody else.
But whatever it was it would have nothing to do with money. He never mentioned the stuff. He was a gentleman to the end. There must have been buckets of it somewhere. Bucket upon bucket upon bucket, thanks to the long, long international practice. And he spent nothing, or nothing much. Maybe a bit more than the mysterious Veneering next door. He was not a vain man. He strode about the lanes in expensive tweeds, but they were very old. Not much fun, but never pompous. If he ever brooded upon his well-organised millions, managed by impeccable brokers, he didn't think about them much. He joked about them occasionally. 'Oh yes, I have "held the gorgeous East in fee,'" he would say, 'Ha-ha,' and quoting Sir, his headmaster. He himself never went to the theatre or read poetry, for he wept too easily.
After a time a lethargy had fallen upon Feathers. He lost the energy even to think about moving house. And maybe the old enemy up the slope had begun to feel the same. They never met. If occasionally they found themselves passing one another at a distance during an afternoon walk in the lanes, each looked away.
Then, after a year or so, something must have happened. It was never discussed even in the village shop but there were some astonishing sightings, sounds of old-English accents, staccato in the bluebell woods. It happened over a snow-bound Christmas. Before long it was reported that the two old buffers were playing chess together on Thursdays. And when Terry Veneering died during a ridiculous jaunt—foot in a hole on a cliff-top on the island of Malta and then thrombosis—Edward Feathers said, 'Silly old fool. Far too old for that sort of thing. I told him so,' but was surprised how much he missed him.
Yet he refused to attend Veneering's memorial service at Temple Church in London. There would have been comment and Betty's name bandied about. For all his Olympian manner Old Filth was not histrionic. Never. He stayed alone at home that day making notes on the new edition of Hudson on Building Contracts that he had been (flatteringly considering his age) asked to re-edit some years before. He had a whisky and a slice of ham for his supper and listened to the News. When he heard the returning cars of the village mourners passing the end of his lane from Tisbury station he sensed disapproval at his absence like a wet cloth across his face; and turned a page.
Nobody came to see him that evening, not even sexy old Chloe who was never off his doorstep with shepherd's pies: not his gardener or his cleaning lady who had travelled to the memorial service to London and back together in the gardener's pick-up. Not Dulcie who lived nearby on Privilege Hill and was just about his oldest friend, the widow of an endearing old Hong Kong judge dead years ago and much lamented. Dulcie was a tiny, rather stupid woman, and grande dame of the village. 'Let them think what they like,' said Old Filth into his double malt. 'I am past all these frivolities.'
But the next frivolity was to be his own, for the following Christmas he took himself off alone to the place of his birth, which he still called The Malay States, and died as he stepped off the plane.
Excerpted from LAST FRIENDS by Jane Gardam. Copyright © 2013 by Jane Gardam. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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Posted April 15, 2013
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Posted September 28, 2013
Posted May 28, 2013
I do like Jane Gardam very much and Old Filth gave my book club a lot to discuss. The second volume was as good if not better in filling in the story. Most of Last Friends could have been incorporated into the first two books and it seemed like it was written to round out a three-book series when it wasn't necessary. However, do read this series and her other books - she is a wonderful writer.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 14, 2013