Abacus, Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Hong Kong, Jane Gardam, literary fiction

‘The Man in the Wooden Hat’ and ‘Last Friends’ by Jane Gardam

Man-in-the-wooden-hat Last-friends

Fiction – paperback; Abacus; 288 pages / 256 pages; 2009 / 2014.

Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat (first published in 2009) and Last Friends (2013) form parts two and three respectively of the Old Filth Trilogy. The three books have recently been reprinted in rather a smart-looking livery, with covers designed by David Wardle, just in time for Last Friends making the inaugural Folio Prize shortlist, the winner of which will be announced on 10 March.

Old Filth (2004), which I read and loved several years ago, follows the life and times of a hugely successful barrister, Sir Edward Feathers QC, who is also known as Old Filth (an acronym for Failed In London Try Hong Kong);  The Man in the Wooden Hat spans roughly the same time period but tells the story of Old Filth’s wife, Betty; while Last Friends is largely about Old Filth’s professional rival (and Betty’s secret lover), Sir Terence Veneering.

It is not strictly necessary to read them in the order in which they were published — each can be taken as a stand-alone novel. Yet I’m sure that having read Old Filth first helped enrich my enjoyment of the second novel. That’s because I was already acquainted with the characters and largely familiar with their backstories. It was, in many ways, like meeting up with old friends again — familiar, warm and cosy.

Having now read the trilogy in its entirety, I can say that I absolutely loved all three novels — each of which is warm, witty and humane — and that because of this Jane Gardam has promptly become one of my favourite authors. In fact, I haven’t been this excited by a writer since I discovered Kent Haruf in late 2012.

Betty’s story

In The Man in the Wooden Hat we meet Elisabeth “Betty” Macintosh when she is 28 and living in Hong Kong.  She has an unconventional background — she was born in Shanghai to British parents, raised in the internment camps of Japan and later became a code-breaker at Bletchley Park — and is now ready to settle down and marry Edward Feathers even though they barely know one another.

When she agrees to marry him he makes it very clear: she must never leave him because people have been deserting him all his life.

“Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That’s the condition. I’ve been left all my life. From being a baby, I’ve been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I’m unusual there. And it’s supposed to have given us all backbone.”
“Well, I know all that. I am an orphan, too. My parents suffered.”
“All our parents suffered for an ideology. They believed it was good for us to be sent Home, while they went on the Empire. We were all damaged even though we became endurers. […] It did not destroy me but it made me bloody unsure.”
“I will never leave you, Edward.”

Betty makes this promise knowing full well that their marriage will never be romantic or passionate, but that she will “grow to love him very much” and they will have a whole tribe of children. And then, not an hour later at a lawyer’s party, she is introduced to flaxen-haired blue-eyed Terry Veneering, Edward’s most hated professional rival, and immediately regrets her decision.

From this set-up, Gardam fleshes out Betty’s life, married to the “wrong” man but always with Edward’s best interests at heart. It’s an extraordinary portrait of a marriage — the joys, the friendship, the compromises and the sacrifices each must make for love to grow and flourish — as well as being a very honest account of what it is like to grow old and adjust to changed circumstances.

It is very witty in places, but like the best comedies, it’s also very sad and quite moving in others. I loved following Betty’s story, sharing her loves and losses, fears and desires; I loved her eccentric nature and independent streak, and the way in which she just trod her own path, never succumbing to peer pressure or popular convention.

But the strength of the novel is not so much Betty’s individual story but the ways in which her narrative gives the reader a different perspective on Edward’s life — you get to see him from another angle. Sometimes what you discover is surprising; at other times it merely reinforces what you thought of him already.

Terry’s story

In the final part of the trilogy, Last Friends, we find out much more about the mysterious Terry Veneering — in particular, his childhood growing up in Yorkshire with a crippled acrobat father from Russia and a hard-working teenage mother, who sold coal for a living — along with other subsidiary characters, including Dulcie Williams, whose husband “Pastry Willy” had been a judge, and Fiscal-Smith, who was “accidental” best man at Edward and Betty’s wedding.

Of the three novels, this one feels less formal and more reliant on funny set pieces to keep the momentum going. And even though it is about Terry, it is mainly told through Dulcie’s eyes — an ageing woman looking back on the people closest to her. Indeed, this is a book as much about old friends coming to the ends of their lives than anything else and is a very good exploration of the ties that bind people together, even those that are not related but merely thrown together by circumstance or career.

As a consequence, the narrative swings backwards and forwards in time, and spans everything from surviving World War Two bombings in Yorkshire to enjoying retirement in sleepy Dorset. Again, it is characterised by Gardam’s wonderful sense of humour tempered by moments of great sadness, but this novel does feel more playful than its predecessors.

When I came to the end I admit to feeling slightly bereft. I have so enjoyed spending time in the company of these wonderfully drawn, oh-so-human characters and learning about the ways in which they endured war, loneliness, heartache and prejudice to achieve success and find happiness — often against the odds. Although they all ended up leading lives of what we would call great privilege, you get the sense they worked hard for it and didn’t quite believe their luck when things turned out well in the end.

Both The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends are a real joy to read — elegant, intelligent, and filled with love, pathos and wonderful humour. These are the kinds of books you want to press into the hands of friends and loved ones with the words, you must read this.

11 thoughts on “‘The Man in the Wooden Hat’ and ‘Last Friends’ by Jane Gardam”

  1. We read Bilgewater at school, would you believe. I cannot remember a thing about it other than I did not like it. I was 14 at the time. I suspect I may think differently now.
    Hope you get to read this trilogy. It is such a treat.


  2. I’ve also read all these books and in the same order as you did and feel exactly the same way – now that we’re finished I can’t share their company anymore!! It was so clever of Gardam to write these three books – and although we’re reading pretty much the same story of the characters – we are learning so much more in these richly woven books! Loved them.


  3. You might be interested to know that some of these characters reappear in a short story collection called The People on Privilege Hill, which I bought recently and which Shonna highlights in the comment above.


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