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A couple of weeks ago, Simon at Savidge Reads chose three books he was going to read before his imminent thirtieth birthday, (and he asked for more recommendations for forty books to read before he is forty.) One of the three was based on a suggestion of mine that he give the late Dame Beryl Bainbridge a go. So, when he chose The Bottle Factory Outing, which is one of hers I haven’t read, I said that I’d readalong too. If you head on over to Savidge Reads today, you can see what he thought of it. Meanwhile, here’s my review …

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The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The late Dame Beryl’s third novel, like much of her early output is semi-autobiographical; apparently she actually worked in a bottle factory after her her divorce in the late 1950s, so I imagine that when she came to write The Bottle Factory Outing  in 1974, she knew what she was talking about.

Freda and Brenda are two young women, with seemingly only their youth in common.  Freda is a large brassy blonde with a personality to match and aspirations to act. In contrast, Brenda is dark and rather passive, but has run away to London from her drunken farmer husband, and ended up being adopted by Brenda.  The girls share a bedsit in North London, and a large double-bed – with a bolster down the middle!

They work at the bottle factory which is run and otherwise staffed by Italians apart from Patrick, the Irish van driver.  The girls stick the labels on the wine and the men operate the bottling plant. Freda has the hots for trainee manager Vittorio; he is engaged to an Italian girl, but Freda hopes she can persuade him otherwise.  Brenda, meanwhile, has to fight off the advances and fumblings of Mr Rossi. Little do the men realise the effect that introducing two English girls into the factory will have on the whole place!

Freda has persuaded Mr Paganotti the factory owner, whom we never meet, that they should have an employee outing. She’s made the arrangements; they’ll go to a stately home by mini-coach and have a picnic, with plenty of wine.  Brenda doesn’t really want to go, but there’s no way she can escape – Freda won’t let her!  From the moment the troops gather on the appointed morning (not a work day, note), and the coach doesn’t turn up, you just know it’s going to go horribly wrong and I shan’t say any more…

This novel may be short at 200 pages, but it’s dense in description. The two women are at the centre of it, and at first, I found it hard to distinguish between their two voices, so intertwined are their lives. Soon however, all was clear, and the humour underneath was beginning to come through, such as in the quotes below:

Freda is in a bad mood, stalking around in the room, finding everything unsatisfactory…

The room lacked character, she thought, looking critically at the yellow utility furniture and the ladies in crinolines walking in pairs across the wall-paper. There was no colour scheme – nothing matched; there was no unity of design. Every time she made some little improvement, like arranging a curtain around the washbasin near the door, it only drew attention to the cracked tiles and the yards of antiquated piping clinging in convoluted loops up the wall.

… but minutes later (on the next page), after receiving a note from Vittorio to say that he was popping round …

Why can’t life always be like this, she thought, smiling and smiling at the lovely room with its cheerful wallpaper and the gay curtain that hid the waste-pipe of the washbasin. She revolved slowly in front of the open window, the street turning with her: the shining bonnets of the cars at the kerb, the spearheads of the painted railings, the thin black trees that were bouncing in the wind.

While Vittorio conforms to the 1970s image of a typical handsome young Italian with a bit of fashion style, the other Italian workers are his opposite. Brought over from the home-country, they speak little English: they just work, drink wine, and play football. They may be small cogs, but they’re honour-bound patriots one and all.  It’s not quite the Mafia’s code of ‘Omerta’, but it’s pretty close.

Freda is undeniably a bit of a tease, but as a girl of limited means, she going to do her best to improve her lot. She also can’t understand why Brenda seems to get more attention from the men at the factory, although she’s glad that Vittorio is not one of them.  Brenda, although she’s escaped her marriage, is still repressed by it, and in a way has replaced Stanley with Freda.  Brenda isn’t good at making her feelings known, and can usually be talked, henpecked into anything, never wanting to upset the status quo.

Once they were on the outing, I couldn’t help but see Freda and Brenda as younger variations on the characters Beverly and Angela from Mike Leigh’s 1977 classic play Abigail’s Party, at which Beverly hosts a dinner party for her new neighbours and it goes deadly wrong.  Leigh’s play, and the TV staging of it, of course came after this book was written, but I saw it back then when I was 17 and it has stayed with me ever since.  It was a kitchen-sink drama relocated to the posher lounge; a comedy that you had to increasingly grit your teeth to get through, as the awfulness of what was happening revealed itself, but you couldn’t help laugh/grimace at.  There is much of this grit your teeth comedy in later stages of The Bottle Factory Outing too, and Bainbridge’s true genius is in how she resolves everything and makes us, the reader, complicit in what happens.

The Bottle Factory Outing, while I enjoyed it as the other later Bainbridge novels I have read, is sparkier and, although immaculately structured, freer in its focus which made it slightly more difficult to get into.  Like her contemporary, Muriel Spark, Beryl was an author who made every word count – there is no padding, and that is a wonderful thing.  She has definitely become a firm favourite of mine. (9/10)

Readers new to Bainbridge might prefer to start with one of her later novels which have a mature ease about the writing.  I loved The Birthday Boys about Scott of the Antarctic, Every Man for Himself about the Titanic, and An Awfully Big Adventure about a provincial production of Peter Pan, (which I read pre-blog).  I have yet to read Master Georgie, set during the Crimean War, which won the Booker Best of Beryl last year, (she was the most nominated author never to win).

An afterthought on The Bottle Factory Outing – It would make a tremendous book group choice! – In fact we’ll be reading it for our group in April…

Now I’m off to Simon’s… see you there perhaps?  He’ll be popping over here too. Ciao for now!

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge
Abigail’s Party (BBC) [1977] [DVD]

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