Whatever this story might be thought to lack, it's not originality. Bottling wine out of imported casks and labelling the bottles in an Italian-owned plant in London is presumably a mechanised operation these days. However time was when people did these jobs, and they were real people with real hearts and souls like the rest of us.
These are `small' people with `small' lives. The hopes and aspirations of the two leading characters are small. Neither they nor anyone else in the story mean any harm to anyone, and nobody does anything particularly `wrong'. Death touches one of the little group on their little works outing to Windsor in the rain, and the thing that makes the whole tale so terribly sad is that they can all get away with their grotesque obsequies for her - nobody else will ever know she is dead.
How easy you will find the book to read I can't say. By the standards of modern novels it is short, the style of writing is the opposite of flamboyant or elaborate, and you may have to keep reminding yourself who is who until you are well into the plot. The characters are differentiated well enough, I suppose, but what they all do say and think is within a very restricted range, and that just goes with the territory.
I found it, genuinely, deeply touching. Death the great leveller is cheated of his levelling at least to the extent that his victim's send-off is unusual in the extreme. If the rest of them can hold their tongues nobody will learn of her death because more or less nobody else knew she was alive. How many leave our society unnoticed, I wonder, without either such a unique funeral or such a gifted narrator to bring us their story.
on 15 January 2013
“The Bottle Factory Outing” is a misleadingly jolly title for what is, for the most part, a very dark book. The lead characters are two women who share a bedsit and work at an Italian wine bottling plant. Both women are a bit odd and both carry vast amounts of emotional baggage. One is afraid to say what she thinks while the other is the complete opposite and I didn’t like either of them. Freda, the bossy one, organises an outing for the factory workers and to say that it doesn’t go at all well would be a huge understatement.
I have read other novels and stories by Beryl Bainbridge and so I am familiar with her “gritty” style but even by her standards, this is grim. It is, of course, fantastically well written and every bit as evocative as you would expect; as I read, I could see every detail of Brenda and Freda’s dreadful bed-sitting room, the drab factory environment where they worked and had I been in Windsor Great Park 40+ years ago, I am sure I could have located the exact spot where the picnic took place. However, I thought the plot was a bit thin and, in places, nothing short of ludicrous. Also, I found the characters difficult in this particular book. A lot of them were the sort of caricatures that Dickens would have been proud of (I don’t imagine our Beryl made any new fans among Irish or Italian people with this book) and none of them have any redeeming features at all. I was also disappointed by the ending; the story just sort of fizzled out. So this is, for my personal taste, a bit too depressing but it is a wonderful period piece all the same.
The Bottle Factory Outing is the first book I’ve read by Beryl Bainbridge. I suspect this is not up there with her very best books however it certainly inspires me to want to read more of her work as as there is plenty to enjoy.
It put me in mind of my hazy recollections of Play For Today (1970s BBC adult drama TV programme), or the more playful work of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. It is quintessentially English, and also makes some very astute observations about culture, class, desire, difference, gender differences and human relationships.
Brenda and Freda, the two women at the heart of the book, share a dingy 1970s London bedsit (think Rising Damp) and together they redefine the term “the odd couple”. In addition to being flatmates, Brenda and Freda are also co-workers at the eponymous Bottle Factory which is an Italian-run north London wine bottling factory predominantly staffed by agricultural workers plucked, by the factory's Italian owner, from a life of subsistence farming in Bologna to London, the relative land of plenty. They are a tight knit bunch who do not know quite what to make of the two English women in their midst....
Freda is loud, large and domineering whilst Brenda is compliant, quiet, serious, educated and desperate not to give offence - despite a less than attractive description, and to Freda’s chagrin - Brenda also seems to attract numerous male admirers who try to possess her.
By the day of the bottle factory’s outing, sexual tensions are running high. Beyond that, the less you know about the plot the better, suffice it to say that a huge amount happens in a very short space of time (the book is about 200 pages long) and whilst implausible it is consistently inventive, entertaining, insightful, blackly comic and beguiling.
on 26 July 2012
..........Beryl Bainbridge's Bottle Factory Outing is a book about a chalk-and-cheese-couple, who reminded me of Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in the film of Neil Simon's play "The Odd Couple" - complete opposites living a 'can't live with you but can't live without you either!' kind of existence, which is farcical and funny, but with Beryl Bainbridge there is a much more acidic, sharper, and very, very, bitter taste to the comedy - this is the sort of comedy that's just as likely to make you wince and grimace as it is to make you smile and laugh!
It's been about three weeks since I finished Beryl Bainbridge's The Bottle Factory Outing. In that time I've read and reviewed other books. But I've been putting off writing a review of this book because I just didn't know what to make of it. It's an odd book, and as I mentioned before, it's about a very odd couple!
Brenda and Freda are friends (sort of!), flatmates, and work colleagues at the bottling factory where they both work on the production line. Both have had their ups and downs, and to be honest, if you'd kept a score throughout their lives, probably a lot more downs than ups!! The story sees them preparing for and then going on a works outing which they are organising, partly to add a little change and colour to their fairly drab lives and partly because Freda has an ulterior motive - to get her hands on Vittorio, the relative of the factory owner and the most desirable of the many Italian immigrants working in the factory. Much of Brenda and Freda's lives revolve around the everyday and their work at the factory, owned by the almost mysterious Mr Paganotti, who is mentioned throughout the book but never actually appears. There's a host of strong Italian support characters, mostly from the factory, such as the unusual and amorous Mr Rossi, with a slightly eccentric Irishman chucked in for good measure!
However, it's the relationship between Freda and Brenda that is the heart and soul of the book. But I hesitate to call it a friendship - it reads and feels more like a kind of social and emotional marriage of convenience than a friendship. And from the outset, the odd feel to the book is rooted in this slightly bizarre pair. Their first meeting is odd - Freda virtually force-feeding Brenda into being adopted/taken under Freda's wing(not a terribly cosy or safe place to be!!), after a chance encounter in a shop as Brenda flees from a disastrous marriage, a seriously mad mother-in-law and a husband who is the village 'soak' essentially! The oddness is maintained in their everyday lives - for example, separated at night in the bed they share by a bolster of books of all things!
The first part of the book sets up the story and while mildly amusing in several places it's a gentler kind of comedy here. It's at the factory outing where the story really takes off into a whole new level of odd and where it really does become the blackest of black comedies! From this point on I'll say nothing more about the story for fear of spoiling it but suffice to say it's full of twists, blind alleys and an eventual denouement which is both hilarious and tragic at the same time! I laughed at it - but I'm ashamed to admit that I laughed at it!
So if it was hilarious, why wait so long pondering what to make of it before I came to review it?
I think the answer lies in the "black" part of black comedy - I found this to be so sharp, so acutely observed and so raw in places that it was almost uncomfortable to read. The tensions between Freda and Brenda or between them and the other characters are painful to observe in places - you almost feel embarrassed - it's a bit like when you see a couple rowing in public and you want the ground to open up and swallow you even though you don't even know them!
The few Beryl Bainbridge books I've read are all slightly quirky and odd - populated with characters who, if they were flat shapes would be all corners and sharp edges rather than smooth and curved! This is no exception. And yet, on reflection I did enjoy it - and I judge that partly on the basis that I laughed out loud several times when I was reading this book! (that in itself was an uncomfortable feeling though as I read this book on the dreaded, evil, Kindle, while walking the dog in the park - the looks from other dog-walkers and park -users at the man with the dog suddenly breaking out into laughter will forever be in my memory and associated with this book!).
Another feature of the other Beryl Bainbridge books I've read is that you get plenty of 'bangs for your bucks' with her. This was a short and very easy to read novel - and yet it's got comedy, farce, horror, violence, love, poverty, royalty, and much more, all packed into it! You can't do anything but like the way she writes and the characters she draws, who don't just leap off the page at you but who also grab you by the throat and pin you down until you submit!
Overall - the book is odd - it's about an odd couple in an odd relationship living in odd circumstances. It's a book that is quirky odd, cruelly odd, viciously odd, uncomfortably odd, and blackly odd, but overall it's really hilariously, terrifically, odd!
A wrist rolls the ruby red liquid of the fermented grape, and then pauses, and the glass is watched. For wine does not indiscriminately settle in a glass like lesser liquids. It falls in lines, and by these lines the spirit is partially judged, its legs are appraised.
I have read enough of Ms. Beryl Bainbridge's writing to state comfortably that there is probably no topic that she cannot spin a great tale from. "The Bottle Factory Outing", is above all else about people, which is in keeping with the author's previous work. The primary characters are two women that while they share the same bed, with an impenetrable wall of pillows between them, could not be more different. One is passive, almost a victim, desiring more not to upset her day-to-day existence than to stand up for herself. The other is a warrior defending not only what she perceives as her territory, but any turf that may catch her eye as well. The former may be an unsure individual; however she does not delude herself. The latter has confidence that causes her to believe that which she wants despite any reality she witnesses.
The book is unique as it has more than one instance when the story could reasonably end. The story is in no way overextended, just marvelously structured. The event of course is the employee outing and all that takes place from the early morning start, to a surrealistic second act, and finally the disturbing close of the third. Personalities that have become familiar do not conduct themselves in keeping with the book's start. Honor, which is repeatedly called upon to justify, draw or inflict guilt, becomes many things other than an honorable trait. And finally some of the worst traits of humanity do not begin and end with a single act, but are repeatedly compounded by a rationalized conspiracy.
If you have never read this writer's work, you most probably have missed enjoying a wonderfully talented mind. You may pick a work of hers at random and not be disappointed.
And the next time you raise a glass of wine, I guaranty you will think of this book.
This starts out fairly tamely; two young women share a grotty bedsit. Their personalities could not be more different- loud, assertive, overweight Freda and self-effacing Brenda who has just escaped an unhappy marriage. They work in a bottling plant otherwise staffed almost entirely by Italians who are devoted to the boss, Mr Paganotti, whom we never actually meet, but whose influence shapes events.
Freda arranges a staff outing which goes horribly wrong from the first moment; this part of the story transports the reader from the merely shabby and mundane to an almost dreamlike and surreal scenario.
What should be a tragic ending to the book is somehow more of a black comedy. The death of a certain character felt less sad than some of the events in her life.
'Perhaps she was the lucky one, to go quickly and so young. For himself, years hence, there might be disease- pain: like an olive on the ground he would wither and turn black.'
on 5 September 2013
I am a huge fan of Beryl Bainbridge's work. She has to be one of the most economical writers ever, and seems to be able to use less words than any other author I know to describe complex situations and characters.
Once again, she has produced a relatively short novel involving a set of circumstances that would appear to be mundane and ordinary, but that turn into a tragi-comedy. Everything is awkward in this book - the relationship between the two main characters, Brenda & Freda, their working life and culture clashes with their Italian male colleagues, the workforce's subservience to their boss, their work itself, and, of course, the works outing ...
I felt awkward and uncomfortable reading this book, which, I assume, is exactly the feeling that the author wanted me to have. Therein lies her genius.
on 29 March 2015
I remember this book nearly winning the Booker prize in the 1970s. Reading it now, I can't imagine why. Although Bainbridge is a good writer, in the sense that she is able to create interesting characters and summon up a vivid scene in a few deft sentences, there is so much that is wrong with this book that it is impossible to like it. for a start, it seems wrong in terms of time - I cannot believe it is set in the 1970s, it seems more like the 1950s. Yet there's decimal currency etc. And the weakness of the story, the repeated improbabilities in the plot, etc.
The scene when Vittorio and Paddy are both at the girls' flat, and then crazy Mrs Haddon turns up with a pistol - it's like something from N F Simpson (whatever happened to him?). Or a surreal Whitehall farce. Some people find this kind of thing funny, but for me there has to be an element of truth before I crack a smile.
The outing itself doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and I can't help thinking that the author was desperate for a plot twist - so she killed one of her characters. Then we were back to the Theatre of the Absurd as the Italians decide that burial at sea is the only way to go.
Is Brenda meant to be simple? That's how she comes across to me, that's why she allow herself to be pushed around, and wants only peace and calm and solitude. A sad character. Without Freda she tries to go back to her abusive husband, then to her parents...... next stop, the womb?
I see that the author turned her hand to historical fiction later in her career. Good idea, at least the facts of history would give her some sort of basic narrative, which this book lacks. I'll try one of her history books one day.
on 25 April 2013
In her novel The Bottle Factory Outing Beryl Bainbridge creates a remarkably surreal world out of a deceptively mundane situation. Brenda and Freda are two employees in a British factory that bottles bulk-imported wines, sherries and brandies. Owned by and largely staffed by Italians, the working environment seems to provide the author with a wealth of comic possibilities for the linguistic faux-pas or the cultural misunderstanding. The novel does have its share of both, but does not descend into the mere farce that over-use of such elements might produce.
Freda and Brenda might work in the same factory, but their backgrounds and personalities are quite different. Neither is particularly glamorous, but then neither is, apparently, the working class life that they lead. But it still has to be lived. Perhaps paradoxically, perhaps comically, they dress garlic with lemon juice and garlic. Thus, like the rest of us, they have their pretensions. No working class comedy set in London would be worth its salt without an Irishman called Paddy, of course. In The Bottle Factory Outing he turns out to be a spare time plumber as well.
The outing of the title eventually does come to pass, after riveting events such as a broken toilet flush. The trip is made in two cars and a packed lunch accompanies the group. There is a call, of course, for more remarkable salad dressing. The trip's destination is Windsor, a good half an hour from London, where the tale and its characters are based. The group sets off to visit Windsor in all of its manifestations, from historic town to fortified castle, from chapel to Royal seat to safari park. The Ford Cortina has to be left at the entrance to the safari park, incidentally, in case the lions and tigers force entry via its sun roof. A Cortina with a sun roof? Now there's living. The Mini has to make do.
After encounters with an elephant in the children's zoo, it's time to lay out the spread and attack the salad dressing. Freda and Brenda suffer the attentions of the fellow-travelling males and various encounters ensue. The here and now mixes uncomfortably with aspiration and memory, and so tensions come and go with the farce as the group regroups around a nibbled lunch in the park. And then, the unimaginable happens.
The trip back to London is thus rendered both comical and surreal. What happens stretches the imagination to the extreme and provides the reader with interesting ideas on how to use the left-over brandy after Christmas.
The Bottle factory Outing is truly farcical, but the lives of these people are at the same time truly tragic. It's not that they gloat over their misfortune, or even complain about it. But no matter what they do or how they approach the challenges of life, the mistakes always seem to reappear. They never make the continually imagined and planned visit the factory owner's house in rural Berkshire. If they had done, they could have left him in the end with a real present. The book may now feel somewhat dated, which is strange because it was only written forty years ago. The feeling might be a result of the massive changes that have come about in working class life since then. Or perhaps it wasn't really accurate even at the time... The British have never been comfortable with accuracy when describing the detail of the mundane, especially when that involves the depiction of working class life that has been conceived from another place.
on 28 March 2013
Beryl Bainbridge uses the smallest details to provide a whole biography of characters. It is set in a time when there was comfort in "knowing one's place" for some, despite ripples of discontent on the surface. The black humour - the inevitable laugh she extorts from the reader, whilst reading the unbelievable and unacceptable - is part of what makes this a book that can't be put down.