Tag Archives: Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week

The Odd Couple – But With More Bitter Lemon Than Jack Lemmon!………..What I Thought Of The Bottle Factory Outing By Beryl Bainbridge

The Odd Couple……….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 as part of the Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, hosted by Annabel at Gaskella. 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 The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridgeof 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! And on that contradiction in terms, I’ll finish!!!!

I read this having been encouraged / inspired by Beryl Bainbridge Reading week. I know a number of others read and reviewed both The Bottle Factory Outing and most of the other Beryl Bainbridge novels and short stories and there’s a summary page at Annabel’s blog Gaskella, listing all of them if you’d like to read more about the Bottle Factory Outing or other Beryl Bainbridge novels!

“Georgie Boy Was Gay I Guess, Nothing More And Nothing Less” – Or Was He?……….What I Thought Of………. Master Georgie By Beryl Bainbridge

……….This was my first foray into the work of Beryl Bainbridge and it won’t be the last. Alas, in reviewing the book, I have to admit that I’ve only read it once – and that might be important if Beryl Bainbridge herself is right.

She once said that “most people have to read Master Georgie at least three times before they understand it”. Now the use of the phrase “most people” certainly allows a little lee-way for a first time reader of the book like me – maybe I’m the exception to the rule that Beryl Bainbridge had in mind – but somehow I doubt it! So I’m just going to have to go for writing about it after reading the book once – at least any mistakes I make or any comment I make that some might disagree with can be explained away by “what do you expect – he’s still got two more reads of the book to go!”

Master Georgie tells the story of four characters in the years leading up to and through the beginning of, the Crimean War. Georgie Hardy has two passions – becoming a surgeon and photography. He goes off to the Crimean War to offer his services as a surgeon, accompanied by Myrtle, who is his adopted sister and who is hopelessly in love with him and his brother-in-law Dr Potter, an armchair geologist and expert on the limestone of the Eastern Steppes! While in Crimea, they are joined by an acquaintance from home, Pompey Jones, who is a photographers assistant and part-time fire-eater!  Jones provides the tension in the relationships between him and the other three characters and in his effect on their relationships with one another.

In many ways this is a simple and straightforward read. It’s very short, very readable and the style seems simple – yet this is a book that really does keep you on your toes the whole way through. The story is told through the backdrop of six photographic plates which are used to set scene and context for the six parts of the story and the events are spread over the period between 1846 and 1854. The narrator changes for each of the plates and this was one of several things that gave the book a slightly odd and quirky feel to me. Along with the change of narrator, the location shifts in line with events, from 19th century Liverpool with its contrasting wealth and poverty, to the almost comic-opera Constantinople with the British Army en route to Crimea and then to different locations in Crimea itself. The use of different narrators means that as the story unfolds, you get a number of different perspectives on the same event. Sometimes this is done through the narrators perspective at the time of the event and sometimes through a character looking back in time to events in earlier chapters. The net effect is that it’s a book that’s impossible to predict despite its apparent simplicity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the description of the sexual relationship between Georgie and Pompey Jones. Myrtle’s idolised perspective sees Georgie as someone who can do no wrong. In the eyes of Jones however, their encounter was the result of Georgie’s drunken attempt to take advantage of him. Later still Georgie’s version has it that Jones was the drunk in the encounter. It leaves the reader with the feeling that you know something went on but you can’t be sure exactly what and why and therefore you pay your money and take your choice. I liked the way Beryl Bainbridge used this technique on more than one occasion to give the story several twists and turns.

The characters are similar to the narrative in appearing to be simple and straightforward on the surface but emerging as increasingly complex when seen through the eyes of others or the lens of time. What was interesting for me was that I felt I got to know the characters of Georgie, Myrtle and Dr Potter really well but the character of Pompey Jones remains somewhat hidden. It gives him a slightly detached, almost sinister feel as you read the book. As I read the book, against the backdrop of the horrific experience of the war in Crimea and the perpetual threat of death and disease which hangs over every character, I got the feeling that no matter what Jones will survive – he reminded me of the old adage about the first thing to recover after nuclear devastation will be the cockroach – for me Jones is a kind of Victorian cockroach with an in-built survival instinct!

For all that I enjoyed the book, it left me with a slightly flat feeling on finishing it. It’s really good but I wouldn’t say it was “fun” to read I guess! The writing is really clever and the characters are full and intriguing so that they draw you in to their world and to their thoughts. This is Beryl Bainbridge’s masterly description of the petty madness within Georgie’s mother, Mrs Hardy.

“There was a silence for a long minute, broken by tapping. I swivelled on my haunches, making believe I was attending to the bony head of the tiger. Mrs Hardy was stabbing at the food on her plate and giving one of her stares, eyes lachrymose with bulging misery; gravy splattered the cloth. Master Georgie had explained to me that the stare was peculiar to a malfunction of the thyroid, a gland common to us all, only in Mrs Hardy’s case it had started growing. As for her misery, why that was all due to her husband; she was a neglected wife.”

However there’s little joy in the story and the writing, though my guess – having only read the book the once of course – is that this is what Beryl Bainbridge intended. Because what it ends up doing brilliantly is giving you a glimpse into the complex emotions of characters in the midst of a horrific war and it feels like something which will affect them and society well into the future. There’s a kind of naive almost surreal innocence to the early part of the British Army’s journey to Crimea – they are accompanied by wives, children, and many of their possessions from home, as far as Constantinople! It kind of feels like a mass Sunday-School outing! But the misery and waste are lying in wait, as you know they will be. While the descriptions of war itself are very few, the description of its aftermath and consequences are laid bare. It part ridicules the stiff-upper-lip and gung-ho of the Light Brigade mentality while at the same time exposing the war as something which in the end was utterly, utterly, pointless and tragic. Aren’t they always?

Overall, I really did enjoy this book. And for what it’s worth, on that issue about the sexual relationship between Jones and Georgie, my money is on the Jones’ version. But as I’ve only read the book once I’m probably wrong!

If you are interested in other reviews of Master Georgie, or of other Beryl Bainbridge novels, the reviews compiled during Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week are being collated at Annabel’s blog Gaskella.

Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week starts today!……….

……….The week long read and reviewing of the works of Beryl Bainbridge is being hosted at Gaskella and it kicks off today. It’s a great idea and I certainly enjoyed a Muriel Spark Reading Week hosted earlier this year – so I’m looking forward to it immensley.

I’ve already started both reading and drafting reviews about a couple of Beryl Bainbridge novels, having finished Master Georgie and reached just past half way with The Bottle Factory Outing. I’m reading both of those on the dreaded / evil Kindle – and secretly enjoyed it! Both books have been really good though so perhaps that’s helped me feel slightly less guilty about giving in to the lure of the Kindle and The Dark Side!

I’ve also managed to pick up a couple of other Beryl Bainbridge novels in a couple of the really good second hand bookshops near where I live so I also have According To Queenie and An Awfully Big Adventure to look forward to either later this week or into next week.

It’s early days of course but already there is the first review, written by Annabel herself, on her Gaskella blog, which is about the very first piece of fiction written by Beryl Bainbridge, Harriet Said, published in the 1950’s. It’s a great review and well worth a read if you are at all interested in Beryl Bainbridge. As the week goes on there will definitely be more and more reviews appearing and they’ll all be collated in links available on Gaskella’s site.

I’ve got my first review drafted and hopefully I’ll finish it later today. Then as soon as I finish ‘Bottle Factory’ I’ll have the pleasure to write about it too – it’s been a pleasure to read so far!

Now I’ll get on with reading the remainder of it!