First published in 1974, The Bottle Factory Outing was Beryl Bainbridge’s fifth novel. It’s only the third of her books that I’ve read (my first was An Awfully Big Adventure, a darkly comic gem); but on the evidence of this, I should probably aim to read some more.
Ostensibly, The Bottle Factory Outing focuses on two mismatched young women, Brenda and Freda, who share a shabby bedsit while also working together at a local wine bottling factory. While Brenda is mousey and pessimistic, Freda is loud and outgoing, forever dreaming about the life she would like to be living – preferably that of a successful actress surrounded by friends and family.
In the opening paragraphs, Brenda and Freda are watching the early stages of a funeral with the removal of a coffin from another flat in their building. As they speculate on the deceased – an old lady who lived with her cat – the differences between the two women become increasingly apparent.
‘You cry easily,’ said Brenda, when they were dressing to go to the factory.
‘I like funerals. All those flowers – a full life coming to a close…’
‘She didn’t look as if she’d had a full life,’ said Brenda. ‘She only had the cat. There weren’t any mourners – no sons or anything.’
‘Take a lesson from it then. It could happen to you. When I go I shall have my family about me – daughters – sons – my husband, grey and distinguished, dabbing a handkerchief to his lips…’
‘Men always go first,’ said Brenda. ‘Women live longer.’
‘My dear, you ought to participate more. You are too cut off from life.’ (p. 2)
Twenty-six-year-old Freda is a force of nature, a tall curvy blonde who dresses flamboyantly, her cobalt blue eyeshadow and purple pantsuit adding considerably to her striking appearance. Brenda, on the other hand, cuts a dowdy figure in her dark stockings and shabby, over-sized coat. At thirty-two, Brenda already seems old before her time. Having fled an abusive relationship with her selfish husband, Brenda now wishes to hide from the world, far away from Stanley and his deranged mother.
The differences between the two girls are also noticeable at the factory – an establishment owned by Mr Paganotti, an enterprising Italian businessman who has built up the business from scratch. While at work, Freda spends much of her time chasing after Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti. In truth, however, Vittorio shows only limited interest in Freda in spite of her persistent efforts to attract his attention. Nevertheless, there is nothing that Freda would like more than a romantic dinner for two with Vittorio, a situation she tries to engineer with mixed results.
He was a man of sensibilities and everything was against her – his background, his nationality, the particular regard he had for women or a category of womanhood to which she did not belong. By the strength of her sloping shoulders, the broad curve of her throat, the dimpled vastness of her columnar thighs, she would manoeuvre him into her arms. I will be one of those women, she thought, painted naked on ceilings, lolling amidst rose-coloured clouds. She straightened and stared at a chair. She imagined how she might mesmerise him with her wide blue eyes. Wearing a see-through dressing-gown chosen from a Littlewoods catalogue, she would open the door to him. (p. 40)
Brenda too faces her own particular challenges at work; in this instance, the difficulties involves Mr Rossi, a manager at the firm, who persists in trying to grope Brenda in the seclusion of the cellar. Far from calling out Mr Rossi for sexual harassment, Brenda is too timid to say anything, preferring instead to suffer in near silence. From a young age, Brenda was brought up to be deferential – drilled into saying ‘yes’ when what she really wanted to say was ‘no’ (and vice versa). Now in her thirties, Brenda continues to remain passive while being taken advantage of by others, afraid to speak up for fear of causing a problem.
As you’ll have guessed from the novel’s title, the centrepiece of the story revolves around a staff outing, an event that Freda has arranged much to Brenda’s horror. (In truth, Brenda would much rather stay at home, content to remain invisible while others go off to enjoy themselves.) All the other employees are looking forward to the event, especially as Mr Paganotti – notable by his absence – has donated four barrels of wine to be enjoyed during the trip.
On the morning of the outing, the van booked for the trip fails to show up, much to Freda’s disappointment. Nevertheless, Rossi cooks up a new plan for the day (largely with the aim of seducing Brenda) by offering his own car together with that of a colleague as alternative transport. It’s at this point in the story that events begin to turn increasingly surreal, culminating in a demented drive through the wilds of Windsor Safari Park as the afternoon unravels.
I don’t want to give away too many details about the trip, save to say that it feels as if the reader is watching a slow-motion car crash, powerless to look away as the horror unfolds. The tone is darkly comic and farcical, a little like a cross between Willy Russell’s play Our Day Out and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party – maybe with a touch of Nuts in May thrown in for good measure. The off-the-wall touches are beautifully done, heightened by a sharp eye for detail and freakish imagery.
The safari bus when it came was painted with black stripes like a zebra. It looked as if the whole pride of lions had hurled themselves at the rusty bonnet and ill-fitting windows and torn the tyres to ribbons. The driver was dressed in a camouflage jacket of mottled green and a hat to match, one side caught up at the side as if he were a Canadian Mountie. When he opened the double doors at the back of the van, Brenda saw he was wearing plastic sandals, bright orange and practically luminous, and striped socks. (p. 148)
The female characters are also particularly well observed, vividly brought to life by Bainbridge’s skills as a writer. At the time of publication, the book was praised in a review by William Trevor who described it ‘as though Muriel Spark had been prevailed upon to write an episode of The Liver Birds,’. (Warning: this excellent piece on Bainbrdge does contain spoilers.) It’s a great description as the novel has something of both the sharpness of Carla Lane’s writing and the savagery of Spark’s worldview. The observations on life on a low wage, social class, worker’s rights, and the harassment of women in the workplace are also keenly felt.
As the novel hurtles towards its startling denouement, the tone begins to change, shifting from black humour to deep pathos. It’s a testament to Bainbridge’s skills as a writer that this transition works so well, prompting the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for each of the characters concerned, in spite of their failings.
In essence, this is an excellent, well-crafted tragi-comedy, shot through with Bainbridge’s acute insight into human nature. It is the juxtaposition between the ordinary and the absurd that makes this such an unsettling yet compelling read.
The Bottle Factory Outing is published by Abacus Books; personal copy.