Beryl Bainbridge made it to the Man Booker prize shortlist a record five times but never succeeded in winning the award. The Bottle Factory Outing, her fourth novel was one of the shortlisted titles in 1974 but was beaten to the prize by Stanley Middleton’s Holiday.
Bainbridge’s story is set somewhere in London in a small Italian-run factory which bottles wines and some spirits. Freda and Brenda are two members of the workforce , working alongside some middle aged Italians who clean and label the bottles for despatch. The pair share a workbench by day and a miserable bedsit room by night. They also share a bed though they build a wall of books to ensure there is a clear demarkation of space on the mattress.
They are an unlikely pair of women to hitch up together. They have little in common either in their backgrounds or their attitudes to life.
Freda is one of those people who seem born with a bigger pair of lungs than the average human being. Loud and fearless, she has aspirations to be an actress or, failing that, to marry someone rich. Brenda is her complete opposite, dark haired and completely passive, the kind of girl that will never say no to anyone in case they are offended. Her one moment of bravery it seems was to leave her husband, a drunkard much prone to urinating on the doorstep of their home in the north of England and to set up alone in London.
Freda is a girl with dreams. She comes up with a plan for the entire team to take off for a day out in country. It will, she hopes, give her the opportunity to capture the heart of the manager, Vittorio. Brenda has more pressing concerns – how to avoid the amorous intentions of her fellow worker, the lecherous Rossi.
Their day of freedom fails to live up to all their expectations. It’s starts with the non appearance of the van they’d booked as transport and gets steadily worse because instead of a wine-fuelled picnic in the grounds of a stately home, they have to enjoy their repast on a patch of grass near the road. It all ends in in tragedy.
The Bottle Factory Outing is a novel inspired by Bainbridge’s own experience of working in a bottling plant. At times offbeat, the humour is mingled with moments of poignancy particularly in the final scenes as the workers gather at a bizarre party in the factory attic.
The front cover blurb says Grahame Greene considered The Bottle Factory Outing to be ‘outrageously funny and horrifying.’ Funny yes with some scenes that are pure farce but I couldn’t find anything remotely ‘horrifying’ within these pages. It struck me rather as a story that ripples with pathos. All the workers in this factory have dreams that sustain them through their mundane lives; they long for something to relieve that monotony but ultimately those wishes and desires come to nothing.
I enjoyed Bainbridge’s economic style of writing and warmed to these two women but the novel ultimately failed to live up to its promise. The black humour and the poignancy ultimately became as unlikely a pairing as Freda and Brenda.