Category Archives: Abacus Books

Every Man For Himself – Beryl Bainbridge

I have been questioning if I should post about ‘Every Man for Himself’, Beryl Bainbridge’s novel about the Titanic, because what should be a memorial of 100 years since the tragic and shocking event seems to have become some kind of celebration and cash cow to my mind. To completely contradict what I’ve just said though, I did pick this as my next Beryl Bainbridge novel because it was about the Titanic and the anniversary was approaching. What a brimming sack of contradictions my mind is! I’m hoping in doing this post I’m not seen as jumping on a band wagon but wanting to mark this day in some way. I will actually be at the Titanic exhibition in Liverpool today when you read this.

Abacus Books, paperback, 1996, fiction, 224 pages, from the TBR

‘Every Man for Himself’, to summarise succinctly, is the tale of a young american man Morgan and the four fateful days that he sails on the Titanic. That simply is the story, right there.

Through Morgan’s narration Bainbridge creates an interesting viewpoint of society at the time. Morgan in rich, not by birth through ‘family’ rather a benefactor Uncle. He is seen as the nouveau riche which is a curse and a blessing amongst the richest of the rich who sailed onboard, for it was the ticket to have. He is idealistic though and so his sympathies lie with the lower classes on board and the staff, ‘the unfortunates’.

‘It was then he said, ‘Does it not occur to you that none of them are normal?’ At first I put up a defence, mostly because I feared I was included in their number, but soon fell silent. Nothing he said could be disputed. My friends, he argued, were not living in the proper world. Their wealth, their poorly nurtured childhoods, their narrow education, their lack of morals separated them from reality. Some, those with more intelligence, might struggle to break away, and succeed for a short time, but in the end, like the action of a boomerang, it was inevitable they would return to the starting point. ‘Then there’s little hope for me,’ I said.’

It’s this mix of societies in such a small place which seems to be a perfect way for Beryl to make her viewpoints on the upper classes vs the lower. It weaves an interesting tension though means the cast of characters are rather dislikable.

As I have said its a book brimming with ideas yet one which doesn’t have the fastest of pace, that’s not a critique either. When reading this novel I pondered over its slow burning nature. I considered if maybe Beryl thought we knew what was coming for the Titanic, I won’t say if Morgan survives or not so you read it, so the story meanders and builds. This of course means she can build the tension delicately leading to the inevitable conclusion. (I was shocked to see on Twitter some people had no idea it was real and thought it was ‘just a film’, what?)

The tragic moment itself however does anything but dwindle. I found myself incredibly moved as Bainbridge writes the moment from the infamous iceberg until Titanic sinks. I was even routing for some of the most unpleasant characters and the extent of the tragedy and speed which it takes place, the change from ‘jolly japes’ to panic, is vividly captured.

‘Everyman For Himself’ is a vey compelling, moving and cleverly constructed and crafted novel. The title seems obvious knowing the shortage of life boats but actually in the case of this novel I would say it is the general theme of the characters motivations in live whatever class, even Morgan as he watches them all on our behalf.



Filed under Abacus Books, Beryl Bainbridge, Review

The Bottle Factory Outing – Beryl Bainbridge

A few weeks ago, with my impending 30th birthday looming, I decided that I wanted to try some of the authors, or classics, that I had never tried before but always wanted to. One of the three authors I decided upon, thanks to a recommendation from Annabel of Gaskella who has read-a-long too, was Beryl Bainbridge. She is an author I have always felt I should try, she was nominated for the Man Booker five times, and always shortlisted but never won, and was seen as one of Britain’s national treasures. I didn’t know what to expect when I opened up ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, her third novel published in 1974, as I read on I discovered that you should expect the unexpected, in a good way.

Abacus Books, paperback, 1974, fiction, 200 pages, from my personal TBR

‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ is a tale of Brenda and Freda, these two women live in a shared bedsit room, separated in bed by a bolster made of books, and I think it is fair to say that being so chalk and cheese if Freda hadn’t happened upon and ‘adopted’ Brenda after she left her husband and the countryside to come to London they wouldn’t have ever made a likely paid of friends. Yet friends and subsequently co-workers they have become and it is the events leading up to, during (something awful happens, though what I won’t say) and after a work outing, from the bottle factory, which Freda has organised that this novel revolves around.

The novel is really one of two halves, and this made it an intriguing first read of any of Beryl’s work for me so might for others, as the first half is a comedy of errors and rather farcical before certain events take place giving the novel a much darker and more disturbing twist making it a very black comedy. As I started to read, after some initial confusion over which woman was which for the first ten or so pages, I was pretty much instantly hooked. I loved how Beryl builds the women’s characters, and their polar opposites, so vividly and so funnily with small observations of their behaviour. I laughed out loud a lot.

‘At night when they prepared for bed Freda removed all her clothes and lay like a great fretful baby, majestically dimpled and curved. Brenda wore her pyjamas and her underwear and a tweed coat – that was the difference between them. Brenda said it was on account of nearly being frozen to death in Ramsbottom, but it wasn’t really that.’

The dynamic of the two women is really the driving force initially for the novel. They are friends and also constantly in competition. I would say they loved to love each other and loved to loathe each other in equal measure. Brenda is the quieter, slighter, more serious brunette who seems to make any man she meets want to ravish her and Freda is the louder, brasher, bossier, plumper one who is set on trying to seduce the son and heir, Vittorio, of the bottle factory business she works in. It is this desire that leads to the outing on which everything changes and the novel sets up a gear as things start to unfold.

There were so many things that I loved about Beryl Bainbridge’s writing that it might be hard to encompass them all, I will endeavour to try though. First of all is how much is in such a small book. At a mere 200 pages, and in fairly big print which could be devoured in a few hours, so much happens that when you have finished you find yourself recapping it all and thinking ‘did that all just happen in this book?’ There are funerals, hilarious seductions in cellars, hilarious seductions in a shared bedroom and a shared bathroom, a mother in law with a grudge to bear and a gun in her handbag, a fight in Windsor Castle, horse riding with the Queen’s funereal regiment, something awful on an outing which leads to a strange trip to a safari park, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The writing is also incredible. Beryl Bainbridge manages to write what is essentially a farcical and rather unbelievable story, though you never know, but builds the atmosphere, tensions and characters in such a way that you fully believe this series of events could happen. Her main characters are incredibly flawed and can be rather vile, in fact so can the minor ones, but they walk off the page and you like them, you want to read about them. The most impressive thing is how in a mere sentence or two Bainbridge can give you a place and/or person in mere lines, no word is wasted but it’s not so sparse you have to fill in the gaps, not many authors can do this and I really admire it when I read it.

‘The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement. ‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

As you may be able to tell I really loved ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’. It was nothing like I expected it to be and was a wonderful discovery. I loved Beryl Bainbridge’s sense of humour both when it was light and dark, I loved her prose, I just thought it was great and am quite thrilled to have discovered an author who I now cannot wait to read more of. My only slight wish is that I had discovered her before she died a few years ago and could have gone to see her speak, though her voice definitely lives on in a novel like this.

I have to say a big thank to Annabel for reminding me that I wanted to read Beryl Bainbridge. As I mentioned we have been reading the book in tandem and her thoughts can be found here. We will be popping and commenting on any comments you leave, plus chatting about it between the two of us on both blogs as the day goes on. If you haven’t read any Bainbridge do, start with this one.  Where should I go next? I am thinking her novel ‘Every Man For Himself’ about the Titanic might be rather timely?


Filed under Abacus Books, Beryl Bainbridge, Books of 2012, Review