Category Archives: Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend – An Exhibition

This weekend, whilst I was mulling a few things (thank you for your comments earlier this week), I decided to do some pottering and mooching about in lovely Liverpool. For some reason I have stayed over in the Wirral in the main and not done as much exploring of my new nearby city and its delights. Well, unless friends have come to visit obviously. So I decided to hit the museums and I wasn’t expecting to find anything particularly bookish on my rounds and yet I did, and from one of my favourite authors… Beryl Bainbridge.

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Believe it or not the building above is not Liverpool’s Science Museum, in fact I don’t think we have one, but a very new addition (and quite a controversial one) to the Mersey riverfront and is actually the Museum of Liverpool. Amongst the history of the city through the ages I discovered a little gem of an exhibition for any book lover, Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer Friend.

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I have only discovered Beryl Bainbridge’s novels in the last few years, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’ becoming one of my favourite books for being so bonkers, yet I knew relatively little about her apart from the fact that she died earlier than she should. For example I had no idea that she was from Liverpool… I know shocking isn’t it?

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On top of that, whilst I had seen some of her illustrations from ‘Filthy Lucre’ which she wrote very young, I had no idea that she was a painter, something this exhibition proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.

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On top of lots of her paintings there is also a wonderful collection of some of the first editions of her books…

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…And indeed one of her notebooks from 1968 which has a story of its own. This was a journal that Beryl (I hope she wouldn’t mind first name terms) wrote whilst on a road trip across America with her lover at the time, Harold Retler. This was a trip that Bainbridge was left very disappointed by and yet, several decades later, she used this journal as inspiration for her final novel ‘The Girl in the Polka Dot Dress’. I found this fascinating in itself.

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One thing that Bainbridge seemed to find fascinating herself, and indeed she wrote about it in ‘Every Man For Himself’, was the Titanic which itself is a huge part of Liverpool’s history. I think the paintings Beryl had done of her imaginings of the Titanic might have been her most poignant and powerful.

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It seemed rather appropriate, if that is the right word, that as you leave the exhibition and museum to head to the centre of town, or the train, after wards you actually go past the very building where the names of the survivors and the dead were read out from the balcony after the tragedy.

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As you can tell I was rather bowled over by this surprise find. I haven’t shared all of it with you as the exhibition is on until the 28th of this month and I am hoping some of you might make it there (if you do let me know I might be about for a coffee, ha) to have a look yourself. If you can’t make it then hopefully this is a small insight into it and you can feel you went and had a wander, sort of, round it. There is a book ‘Beryl Bainbridge: Artist, Writer, Friend’ by Psiche Hughes which I am kicking myself for not getting myself. Maybe I will have to pop back?

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Filthy Lucre – Beryl Bainbridge

I always find it fascinating to read the earlier works of authors that I love as, in my head, it is a way of looking at their writing in the raw and how they went on to develop it. So when I saw that Annabel of Gaskella was doing Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, and it was Annabel that made me read Beryl, I knew just which book I was going to read to take part. ‘Filthy Lucre’ was not Beryl Bainbridge’s debut novel in the published sense (that was ‘A Weekend with Claude’) yet it was a book she wrote at the tender age of thirteen. My mother had a copy and so I pilfered it from her shelves on my last visit, oops, sorry Mum.

Fontana Books, paperback, 1986, fiction, 144 pages, pilfered from my mothers shelves

‘Filthy Lucre’ is a tale of cheating and deception all around money.  We meet Martin Andromikey on his death bed in 1851, right until his last breath Martin believes that he was cheated of his inheritance by the Ledwhistle family. Asking his friend Richard Soleway to impersonate him, and keep his death a secret, he requests that Richard wreak revenge on them through the thing they love most, business and a business that he is set to be a partner of and so our story starts. What follows though is not unlike many Victorian melodrama’s and sensation novels that have gone before with twists and turns, murders, deceptions, love affairs and even treasure islands.

Initially I did think that because Beryl Bainbridge wrote this when she was so young it was quite possibly going to be a precocious rather annoying book, that’s the cynic in me. This is not the case. The only time I could sense it was the fact that almost every chapter ended with ‘ruin’, ‘disaster’ or ‘forever’ but this in a way is because it is also a Victorian melodrama. Here you can see an author and her influences. The Victorian sections of the novel are rather Dickensian, with the darker and occasionally other worldly elements of Wilkie Collins. There is also a real flavour of Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle when the book sets sail to distant shores, and ‘dear reader’ there is also a flavour of Charlotte Bronte in the very prose.

“We will leave now, dear readers, the bright Ledwhistle parlour, and, like a bird, pass out into the November night. We will journey down to a wharf where the slimy Thames moves like some loathsome adder, and the houses huddle together in squalid patterns. Here the lamplight falls on wasted limbs and shaking hands. It lights up sin and filth, all aware, the cruel river twists its reptile course.”

Yet this is more than just a homage though, it is a book where the characters live and breathe and where the atmosphere of London really comes off the pages. The prose is tight and what I should mention here, because it impressed me so much, was that for a book with some legal elements that reminded me of the case in ‘Bleak House’ (while I haven’t read the books I have seen the TV series) this novel is 144 pages long, not 500 plus and I found that quite incredible.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from ‘Filthy Lucre’ when I opened it, especially with the young age at which it was written and the fact that it is no longer in print. What I got was a tale of intrigue and deception that took me on a real escapist adventure and entertained me for a good hour or two as I read it in a single sitting. Like all Beryl Bainbridge’s books that I have read so far I would highly recommend you give this book a whirl.

Do pop and visit Gaskella to see Annabel raving about more of Beryl’s books, if you haven’t read her you really should. I will be doing another post which features Beryl and a new Savidge Reads project (not a read-a-thon, I am now in Green Carnation submission mode reading wise) tomorrow and then another Beryl review on Sunday as I finished this one and wanted to read more. I also wanted to read a Dickens novel after finishing this but that opens a whole can of reading worms I am not quite ready for. If you have read any Beryl, including this one, do let me know what you thought and what books I should read next, as always.

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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.

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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?

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