Another Part of the Wood by Beryl Bainbridge – #1968Club

So much of my 1968 Club reading has been non-fiction about the first half of the 20th century, and it’s about time I interspersed a novel that is well and truly 1960s. Another Part of the Wood was Beryl Bainbridge’s second published novel, and there are already many hallmarks of what makes Bainbridge so unusual – a cast of unpleasant, warring characters; unexpected catastrophes; not quite letting you know what is going on. The copy I read is one I bought in 2012, and was from a Penguin series where each cover was designed by Allen Jones. I do love it when reprint series like this look beyond the obvious. We don’t need another edition of Frankenstein.

Another Part of the Wood takes place at a holiday camp, but one which feels very much like a prison camp – a group of people are staying in extremely basic huts, without plumbing or sufficient food. It’s in rural Wales, but the ‘holidaymakers’ have come from the town – George, the owner of the site, isn’t expecting all of them; nor is his stuttering, anxious assistant Balfour. Characters pop up out of nowhere, with unspecified pasts and past relationships, adding to the chaotic tangle Bainbridge creates. George is only really expecting Joseph – a man with big ideas and ideals, who has come from London intending to discuss politics and philosophy. He comes with Dotty, a girlfriend who is tiring of him, and his son Roland. And a mysterious boy (man? It’s unclear) with the ominous name Kidney. He is clearly disturbed in some way, and must take his pills regularly, though Joseph is keen to get him off them – and seems to believe that a bit of fresh air is all he needs. What does he need? We don’t know, because Bainbridge tells us so little – making him all the more sinister as an unpredictable entity.

This is a short novel, and much of it focuses on the claustrophobia of these characters (and Lionel and May, who also come; Lionel’s salient characteristic is that he had a buttock shot off once) and the fraught tension as they bicker and singularly fail to enjoy themselves. Lynn Barber writes in her introduction to this edition that Bainbridge’s initial drafts were often ten times the length of the final novel – that she’d cut away and cut away, making sure nothing superfluous came in. The sparseness works; her writing style is confident even at this early stage, and not a word is wasted – indeed, we aren’t told enough to know quite where we are.

We can feel a dread that something terrible will be the climax to the novel – but also that other moments of huge significance will be thrown away as everyday mundanities. And all I will add about the plot is another word: wasps.

In case you want proof that this is quintessential 1968, here’s a description of a coat that Dotty gets from a shop:

The flowered coat was made of some kind of velvet. It rippled and shone. It was orange and blue and green and black, with a mustard-yellow ground, and there were buttons small as beads going from wrist to elbow. Balfour thought it was terrible.

He prayed she wouldn’t wear it now. He visualised her stalking, swathed in velvet, through the busy market town, the bell-bottoms of her denim trousers flaring out beneath the long and violently coloured hem.

It’s not replaced my favourite Bainbridge (which is Injury Time), but this is my fifth book by her, and it’s helping build up a picture of a strange, assured, quirky novelist who knew exactly the sort of book she wanted to write, and wrote it.

The Bottle Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge

The Bottle Factory OutingIt’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week, guys! Somehow, I haven’t actually read any more books by Beryl Bainbridge since the last week organised by Annabel – during which I read Injury TimeSweet William, and Something Happened Last Week, reviews of all of which you can find under my Bainbridge tag by clicking on the tag above or choosing ‘Bainbridge’ from the dropdown Browse menu. Well, I’m very glad that Annabel resurrected this reading week, as it has brought The Bottle Factory Outing (1974) to the top of my tbr pile – and it was everything I would expect from Beryl.

I actually read the whole thing on train journeys to and from London – i.e. it’s pretty short. And I even finally managed to stop calling it The Bottle Factory Opening in my head; it is, after all, focused on an outing rather than a grand opening. That is the main ‘event’ of the novel: all the workers at the bottle factory are going to go on a picnic, from the families of immigrants who put up with the low wages offered to the two women who are the focus of the novel, and who stick labels on wine bottles (while maintaining that all the wines are the same).

The Bottle Factory Outing would work very well with other novels I grouped back when I was doing Five From the Archive regularly (I must bring that back) and grouped together five excellent books about pairs of women. It’s chiefly about Freda and Brenda, who have a typically Bainbridgian dysfunctional relationship. They’re not quite friends – they moved in together after a moment of misunderstanding, and they’re not particularly compatible as housemates. Not even housemates: they share a bed, with a bolster and a line of books down the middle.

Freda is forthright and confident; Brenda is nervous and awkward. But nobody in a Beryl Bainbridge novel deals well with others (it seems) and she lends the same spikiness and discomfort to The Bottle Factory Outing that I’ve come to love elsewhere. There is affection and well-meaning alongside, but of the sort that cannot survive the awkwardness of everyday encounters.

Oh, and Beryl is funny. This awkwardness definitely permeates into both humour and unpleasantness. This paragraph combines the two…

She couldn’t think how to discourage him – she didn’t want to lose her job and she hated giving offence. He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly. She stood there wriggling, saying breathlessly ‘Please don’t, Rossi,’ but he tickled and she gave little smothered laughs and gasps that he took for encouragement.

‘You are a nice clean girl.’

‘Oh, thank you.’

It’s basically assault, of course, but the mattress comment is quintessential Bainbridge – a moment of levity thrown in that also illuminates the situation and gives a unique description.

And the outing? Well, it is not free from disaster. And it is the culmination of the different strands of the novel in a dramatic way that one feels Bainbridge has earned throughout; every moment leading up to it somehow both dramatic and mundane at once, wrapped together in her slightly distorted view of the world. She finds the bizarre amongst the ordinary, and somehow turns it back upon itself to seem ordinary too. It’s been great to get back to Beryl.

Something Happened Yesterday – Beryl Bainbridge

The Beryl Bainbridge Fest ain’t over yet, folks, and here’s my final review of the week – Something Happened Yesterday.  It isn’t a novel, it’s a selection of columns which Bainbridge contributed to the Evening Standard in the 1980s and ’90s, with short (often quite bizarre) introductory paragraphs to each column, written when the book was published (1993).

Well, although it takes a different format, Something Happened Yesterday has the same disjointed, playfully subversive tone that I have come to expect from Bainbridge.  Each column involves some event which has recently befallen Bainbridge, or recently come to her mind, suggested by something else.  It’s a whole mix – from visiting the village of her youth to a zoo trip to her time on a BBC children’s radio programme.  The occasion scarcely matters, for it is the eccentric musings on life which Bainbridge incorporates that make this book so distinctive.  The dark humour of her novels is definitely present.  Here’s a representative sample of her style:

It did however remind me of the cautionary tale of my son’s nursery school teacher, a lady named Miss Smith, referred to as Mith Mith by her lisping charges.  It’s a true story, albeit tragic.  A group of infants on a Tuesday morning just before Christmas in a house in Ullet Road, Liverpool, were discovered at home-time marching up and down swigging bottles of milk in an abandoned manner while Mith Mith lay slumped across the piano.  She had been dead for a quarter of an hour and had apparently passed on in the middle of The Grand Old Duke of York.  This shocking incident has remained fresh as a daisy in my memory because I hadn’t got round to paying the fees, whereas the rest of the mothers had stumped up the three guineas a term in advance.
Most amusing, probably, is the way in which Bainbridge can end up at the most curious of statements.  ‘A knowledge of sex and moths is no substitute for Latin, science and maths’, for instance, or, as an aside, ‘(I once knew a countess, an ex-theatre sister from Liverpool, who messed up my kitchen while trying to decapitate her husband, the Earl.)’  These statements are equally startling in context – not completely incongruous, because Bainbridge has more or less built up to them, but then takes a leap to something extraordinary.

Those introductory passages I mentioned – it’s a little odd to read them before reading the column in question, but often they feel no more normal afterwards.  They go off at tangents; they reveal less than they appear to, and add new questions rather than answers.  Sweet William could have written them.  Here’s one which prefixes a column which is mostly about Snow White:

I’m not going to enlarge on the events recounted here: they are too painful.  The moment he set eyes on me my ex said I looked very withered.  The last night he was here the cleaner confronted him.  How could he have walked out on his children all those years ago?  His response was pretty predictable, given the guilt we all feel.  He said, “This is all very boring”, and caught a taxi to the airport.
Which brings me onto another point.  Bainbridge makes pretty free with her relatives and friends.  Often her daughters and grandchildren are mentioned, but also talks about neighbours and acquaintances – surely they then read the Evening Standard, and recognised themselves?  But, but… sometimes Bainbridge’s introductory paragraphs make it clear that the anecdote she’s relating is not, in fact, wholly true… or is true in essentials, but happened with other people, in a different way…

Like some of Bainbridge’s characters, and like her own quirky narrative style, nothing can quite be trusted in her journalism.  I’m very glad that her style and tone didn’t get diluted by the demands of a newspaper column – it really is just an extension of the qualities I enjoy in her fiction, with a personal twist and a drier, acerbic view on life.  Great fun, very unusual, and a lovely way to finish off my first dive into Beryl Bainbridge territory.

Sweet William – Beryl Bainbridge

Sweet William is my second Bainbridge novel, published in 1975 – so, a couple years before Injury Time, which I reviewed earlier this week.  I’ve read both as part of Gaskella‘s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week – and I’m very grateful that she prompted me in this direction.  Although I’ve only read two, I feel like I’m getting a greater sense of Bainbridge’s range.

Unlike Injury Time, Sweet William isn’t an out-and-out comedy.  There is a certainly a lot of humour in it, but it’s a darker humour – where the darkness isn’t merely incidental, but brings with it tones of genuine hurt and despair.  But it’s far from bleak – Bainbridge throws in enough of the surreal and unexpected to prevent this being a Hardyesque paean to misery.

Ann is a BBC secretary, recently – impulsively – engaged to Gerald, who is heading off to America as the novel begins.  She has rather a fiery relationship with her mother, who invariably cows or embarrasses her, and is equally sick of putting up with her cousin Pamela.  She is attending a children’s performance on behalf of her landlady (as you do) when she first encounters William…

Her first impression was that she had been mistaken for someone else.  She looked behind her but there was no one in the open doorway.  The stranger was beckoning and indicating the empty chair beside his own.  His eyes held such an expression of certainty and recognition that she began to smile apologetically.  It was as if he had been watching the door for a long time and Ann had kept him waiting.  She did notice, as she excused herself along the row of seated mothers, that he had yellow curls and a flattish nose like a prize fighter.  He was dressed appallingly in some sort of sweater with writing on the chest.  On his feet he wore very soiled tennis pumps without laces.
Not entirely the most beguiling of portraits, is it?  But William definitely has a way with women, and it isn’t long at all before Ann and William have, er, become better acquainted – all thoughts of Gerald apparently banished.

Only William isn’t the world’s most faithful of men.

It gets a bit dizzying, trying to work out how many women – and, Bainbridge hints but never states explicitly, men – are besotted with William – and he certainly isn’t slow to reciprocate.  Sweet William is only 160 pages long, but in that space Bainbridge manages to wind and weave quite a complex tangle of relationships – in fact, the complexity is mostly due to the fact that William is far from honest.  He says he’s going to certain places; he’s actually elsewhere.  He doesn’t even mention some of the people he’s having dalliances with, until much later.  It’s a little confusing for the reader, but that helps get us in Ann’s frame of mind – and Bainbridge’s style is never confusing.  It’s a very organised, precise confusion, if you understand what I mean.

William reminded me quite a bit of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye (which I read for Muriel Spark Reading Week, and reviewed here) – and not just because he’s Scottish.  They’re both deceptively charming men who appear suddenly and create havoc, never telling much of the truth.  We see Sweet William from the woman’s point of view, and so it does have some of the frustration and heartbreak woven in.  Me and my sensitive heart, ahem, I callously preferred the conversations between Ann and her mother – who is strident and occasionally rather hysterical.  (Spoiler ahead, by the way.)

Voice beginning to rise in pitch, her mother said, “His wife should be told.”

“She has been,” Ann said.  “She thinks William’s a beautiful person.”

“Shooting’s too good for him,” said her mother shrilly.  It was as if she’d promised herself, or someone else, that she would not shout recriminations at Ann and was now relieved that there were others on whom she could vent her feelings.
All in all, I didn’t love this as much as Injury Time, because I thought Bainbridge managed farce so beautifully there.  Sweet William is a different kettle of fish, and it’s not fair to fault Bainbridge for not achieving something she didn’t set out to achieve – indeed, I imagine a lot of people would prefer the subtler narrative in Sweet William where actions matter and feelings can get hurt, unlike the surreal hostage-situation in Injury Time.  Whichever one comes out on top, they’re both fantastic novels.  I can definitely see why Bainbridge is mentioned in the same breath as Spark, and I’m intrigued to read more.

And now I’m wondering whether or not Bainbridge wrote any novels without mistresses in them?

Injury Time – Beryl Bainbridge

It’s Beryl Bainbridge Reading Week with Annabel/Gaskella… hope you’re joining in!

Can you imagine what would happen if the casts of Abigail’s Party and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were held hostage in a siege?  Well, if you can’t, then read Injury Time and it’ll give you a pretty good idea.  The sexual bewilderment of George and Martha is combined with the 1970s would-you-like-an-olive stylings of Beverley et al in Bainbridge’s 1977 novel, somewhere in the middle of her writing career.

Edward is a somewhat hapless chap, working in dull job and in a marriage with Helen which, if not loveless, is hardly passionate.  And he has a mistress – albeit one with three unruly children at home, and no intention of staying submissively in the shadows.  His mistress rejoices in the absurd name Binny.

Binny was a wonderful mother, but she didn’t seem to realise he was a very busy man and his time was limited. They could never do anything until her ten-year-old had settled down for the night.  They could usually start doing something at about five to eleven, and then they had to do it very quickly because Edward had to leave at quarter past eleven.  He was always whispering frantically into Binny’s ear what he might do if only they had a whole evening together, and she grew quite pale and breathless and hugged him fearfully tightly in the hall, mostly when seeing him out.
Binny is tired of fitting in around Helen’s schedule (although Helen supposedly does not know of Binny) and demands that Edward ceases to treat her as a dirty little secret.  In order to pacify Binny, Edward agrees to invite his colleague Simpson, and Simpson’s wife Muriel, to a dinner party at Binny’s house.  What could possibly go wrong?

Bainbridge is great at showing the awkwardness of this dinner party and all its shades of morality: Simpson has overstated his wife’s approval of the night, for example, and Binny’s attempts to maintain a presentable dinner party in bizarre circumstances are drawn wonderfully.  My favourite character, though, is Binny’s neighbour Alma, who turns up mid-way through the party, rather the worse for wear.  I don’t know what I find so amusing about characters who incongruously pepper their conversation with ‘darling’ and ‘dear’, but it always makes me chuckle.  Indeed, the whole novel is very funny – mostly a humour which comes from dialogue, clashes of characters, and surreal turns of events.

“Drunken driving is a crime,” said Simpson stiffly.  “It should carry the harshest penalties.”

“What are you worried about, darling?  I lost my licence, didn’t I?”  All at once Alma’s face crumpled.  Tears spilled out of her ludicrous eyes.

You can talk, George,” Muriel said coldly.  “You’re only wearing one shoe.”
The most bizarre twist, as I mentioned at the beginning and as the cover suggests, is that these characters find their evening’s festivities interrupted when two men and a woman come running through the front door (complete with a pram holding a doll) and hold them all hostage.  The house is chosen more or less at random, and they are simply a bargaining tool against the police.

What makes Injury Time so hilarious is that Beryl Bainbridge chooses not to change the tone when the hostage situation takes place.  The characters – especially irrepressible Alma – don’t alter the way they talk, and the dynamics between man, mistress, colleague, and wife all remain fraught, uncomfortable and very funny.  It helps that Ginger and Harry, the main two hostage-takers, are not your normal criminals.  Some fairly disturbing events occur in Injury Time, but they are described with such lightness, and focus upon social awkwardness rather than anything more traumatic, that this remains decidedly a comic novel.  As my first foray into the world of Bainbridge, I’m off to a fantastic start, and I look forward to seeing what else the week brings.