Beryl Bainbridge, ‘The Bottle Factory Outing’, Review


Packed into only 192 pages, The Bottle Factory Outing is a real gem of a novel. I actually stumbled across it online a few years ago when I was on the hunt for a short comic novel, and although I started it on a train journey from London to Manchester, I never got round to finishing it. This time, however, I really enjoyed it.

Bainbridge has a darkly comic style of storytelling that, at times, borders on the absurd. Her tone and sentence structure repeatedly lull the reader into a false sense of security: I often found myself reading through a paragraph without realising the potentially darker implications, only for a light bulb to go off in my head some sentences later. This stylistic choice is linked to Bainbridge’s interest in the normalisation of patriarchal culture — the way in which denigrating behaviour and prejudice towards women is ‘swept under the rug’. For, although The Bottle Factory Outing is an inherently funny text, it is also a sustained commentary on gender politics in 1970’s Britain.

The Plot

Set in bleary North London, the novel is primarily concerned with two ‘chalk and cheese’ friends – a typically Bainbridgian trope, so I have read – who share a cramped bedsit and work in an Italian wine factory. Attractive and overweight, Freda is a failed actress with a domineering personality and emotional inclinations; Brenda, a divorcee hailing from a respectable Northern family, is mousy and restrained — the very antithesis of her roommate.

Once relations between the two women have been established, attention turns to the workplace. Freda will stop at nothing to attract Vittorio, the handsome trainee manager and nephew of Mr Paganotti, owner of the bottle factory. In contrast, Brenda must continually negotiate the unwelcome sexual advances of Rossi, a married manager, as well as rebutting Patrick, an Irish van driver who is the firm’s only non-Italian employee.

In order to woo Vittorio, Freda organises a work outing to a stately home in Hertfordshire, confident that the pair will come together, spurred on by the romantic setting. However, her quixotic vision soon falls through. We learn that the van booked to transport the workers is a no-show (later finding out that Vittorio has cancelled it), and so begins a dramatic chain of events brimming with tension, comedy and eventually, despair.

The Workplace

In some ways, this is very much a novel of its time, reflecting the skewed sexual politics of the 1970’s, and for modern readers, there is a temptation to trivialise the kind of aggressive sexual behaviour that unfolds in the factory, as if we have all but conquered improper conduct in the workplace. However, with the popularity of the #MeToo movement in recent years, it is self-evident that men imbued with institutional power – dare I say, managers, like Rossi – continue to indulge in misogynistic practices in the workplace. So, this is also a text that enriches current debates about office politics and the mistreatment of women. 

Fractured Relationships

Relationships in The Bottle Factory Outing are plagued by selfish intentions, dissonance and a glaring lack of empathy (especially in the final 20 or so pages of the book), with characters failing throughout to form meaningful connections with their counter-parts. In fact, although Freda and Brenda are ‘friends’, they lack the kind of deep emotional connection we might expect. Theirs is merely a friendship of convenience.

Such fractious and discordant relationships crop up everywhere. Brenda, neglected by her former husband, an alcoholic Yorkshire farmer, decides to leave for London; Rossi is willing to con his fellow countrymen/workers out of their hard-earned money in order to resume his sexual advances towards Brenda, with no regard for his wife; Brenda cannot understand Patrick’s romantic gestures, a man she feels nothing for.

Bainbridge’s suburban London is really a world full of lost individuals. Although the characters interact readily with each other in private and public spheres, they never truly understand one another.

Final Thought

The Bottle Factory Outing is a Booker Prize nominee, and it’s not hard to see why. Graham Greene’s observations sum it up well: “An outrageously funny and horrifying novel”. This will definitely not be my last Bainbridge.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

See also…

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’ Review



Millennium is Tom Holland’s panoramic journey through the two centuries either side of the year 1000. It is, in many ways, a rebuke to the stigma surrounding the Dark Ages in popular and academic circles. Rather than regurgitate the accepted narrative of cultural decline commonly attributed to the period, Holland argues that it was, at this crucial juncture in history, that the foundations of the modern West were slid agonisingly into place. 

On a brief side note, if you are more interested in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword, please click this link to be re-directed to my review. 

The Antichrist and The Second Coming

Central to the narrative in Millennium is the notion – located in the apostle John’s writings in the New Testament – of the Antichrist springing up on Earth and ushering in the Second Coming. Christians held that the Antichrist would emerge on the anniversary of Christ’s birth, so the years predating the millennium were fraught with anxiety across Christendom. That the latter half of the 10th century was particularly destabilising, only served to re-enforce the belief that Christ’s adversary could rise up and instigate a wave of destruction at any moment

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead. 

But the year passed and Antichrist did not appear. Attention now turned to the year 1033, a thousand years on from the crucifixion of Christ, as a likely date for impending Armageddon. Jerusalem had long been fabled as the site of the final showdown between good and evil: after the Fatimid caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, ordered the sacking of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009, this reality appeared closer than ever. Pilgrims across the West flocked to the Holy City in the ensuing decades, eager to catch the exact moment that Christ would rise from the dead.

Tom Holland, ‘Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom’

But once again, the year 1033 passed inconspicuously by and nothing out of the ordinary came to pass. Christendom took this as evidence that the end was not nigh; imbued with a newfound optimism, popes, monks and bishops set about creating a new religious order, while kings and princes started to stitch together new empires.

The Twin Pillars of Christendom: Church and State

The uneasy relationship between Church and State is a recurring theme in Holland’s account of the years 900 – 1100. On Christmas day 800, Pope Leo III had crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor of the West, a high point in relations between the two parties. A devout Catholic, the focal-point of the Carolingian Empire set about consolidating Christianity’s presence in his domain. However, in the following centuries, politics and religion would increasingly clash in the West. 

The decline of the western half of the former Carolingian Empire (West Francia) had led to a power vacuum. Dukes, counts and castellans fought to retain, and expand, their regional power bases. Peasants were helpless in the face of armoured men on horses – knights – and even the clergy suffered, especially from land loss. Bishops in Southern France ushered in the Peace of God in 989 at the Council of Charoux, a mass peace movement that threatened feuding nobles with religious sanctions. Ecclesiastical legislation sought to regulate warfare and protect the vulnerable, and was supported by vast crowds in open-space councils. 

In the latter 10thcentury, Holland explains, there emerged a succession of ‘Reforming Popes’ bent on increasing papal authority and stamping out impious behaviour within the Catholic Church, particularly simony and priestly marriage. Gregory VII, formerly Hildebrand, and Urban II, otherwise known as Odo of Châtillon, were two key figures. 

Gregory VII was hellbent in his conviction that he was God’s vice-regent on Earth, and that the central role of the Catholic Church was to unify the entire world into a single, Christian society. He clashed increasingly with Henry IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, over the appointment of bishops in a stand-off that became known as the investiture controversy. Although lay powers had traditionally invested bishops with their power, Gregory VII believed in papal supremacy over secular might. 

Over the course of his papacy, Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV three times for disobeying him, the king famously walking over the Alps to Canossa in an attempt to secure the Bishop of Rome’s forgiveness. Henry IV even appointed an Antipope, Clement III, to try and wrestle away power from the incumbent pope. The events lead to a growing tension between the Church and State, which was only partially resolved in 1095, when Urban II called for the nobility to wrestle back authority over the Holy Land from Muslim infidels. The call was answered, and Jerusalem finally fell to the Crusaders in 1099.  

The Edge of Christendom 

Millennium adopts a notably Christian-centric perspective of the High Middle Ages; the spread of Christian doctrine across Europe is viewed as fundamentally beneficial – a process that served to prop-up, and enlarge, kingdoms and empires. 

Considerable attention is afforded to the periphery of Christendom in the first half of the book, particularly the pagan forces dwelling to the north and east of Europe. Holland offers detailed accounts of how the Kings of East Francia brought the Wends and Hungarians to submission, the baptism of the Duke of Poland (966), Rollo and Alexander of Kiev’s respective conversions to Christianity (911 & 988), the desolation of the Umayyad caliphate in Spain and the spread of Christian belief in Scandinavia. 

Over the roughly 200 years that Millenniumcovers, Christendom succeeded in not only shoring up its outposts, but expanding across vast swathes of land formerly inhabited by non-believers. 

Feudal Order

Narrative history is, by nature, less focused on why things happen, and more concerned with capturing historical events in an enticing and exciting manner. Invariably, Millennium suffers from the same fate. However, a chapter in the middle of the book, ‘Yielding Place to New’ is Holland at his analytical-best. 

The chapter zones in on the emergence of a new social order in the late 10thcentury, one that empowered local powers and detrimentally affected the multitude: the peasantry. Holland finds the first roots of what would become feudalism in France. He argues that the fashion for building castles – which, had initially flourished in Italy – made it easier for dukes and princes to harass rural dwellers. 

Indeed, the castle, in Holland’s eyes, was an almost mythological-like structure that began to dominate the French countryside in the Dark Ages: a power symbol that instilled fear into the hitherto free lower classes. As warring lords began to assume control over dotting farmers, the faintest signs of feudalism started to appear. 

Conclusion

Holland’s narrative-driven, ambitious and colourful take on narrative history offers a lot for readers. I learned a considerable amount about Norman efforts in Southern Italy, the formation of East and West Francia and popular religious prophecies in the period. 

Don’t expect 400 pages of systematic analysis and insight, but do expect a sound overview of developments in Europe across the High Middle Ages. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Tom Holland, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World’ Review


With a cast of characters including communism preaching Persian mystics, pillar-topping stylites and warrior-scholars, it’s hard not to be gripped by the grand narrative in Tom Holland’s study of Late Antiquity, In the Shadow of the Sword. Although the book purports to chart the founding of Islam, it does so much more, dissecting the religious and geopolitical history of the Near East from roughly 480 AD to the founding of Baghdad in 762 AD – the glistening capital city of the Abbasid Caliphate. A few of the key themes and motifs are: the cyclical nature of empire, the intertwining of state and monotheistic religion, and the power of the pen.

The birth and rise of monotheism

In essence, Holland examines how the world came to be shaped by the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and, to a certain extent, Zoroastrianism – the state religion of the Sassanid Empire in Ancient Persia. From the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312 AD, to the power afforded to Muslim scholars in regulating laws and customs in the Caliphate, monotheistic religion played an increasing role in state-building towards the back end of antiquity.

Holland does a great job of elucidating the tensions between the Abrahamic religions, such as the fundamental differences in scripture and belief, and also carefully analyses what Christianity and Islam, in particular, may have looked like in the centuries following their inception: discordant, tainted by traces of paganism and lacking a guiding central force. He emphasises how scholars and religious figures – bishops, rabbis, ulama – came to be authoritative figures in the age, entrusted to interpret religious texts and guide their flocks in the shadow of the divine.

Controversy

This ultimately being a work of revisionist history, the author makes some controversial claims. Rather than corroborating thousands of years of Muslim scholarship, he contends – rather convincingly – that Muhammad did not live and prophesise in Mecca, but further north, on the fringes of Transjordan. By carefully constructing the Near East as a cultural melting pot, he also goes on to implicate that Islam emerged as a hybrid religion, and points towards the Quran’s reliance on a whole host of religious sources – both polytheistic and monotheistic – from the region.

‘The story of how Islam came to define itself, and to invent its own past, is only part of a much broader story: one that is ultimately about how Jews, Christians and Muslims all came by their understanding of religion. No other revolution in human thought, perhaps, has done more to transform the world”

I’m a big fan of maps being used as additional sources in popular history books. They help me to visualise where nations and cities are located, and to gain a greater appreciation of regional tensions. I can gladly write that In the Shadow of the Sword is full of them, with maps of Arabia, Iranshahr and The Holy Land, to name but a few examples. In a book that flickers across the world of Late Antiquity, referencing cities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Mesopotamia and the Hijaz, they are essential. The timeline of key events and list of dramatis personae, located at the end, are two more key tools to help readers comprehend a text that spans multiple centuries and empires.

My only partial criticisms would be…

  1. At times the book can feel slightly disjointed (although given its scope, this is somewhat understandable).
  2. Holland’s syntax can be difficult, with lots of clauses.
  3. Clearly symptomatic of popular history in general, but, the language was excessively colourful and dramatic in places.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Reading Log


We are now three quarters of the way through the disaster that is 2020 – only three more months to grind out – and to mark the occasion I thought I’d do a log of everything I’ve read so far this year.

I appreciate that it would have made more sense to do this 6 months into the year, but I’ve missed the boat and had some spare time last night, so quickly tallied up the texts on excel, dividing into fiction and non-fiction categories.

It was surprising to see that I’d read almost as many fiction texts as non-fiction texts (13 vs. 15). Since graduating with an English Literature degree, my natural inclination has been to drift towards historical/geopolitical books – a kind of sub-conscious rebellion against all the fiction I consumed in my three years in Manchester. That said, it seems I’m still partial to the odd novel.

I suppose part of the reason why I feel like I have always got a non-fiction book in my hand is because they invariably seem to be longer. Whereas I can get through a novel in 3-4 days, a 700-page historical text can take 2-3 weeks.


Reading List 2020

Fiction

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov, ‘The Master and Margarita’
  2. Albert Camus, ‘The Outsider’
  3. Albert Camus, ‘The Plague’
  4. Chuck Palahniuk, ‘Fight Club’
  5. David Foster Wallace, ‘Infinite Jest’
  6. Henry Miller, ‘Tropic of Cancer’
  7. Ian McEwan, ‘Machines Like Me’
  8. John Steinbeck, ‘Cannery Row’
  9. Julian Barnes, ‘England, England’
  10. Julian Barnes, ‘The Sense of an Ending’
  11. Patrick Hamilton, ‘Hangover Square’
  12. Salman Rushdie, ‘Quichotte’
  13. Virginia Woolf, ‘To the Lighthouse’

Non-Fiction

  1. Alex Ferguson, ‘My Autobiography’
  2. Andy Malsen, ‘Write to Sell: The Ultimate Guide to Great Copywriting’
  3. Chris Wickham, ‘Medieval Europe’
  4. Eugene Rogan, ‘The Arabs: A History’
  5. John Romer, ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’
  6. Marc Morris, ‘The Norman Conquest’
  7. Micheal Atherton, ‘Atherton’s Ashes’
  8. Paul Strathen, ‘The Medici’
  9. Reni-Eddo Lodge, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race
  10. Simon Jenkins, ‘A Short History of England’
  11. Thomas Williams, ‘Viking Britain: A History’
  12. Tom Holland, ‘In the Shadow of the Sword’
  13. Tom Holland, ‘Millenium’
  14. Tom Holland, ‘Persian Fire’
  15. Uwe Schutte, ‘Kraftwerk: Future Music From Germany’

In terms of what’s up next… Judith Herrin’s new book, Ravenna: Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe, is certainly on my reading list, and so too is Maggie O’Farell’s period tale, Hamnet. Sport-wise, Cricket 2.0 by Tim Wigmore and Freddie Wilde has been causing a bit of a storm, so I will try and get my hands on that.