“Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

Trigger warning: This post mentions rape

Here’s my contribution to the 1977 Club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. It’s running all week, do join in!

Firstly, Penelope Fitzgerald’s first novel, The Golden Child, which she published aged 60 (it’s never too late, budding writers!) This is a typically slim Fitzgerald novel, just 189 pages, and while I didn’t love it as much as the others by her which I’ve read (The Bookshop; At Freddies) there’s still a lot to enjoy.

The title refers to an exhibit that is on loan to a London museum. It is hugely popular with people queueing for hours on end to see the tiny dead Garamatian king covered in gold, and his ball of gold twine. The story concentrates on behind the scenes: the relationships and internal politics of the museum.

“At the sight of his tiresomely energetic subordinate, Hawthorne-Mannering felt his thin blood rise, like faint green sap, with distaste. He closed his eyes, so as not to see Waring Smith.”

It is from the energetic Waring Smith’s viewpoint that the story unfolds. He realises that certain deals have been done, certain backs have been scratched, in order for the museum to gain the exhibit.

“He had a glimpse for the first time of the murky origins of the great golden attraction: hostilities in the Middle East, North African politics, the ill-coordinated activities of the Hopeforth-Best tobacco company. Perhaps similar forces and similar shoddy undertakings controlled every area of his life. Was it his duty to think about the report more deeply and, in that case, do something about it?”

Things take a sinister turn when someone tries to strangle him with the golden twine, and two of his colleagues end up dead in highly suspicious circumstances. Waring Smith is sent on a farcical trip to the USSR (as it then was) to consult with an expert regarding the exhibit. On his return, he becomes embroiled with Special Branch, and has to decipher a code on a clay tablet which might hold a clue as to what on earth is going on.

“The Museum, slumberous by day, sleepless by night, began to seem to him a place of dread. Apart from the two recent deaths, how many violent ways there were in the myriad of rooms of getting rid of a human being! The dizzy stairs, the plaster-grinders in the cast room, the poisons of conservation, the vast incinerators underground!”

There’s a great deal to enjoy in The Golden Child but it doesn’t quite work as a mystery – some of the solving takes place ‘off-screen’ and Waring Smith is then told about it, so it doesn’t quite match what it sets itself up to be. Its strengths are Fitzgerald’s wit and her satire of politics big (The Cold War) and small (workplace); it’s a quick, fun read.

Disclaimer, and a note for those of you who, like me, were born around the time of this Club: I’m aware that part of my enjoyment of this novel came about because of a very specific reason, which may have coloured my view somewhat. As a child one of my favourite TV programmes was The Baker Street Boys, which showed what the Baker Street Irregulars got up to when they weren’t helping out a certain world-famous detective. My favourite episode was The Adventure of the Winged Scarab, involving mystery, museums and mummies. Anyone else who remembers this series fondly can indulge in a nostalgia-fest because I’ve just discovered some kind soul has uploaded the whole lot to YouTube.

Secondly, Injury Time by Beryl Bainbridge, which is set over the course of one evening. Edward has agreed that his mistress Binny can give a dinner party and he will invite his colleague Simpson and Simpson’s wife Muriel along.

“He gave her so little, he denied her the simple pleasures a wife took for granted – that business of cooking his meals, remembering his sister’s birthday, putting intricate little bundles of socks into his drawer.”

I loved that line which comes early in the novel and so I settled into what I fully expected to be full of the joys of Bainbridge: acerbic wit, idiosyncratic characters, acute social observation. For much of the novel, this is exactly what Injury Time provided. None of the characters seem to know exactly what they want and the changes taking place in 1970s Britain leave them all slightly baffled.

“It was astonishing how fashionable it was to be unfaithful. He often wondered if it had anything to do with going without a hat. No sooner had the homburgs and the bowlers disappeared from the City than everyone grew their hair longer, and after that nothing was sacred.”

The dinner party never really takes place. Binny is an appalling housekeeper and her home is filthy (Bainbridge based Binny on herself and Edward on a lawyer she had an affair with). Before anyone arrives she’s thrown the hoover into the backyard and stuffed the pudding behind the fridge.

“Though most of her life she had rushed headlong into danger and excitement, she had travelled first-class, so to speak, with a carriage attendant within call. The world was less predictable now…in her day dreams, usually accompanied by a panic-stricken Edward, she was always being blown up in aeroplanes or going down in ships.”

The less predictable world erupts violently into the evening of Binny, Edward, Simpson, Muriel and Binny’s inebriated friend Alma. It’s here that I have a bit of trouble with Injury Time. A character is raped. For me, this jarred uncomfortably in what until that point had been a funny, sharp novel puncturing 1970s social mores and pretensions. The rape itself is dealt with oddly: it’s part of a section that verges on surreal and is filled with non-sequiturs; the character it happens to is weirdly detached, which may be shock but this is never made clear. Looking at reviews online, I was really surprised that so few reviewers even mentioned this event. For many Injury Time remains an unproblematic comic novel. So I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it; I adore Bainbridge and still do, but for me how the rape was portrayed and contextualised was a problem.

I don’t want to end on a downer when so much of Injury Time is funny, so I’ll end with this quote which is pure Bainbridge. I wonder how far Binny was based on her and whether she actually did this?

“There had been too that incident when he couldn’t see Binny because he wanted to prune his roses, and she’d threatened to come round in the night and set fire to his garden, Later, a small corner of the lawn had been found mysteriously singed, but nothing had been proved.”

To end, the UK number one from this week in 1977. AHA!

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24 thoughts on ““Would you like a little cheesy-pineapple one?” (Beverly, Abigail’s Party, 1977)

  1. Do you want to know something really, really spooky? Your post notification popped up in my inbox – it caught my eye because 1. It’s you and 2. I’m going to see Abigail’s Party for the first time next week, (performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company). So my mind is suddenly on little cheesy pineapple things, and at the same time the radio is playing in my study – the song? Knowing Me, Knowing You… is that WEIRD, or what?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read The Golden Child several years ago, I liked it, but I certainly saw it as more of a satire than anything else. That Bainbridge is not one I had heard of, it does sound like it strikes an odd note.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I think you’re right Ali. Apparently the publisher cut a lot from the novel about museum politics and double-dealing etc, so maybe they were trying to force the mystery element more, but it definitely works best as a satire.

      I might be alone in finding Injury Time odd – I’ll be interested to see if anyone else reviews it this week. Its still a wonderful Bainbridge, but that one element really jarred for me.

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  3. I had a horrible feeling you might break with tradition and end with a clip from Abigail’s Party which would be more than I could bear. Excruciatingly painful, superbly written play! I haven’t read the Bainbridge but the rape scene and its ommission from other reviews does sound odd.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so painful isn’t it? And it doesn’t get any less so with repeated viewings! It’s brilliantly written.

      The rape scene is deeply odd. I wonder if the slightly unreal quality of it meant it didn’t stand out for some readers, but for me it was bizarre.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. EEK. The eek is for Abba, whom I never got – there is something so robotic about them that they always made me feel anxious – like a dream where something bad is lurking, though you never quite get to find out what that is….so its probably a perfect fit for the discomfort you felt with the Bainbridge

    Unfortunately MY read for 1977 is a re-read from a favourite author, whose first 3 books I have read and re read MANY times. This one (everyone will just have to wait) is a real chunkster, – 700 pages, small print, and I know why I never did re-read that one……it is interesting, but only has me by my weak, flabby academic muscle. I hope I can get to finish it, and it might be that contrary to my usual fashion, I end up reviewing something I am less than enthusiastic about. Ho hum……………….I seem to have been re-reading it for weeks and distracting myself will more enticing new reads

    PS – one of MY worst theatre evenings was getting dragged by a dear friend, up for a change of cast part in it, to Mamma Mia in the West End. Given the fact that, as said, Abba don’t do it for me, I gazed in horror at what was being presented. Dire dire dire. Much more amusing than what was on stage were the raucous, drunken audience members – coachloads of women of a certain age who had clearly seen the production a million times (masochists!) were all tanked up and singing along. And……a small group of clearly bemused and quiet Japanese tourists behind us. I wonder what misperceptions they took away about English culture. The hens were jabbing my friend in the ribs, drunkenly inviting him to join their singalong. SO much funnier than the leaden on stage show.

    I do hope Abba isn’t your favourite band!!!!!!!!!!! Or Mamma Mia your favourite musical

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m actually related to all of Abba (we’re a close family) and I was the muse for Mamma Mia 😀 Just kidding of course Lady F – I’m fond of Abba but really not a fan of musicals and your night at the theatre (what possessed you?!) sounds the stuff of nightmares!

      I’m truly intrigued as to what this chunkster is that you’re reviewing. It’s strange when a much-loved author suddenly does something we’re really not enthused by. I await your thoughts with interest!

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      • A favour to a dear friend . Now I DO like GOOD musicals – which this wasn’t. I will always happily assay Sondheim. I rarely go to musicals though, as a lot of them are not going to be musically appealing to me.

        Well you will have to wait for the chunkster, which I am going to struggle to complete in time!

        Liked by 1 person

    • They were interesting reads – thank you to the 1977 Club for prompting me! Abigails Party is so dark, and definitely TV from a different time when cameras weren’t constantly chopping at break-neck speed between scenes to convince us there’s tension & drama. Bring back Play for Today, I say!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. All this and Abba too! 😀 Oh dear, I like the sound of both of these this week. I wonder if the jarring rape scene reads differently now because society’s attitudes have changed so much. Without having read the book I don’t know the circumstances obviously, but back in those jolly days rape was only really considered rape if it was stranger rape or involved violence. What we’d call “date rape” now, wasn’t taken very seriously by society, and even women bought into that attitude, I’m afraid (though doubtless not the women it happened to). That’s why they call them the good old days…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you like the sound of them FF! As a fellow brevity fan, I know you’ll be pleased to hear that they both come in at under 250 pages too 🙂

      Yes, societal attitudes could definitely be part of it. The character acknowledges they’ve been raped and uses that word, but the whole thing is just really peculiar. Sadly the recent events with #IBelieveHer show how far we’ve still got to go, but I’d be really surprised if a similar scene was written now.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, a very fair review of the Fitzgerald. Its real strength comes from the observations of in the internal politics and petty jealousies within the museum. The mystery element is kind of incidental to the other qualities. Terrific fun nonetheless.

    Oddly enough, I actually re-watched Abigail’s Party on dvd the other week – it never fails to amuse in that watching-the-screen-between-your-fingers kind of way. Have you ever seen Mike Leigh’s Nuts in May? Another classic from a similar period (possibly slightly earlier, I think).

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    • The Fitzgerald really is good fun. I’m surprised no-one’s adapted it for TV – it would make a great one-off episode!

      I have seen Nuts in May, absolutely brilliant. It’s so cringey and weirder than Abigails Party I think. Another stellar performance from Alison Steadman 😀

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  7. Pingback: The 1977 Club starts today! – Stuck in a Book

  8. I love Abigail’s Party and so I loved this title! And ABBA! It’s a wonderful 1970s whirlwind.

    I also love Fitzgerald (particularly the other two you’ve read), but will save this one for lower down the tbr pile, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Abigail’s Party fully deserves its legendary status. As do ABBA 😀

      Yes, the Fitzgerald is good (particularly one for when you’re fed up with colleagues 😉) but it’s not quite a top of the TBR read – but it deserves to be in the TBR for sure!

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  9. I love both Fitzgerald and Bainbridge, and you’ve picked books I haven’t yet read so this has really whetted my appetite. How had I never realised that Penelope Fitzgerald published her first book at 60?? How fabulous (and inspiring)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I hope you enjoy these if you get to them! Yes, there’s always a focus on young writers which is fine but I think we should also commend those who start late – Anita Brookner was 53, two great examples!

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  10. I’ve read most of Bainbridge but not this one. Very interesting what you say about the rape. I think she writes about sex in quite a dissociative (maybe the wrong word) way in all her books. It’s like the woman isn’t really there when it’s taking place. I like the bit about the singed lawn! There’s a very good biography about her by Brendan King you might enjoy called Love by all Sorts of Means it makes interesting links between her writing and her life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly it Victoria! Although the victim is upset, she did seem really dissociated from what was happening. I wondered if it was supposed to be a portrayal of shock but I really wasn’t sure, the whole episode was deeply odd.

      I’ll look out for the biography, thanks! I’d be interested to learn more about how her life influenced her work as she seems to draw so heavily from it.

      I really hope the singed lawn happened in real life 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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