From author's muse to a squalid death: the tragic story of the factory girl who inspired Dame Beryl

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The Independent Culture

It was fiction drawing on fact. Beryl Bainbridge's The Bottle Factory Outing was the disturbing story of Freda and Brenda and a works day out which ended in tragedy.

Based on her own experiences as a single mother of three working in a Camden Town factory, Brenda was modelled on the struggling author while the "bold and dashing and resourceful" Freda was a real life work colleague. Magnificent, she was tall, blonde and draped a purple cloak around her 18-stone figure.

But while Dame Beryl won her first national literary prize for the book, going on to international acclaim and the final honour of being made a dame, the real Freda's life-force dissolved in tragedy and squalor.

The identity of Freda was revealed for the first time yesterday as Pauline Manning, whose own story had an ending as tragic as the novel she inspired. In the book Freda is found dead in puzzling circumstances. In real life Pauline left the bottle factory to become a social worker, raising a family of her own. She emigrated to Portugal with a male companion who later died.

On her return to London her life fell apart and she became an alcoholic apparently distraught at the death of a friend. She gave up looking after herself and her home to the point that neighbours complained of the smell. She died this year aged 62 in appalling squalor in her Camden council flat. The headline in the local north London newspaper said it all: "Stench led cops to dead woman." Yesterday the author, now 68, spoke for the first time about the woman she immortalised in fiction.

The outing that inspired the novel, which won the Guardian Fiction Prize as well as a nomination for the Booker, was to Windsor.

"We all went in two cars and the first car got lost and there was beer and wine in the second. At Windsor Great Park, I don't know how it happened, but they were exercising the Queen's horses and suddenly there goes Freda on one of them," said Dame Beryl.

"It was about 1970 and we both lived very near each other and we both had young children and we had a Saturday morning job where we put labels on the bottles at a bottle factory.

"She was very, very startling, a social worker who was very good with dealing with children. She was very big, but she didn't mind that - she dressed well and she was blonde and tall.

"Although she wasn't terrifically educated, she was interested in history. We didn't have an enormous amount in common except she was great fun. She was a character."

The real life Freda really did help organise a bottle factory outing. Probably most people did not realise it, but she received her thanks in the dedication to the novel - "for Pauline".

The women worked together for a year earning four and ninepence an hour. But when Dame Beryl left the factory, they gradually lost touch. "She moved away. I saw her once or twice on the street and spoke and we were always going to meet. But it was obvious by then that she was in a pretty bad way and not herself."

Out of sympathy for the Manning family, Dame Beryl would not be drawn yesterday on Pauline Manning's decline. Their children had grown up together and are still in touch.

But John Wood, a neighbour of Ms Manning, said that it seemed to be the death of a close friend that had prompted her to drink and despair.

"I used to let her in, because she would lose her keys. She couldn't cook for herself, the council had disconnected her gas cooker. We got her a microwave and she blew the thing up. Social services stopped delivering food because of the flies, so we would bring food to her. Her house was a tip," he said.

"We complained repeatedly to the council. She couldn't look after herself, her feet were as black as the ace of spades. She became very forgetful. I had a parcel delivered there once. I never got hold of it because she forgot. We hoped they would put her in a home."

The tragedy was, he added, that more people took notice of her when there was nothing that could be done to help. "There were more people visiting her after she died than when she was alive. She had two fire engines, six police cars, doctors, forensics, councillors. They were all visiting because she was dead. I was absolutely disgusted."

The death provoked a small scandal with local residents adamant the authority had let her down. The council denied that it had failed her in any way.

"We made every effort to keep an eye on her, both the caretaker and the patch manager looked out for her. We had offered her considerable support which she felt she couldn't accept," a spokeswoman said.

Her son, Johnny Amobi, who has performed in West End musicals such as Miss Saigon, could not be contacted yesterday but has previously told the Camden New Journal that his mother had refused to collect her pension or attend doctor's appointments in the later years of her life. "There was no point blaming anyone. She was self-destructive," he said.

It was in her local newspaper that Dame Beryl noticed details of the death earlier this year. She was reminded again recently of her old friend when The Bottle Factory Outing was recommended in an article on books that might stand the passage of time. "Then I made the connection - of course, that was about Freda," she said.

"I was thinking about time when it happened - how, when you get older, you wonder what you were like years ago. I think what Freda used to be like and how it ended."

She prefers not to think of Pauline Manning, a skinny shadow of her former 18-stone self dying in her stinking flat. As she said in her Spectator column: "I prefer to think of Freda, cloak billowing in the wind, forever galloping across Windsor Great Park."


Extracts from The Bottle Factory Outing:

She had large blue eyes with curved lashes, a gentle rosy mouth, a nose perfectly formed. She was five foot ten in height, twenty-six years old, and she weighed sixteen stone. All her life she had cherished the hope that one day she would become part of a community, a family. She wanted to be adored and protected, she wanted to be called "little one"...

...What style she had - the large English girl with the milk white skin and eyelids stained the colour of cornflowers. How easily she had wrought improvements in their daily labour. Refusing to stoop over the wooden labelling bench, she had complained loudly of a pain in her splendid back and found beer crates for them to sit on. She had purchased rubber gloves from the Co-op to protect her mauve and shining nails; she had insisted Mrs Brenda do the same. She had contrived an Outing into the landscape, a day under the sky and the trees. Best of all, she had condoned the wearing of mail bags and advised the use of mittens.

Freda riding

Freda, her delicate back forgotten, flung down her sheepskin coat and was hauled by two soldiers onto the large gelding, the plump curves of her purple calves echoing the rounded swell of the horses...

...Freda held an imaginary crop in her hand and tilted her chin imperiously at the sun. She was Catherine of Russia at the head of her regiment; she was Lady Barbara riding beside the young squire.