Classic Books: The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs

bedroomsecrets2People have got a right to drink as much as possible and to get as intoxicated as possible cos there’s so much kind of social pressure and anxiety now. Even people who have got jobs are just really worried about kind of, they feel that they work so hard, they work so many hours, they’re under so much pressure, they’ve got so many bills to pay and so many financial considerations when they get out of it they just want to go out so they can freak out.

– Irvine Welsh

Danny Skinner is a womanising drunkard hanging on to his City Council job by a thread. Struggling with an alcohol problem (he has four pints with his lunch) and in search of his lost father, Skinner’s career becomes even more insecure with the arrival of Brian Kibby, a hardworking, clean-living virgin who is set to be promoted above Skinner in the Environmental Health Department.

Skinner’s hate for Kibby grows so powerful that he is able to put a hex on the other man – whenever Skinner drinks, Kibby gets the hangover. What follows is a powerful retelling of The Picture of Dorian Gray, exploring purity, hedonism and the consequences of one’s actions.

Skinner

‘The day it is ending in laughter and song’

– Danny Skinner

Danny Skinner is the closest that Welsh gets to an alpha male. Handsome, intelligent, popular and witty, as knowledgable about boxing as he is of obscure Norwegian poetry, Skinner seems to have little to complain about. Yet despite Skinner’s success with art, money and women, he is plagued by internal demons. Skinner is convinced that finding the identity of his father is key to curbing his self-destructive impulses.

Skinner is one of Welsh’s most complex and well-realised characters. A man of sensitivity as well as cruelty (he is fond of romantic verse, and cries at the sight of a wounded gull) we admire and pity him in equal measure. Skinner inspires envy in others, but in the words of his real father he is a ‘lonely, lost wee boy’ and the man’s own description of himself as a ‘lonely, self-loathing alcoholic bully’ also rings true.

When we first encounter Skinner he is being consumed by his own curse, that of alcoholism. His stock at the office is falling, and he can’t hold on to a relationship to save his life. But the spell he puts on Kibby turns Skinner’s fortune around; he can drink and do coke until the early hours and wake up clean and refreshed for work. The more Skinner drinks, the healthier he feels, the better he performs and the more he gets promoted. Meanwhile the teetotal Kibby just becomes more and more decrepit.

James Lasdun explains:

In his thoroughgoing way, Welsh pummels the conceit to yield the maximum possible narrative and metaphorical mileage. As poor Kibby grows mysteriously fatter and iller while Skinner bounces merrily from bar to bar and bed to bed, the device serves as a kind of Nietzschean glorying in the vigour of pagan indulgence over the sickness of puritan repression. Then, as it dawns on Skinner that if he actually drinks Kibby to death, he’ll have killed the goose with the golden liver, the metaphor shifts to one of symbiosis: the subterranean bonds between predator and prey. The two become steadily obsessed with each other to the point where they begin to converge.

The spell leads Skinner into a dark liberation; power without responsibility, excess without consequence. He shows little remorse over his impact on Kibby and his family, at one point telling the younger man: ‘Whatever you think I’ve done to you, it hasn’t been anywhere near enough.’ There’s a brilliant scene where Skinner, alone at the bar, starts laughing manically and tapping his foot, ‘completely oblivious to the scene he was making’.

It’s only when the two men are watching footage of the Iraq war that Skinner realises that he is no better than George Bush, sending working-class Americans into the minefields: ‘I got someone else to fight my battles for me… You can get away with it if you have the power and you’re fucked if you don’t.’ (This scene is also poignant because, drinking, joking and even taking cocaine together, we realise that Skinner and Kibby had the potential to be good friends.)

When Kibby deteriorates to the point that he needs a liver transplant, Skinner is forced into giving up alcohol as he doesn’t actually want his adversary to die. Where once it set him free, now the curse compels him into abstinence. Skinner doesn’t know how to take the hex off, and we never find out entirely how it works – the witch that both men consult comes closest when she says: ‘Intentions, son… call them wishes if ye want, they can be so powerful in some people that they do become curses, do become spells.’ Skinner recites this poem:

The Devil went out a walking one day

Being tired of staying in Hell

And the reason he was drest so gay

Was to cunningly pry, whether under the sky

The affairs of earth went well.

During his period on the wagon, Skinner emigrates to San Francisco, figuring that sunny California is a less booze-dependent society than miserable Scotland. While there, he falls in love with Dorothy, who he meets at an AA meeting. The story of their relationship is a remarkable plateau amongst the general fury of the book as a whole, and it shows us a better Skinner, with his cruelty and torment stripped away.

As in Marabou Stork Nightmares and Filth, Welsh dangles the prospect of redemption before his protagonist before yanking it out of sight. For Skinner is compelled to return to Edinburgh and face his obsessions: drink, parternity and Kibby. In doing so, Skinner signs his own death warrant; it’s a cast-iron rule of Welsh’s novels that any opportunity for escape should be seized with both hands and as Sick Boy says in Porno, you never go back. What happens to Skinner shows the truth of the cliche: be careful what you wish for. You might just get it.

Kibby

You can never be guilty for giving victims what they crave most desperately in life; persecution, and, even more generously, martyrdom.

– Danny Skinner

A sensitive, awkward and kind man, Kibby arouses the reader’s sympathy because of the very injustice of what’s happening to him. There are scenes in the novel – where he goes through a convulsive collapse brought on by Skinner’s Ibiza holiday, or when he smashes up his train set in a seizure of despair – that are truly heartbreaking.

Yet although we feel sorry for Kibby we never quite like him. One should bear in mind Bertrand Russell’s ‘fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed’; victims are not morally superior just because they are victims. Quite often, the victims simply want to change places with their oppressors.

Kibby’s continual refrain is ‘why does [Skinner] bother with me?’ The reader could ask the same question. Why does Skinner feel so threatened by a Star Trek enthusiast who lives with his parents? Yet it’s this very stability that Skinner envies about the other man; the fact that Brian Kibby has people who love and care about him. Skinner also on some level fears Kibby: not just because his rival could easily get promoted above him, but because he sees a repressed nastiness in Kibby that no one else does – and that Kibby doesn’t even seem to know about.

We get the feeling that if Brian Kibby was ever in a position of real power, he would turn out to be a nasty piece of work. Kant’s moral luck comes into play here. So Bedroom Secrets has a moral ambiguity; Skinner is the oppressor but we warm to him a lot more than to his adversary. We even like Skinner’s narrative more; his passages teem with wit and insight while Kibby’s are bland and wholesome, shot through with a creepy misogynistic subtext.

At the beginning Kibby is like Wilde’s portrait, a blank slate. He has never taken a drink, or had sex; he is an empty canvas. (Had he read Bedroom Secrets, Wilde would have kicked himself; the comedy would have been so much better if Dorian Gray had cursed not his portrait but a real person.) Skinner compares Kibby to a mirror, a road-map of his own mortality. But unfortunately for Skinner, Kibby is not a blank slate; he is a person with desires and free will. 

In Bedroom Secrets, the puritan order is reversed; it’s the decadent who live and thrive while the abstainers descend into hell. Welsh, in third person, refers to the curse as Kibby’s penance, a punishment for his sins. His mother thinks that ‘Brian’s intrinsic goodness and virtue will protect him’ but it’s that supposed virtue that makes him more vulnerable. If Kibby was a drinker, the curse would never have worked, for reasons which will become clear.

His body degenerating, Kibby’s dark side comes to the surface. As he grows more bitter, arrogant and lecherous, it’s only natural that Kibby should start drinking. What happens to him is a loss of innocence if not of virginity. That’s when Skinner realises that the curse works both ways; Kibby can make him suffer as well. At this point they become two souls fighting over the same body.

Watching footage of the Iraq war, Kibby realises for the first time the implications of the curse:

They get other people to do it for them. They have the money, the power and they exist to indulge themselves and their vanities. But it’s no them, it’s no their sons or daughters who have to go and fight and murder or be hurt or killed to indulge these conceits. It’s the people who have nothing, those who cannae fight back, who are made meek… you’re a slave, a slave to those egotistical, pious, sanctimonious, murdering bastards and the world they’ve created… they get other people to deal with the shit they make through their own twisted vanity…

This leads Kibby into a political epiphany:

He never usually talked politics with [Caroline, Kibby’s sister] because he always felt it was a distraction and that people should be happy with their lot instead of complaining or trying to change things all the time. He was wrong, though; he wanted to tell her that he was wrong and she was right.

From the novel’s beginning Kibby is a marked man; his mother thinks, prophetically, that ‘Brian’s happiness… always had a precarious aspect to it, as if being exhibited too ostentatiously might precipitate the appearance of dark forces that would serve to destroy it.’ Regarding Kibby prior to the curse, Skinner murmurs, ‘That cunt dies.’

Yet in a book so full of death, Kibby is more or less the sole survivor. And he emerges from the story with hope, a sense that he has learned something from the experience. In a way, Skinner has done Kibby a favour; the curse causes a physical decline but also an inner rebirth. 

In Kibby’s words; ‘I know now that doing things doesn’t hurt you; you get hurt by avoiding them… whatever comes my way in life now, I know that I’m done with hiding.’

Love, Drink and Money

Aye, they do a good pint in here… contains syrups, corn sulphates,  pyrocarbonate, benzoate, foam enchancers, amyloglucosidase, beta-glucanase, alpha-acetolactate, decarboxylase, stabilisers, ascarbonates. Might even also contain: malt, hops, yeast, water and wheat. Might. Don’t bet on it though.

Skinner’s fantasy is tempting. The British work the longest hours in Western Europe, and the work-life balance looms large in everyone’s mind; we all emphasise with Skinner when he knows he has a presentation tomorrow but just can’t resist another pint.

Skinner and Kibby’s debate over inspection rotas is also interesting; it’s Skinner who wants to change the whole procedure to put a halt on corruption, while Kibby is a reactionary defender of the status quo. And this is why Kibby’s a threat: contrary to business cant, employers don’t reward creative mavericks – they reward sycophantic plodders who walk the party line. The curse, also, is the logical endpoint of capitalism: why not outsource your bad times onto someone else?

Opposites in terms of sexual success, Skinner beds virtually every woman he comes across, while Kibby’s limited opportunities are cut off by the curse. The younger man’s fantasies are more domestic than erotic, and he is genuinely surprised at the realisation that many of his hillwalking friends joined the club simply to get laid. There’s a telling scene where Kibby attends a disco and sees the object of his desire, Lucy Moore, get off with another man. His devotion turns to resentment when Moore shows a natural inclination to have sex with guys.

He watched them for a bit, first on the dancefloor, then in the corner of the room. His hands are all over her. She loves it as well. It’s like she’s mocking me! She’s just like the rest of them!

This is a defining moment for Kibby, standing with his orange juice like Sayyid Qutb at the edge of the dance.

Elsewhere, Kibby tries to devalue Skinner’s success by implying that he’s simply a user of women. Skinner puts him right on this one while also giving Kibby some good advice:

From the point of view of someone like Kibby, he considered, he would be regarded as successful with women… But the real problem is relationships, which fucking social retards like Kibby can’t grasp, because they’re so obsessed with getting their hole.

He goes on to say this:

They’re women, Brian, not fucking video games. If I were you, I’d get a wad of cash out and I’d go to a prostitute and get my fucking hole. Once you’ve got rid of the stigma of virginity and unwound a bit, you might achieve a more realistic perspective about people.

Skinner genuinely likes and respects the women he gets off with, while Kibby has a misogynistic streak (derived from a traumatic encounter with his father) that he disguises with his sensitive image. Skinner’s is a refreshing point of view in a climate where sexual promiscuity is seen as shallow and stupid.

Finally, Bedroom Secrets is a profound exploration of alcohol and alcoholism. Welsh hits the nail on the head in depicting the ways in which drink warps not only the physical body, but our thought processes and perceptions. As Skinner says, ‘Being hungover is not being sober. Being hungover is hell.’ And the only way out is to have another drink:

The world was a better place when he emerged from the bar for a second time. The sharp edges had gone. Leith was no longer stuffed with cruel, brutish psychopaths who hated him. They had vanished, replaced by a convivial community of jaunty salt-of-the-earth types.

Welsh shows us the effects of alcohol by separating its good and bad consequences. Bedroom Secrets is a battle between Apollo and Dionysus, between intoxication and regret, pleasure and responsibility. And, in slipping in the aside that the liver is the only human organ that can completely regenerate itself, Welsh shows us the possibility of rebirth that is the central theme of the novel.

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One Response to “Classic Books: The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs”

  1. Reheated Cabbage « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] – James Lasdun, on The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs […]

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