Michael Pedersen is a Scottish poet and performer, perhaps the most extravagantly talented to emerge in Britain since John Cooper Clarke. This, his first work of prose, is a memoir of his friendship with the much-loved singer Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit fame. The book is also a journal of Pedersen’s journey of grief after Scott’s suicide in May of 2018. Throughout the book Hutchison is not named and is addressed as “you”: the tone is thus immediately intimate and loving. Pedersen begins his meditation in a retreat in Cushendall, Co Antrim, where he aims, à la Hemingway, to write “hard and clear”.
The local hurling games distract him — “at times it felt like watching a battle re-enactment” — but his mind loops back to his loss and other friendships he has known. We follow him from childhood in Leith, through Portobello High, Durham University (where he was thought a “rough yin”), on to qualification as a solicitor in London. He publishes poetry — a volume called Oyster with illustrations by Hutchison — and goes on the road. The law’s loss is Scottish literature’s gain. When the time comes for another reprint of the collection Hutchison has gone, aged only 36. Pedersen muses sadly: “I do not want a new edition of the book but my friend back.”
Pedersen’s thoughts and memories are turbulent, gloriously optimistic one moment, searingly painful the next. He views the Sea of Moyle with suspicion: “one instance it’s a big dopey puppy wanting to play ... moments later it’s ... a ship sinker, sailor slayer, island eater; pitiless and mocking.” The latter turbulent moods are not unlike bereavement itself. Pedersen’s language is a juicy fruit pudding studded with Lowlands vernacular; he loves words such as “foosty” and “guising”, “stooshies” and “toaty”; you coorie up to his charm, his generous world. His metaphors dazzle. Of another friend he says: “He could be bootlace straight or zany as a kookaburra.” You can almost hear his mate’s manic laughter.
Pedersen knows he can “play the extrovert — haptic, cool and self-assured — far more comfortably than acknowledging I’m having a down day”. He’s good at the brave face; he’s trying to cope. We learn of his painful, poignant search for Scott after he goes missing, his “unutterable ache”. As one of the last to have seen him Pedersen admits that he’s out of his depth, that he’s “never felt so scared”. Scott’s body is found and Pedersen is cleaved: “grief dissects us into our most helpless matter.”
Recovery of a sort begins at Dryburgh in a hotel by a bend in the Tweed, its room doors decorated by elaborate fishing flies. Pedersen is reminded of his triumphs hosting Neu! Reekie!, a brilliant showcase for Scottish bands and fellow poets such as the late lamented Jock Scot. But Hutchison’s memory is never far away. Pedersen admits that “you are the only friend whose death I’ve rehearsed”. This is in reference to Floating in the Forth, Hutchison’s song about taking your own life. When other friends ask how he’s getting on Pedersen admits his “heart is buckled by love lost, peeled inside out, all onion gook, a rabbit skinned alive, a tongue slashed in half”. The poet is temporarily silenced.
Pedersen loves love, loves his consoling friends. He stares at photographs, scrolls through his collection, finds a degree of solace but “a digital elixir one day is a gut puncher the next”. He knows too the limits of his own affection, ruefully admitting “there was no love I could have given you that would have prevented this tragedy”. Time moves on, there are Hogmanay celebrations without Scott, holidays in Seville. Pedersen, the survivor, says he’s “becoming steadily more saccharine about dates and anniversaries”.
Boy Friends is an unapologetic paean to the sweetness of a relationship now brutally terminated. Pedersen’s eulogy to his buddy is in sharp contrast, say, to James Joyce’s fictional Cranly from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce, as Stephen Dedalus, breaks the friendship because, in Cranly’s words, the artist will not “have any one person ... who could be more of a friend, more even than the noblest and truest friend a man ever had”. Pedersen, one might argue, is the luckier writer. A minor gripe: do we really need to be reminded that Robert Louis Stevenson was the author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde? That aside, Boy Friends is an entirely endearing addition to the literature of grief and the ameliorating pleasures of memory and comradeship.