Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen review – in the company of men | Autobiography and memory


Scott Hutchison, musician and visual artist best known as the lead singer of the band Frightened Rabbit, died by suicide in 2018, aged 36. He was a close friend of Scottish poet Michael Pedersen, providing the illustrations for his second collection of poetry, Oyster. In his new memoir, Boy Friends, Pedersen pays tender tribute to his late friend, remembering his “gooey, melting marshmallow smile”, the brilliance of his drawings – “the morose made funny, the sadness clouded in love” – ​​and the good times that they shared: road trips in South Africa and the Highlands; indulgent binges on oysters, smoked Argyll mussels and various obscure drinks.

These reminiscences leave room for a thoughtful reflection on male friendship in general. We revisit many of Pedersen’s intense friendships in the early ’20s, including a “sharp and politically savvy” classmate called David – “he flipped through me like a trashy magazine, I read him like a smart comic – and Rowley, “a marvelous ill-wired crackpot of impetuous passions”. He is, by his own admission, somewhat emotionally incontinent, prone to “awkwardly spilling feelings here, there, and everywhere… I would tell my friends that I loved them all the time”. This trait seems to have been shared by those to whom he gravitated: “I always found friends who wanted to love too much, who met rather than just met.”

Men, of course, aren’t meant to be so enthusiastic with each other: the book’s implicit message is that the world could be a happier place if we were allowed to be a little less restrained. Pedersen’s ambivalence about conventional masculinity is evidenced in a vignette about a fishing tackle shop on the Edinburgh coast, where in his youth he and his schoolmates browsed for fishing tackle after school. He had little time for the “hunting element” of fishing, but still went through the motions – it was “something boys do, a commonplace rite of passage”. Older anglers regaled them with “slow tales of catching fish…a never-ending affair of suppressed emotion.”

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Poets, when transitioning to other genres, sometimes hesitate to master themselves stylistically. Pedersen’s prose beginnings are liberally sprinkled with alliterative triplets of the kind you’d normally see in verse. Coupled with her penchant for archaisms, she gives a somewhat mannered register: people “stay” in places rather than live there; “activities ceased” rather than stopping; we also get ‘lazy’, ‘birth’, ‘afore set-off’, ‘there’, ‘proximity’, ‘nonpareil’ and ‘bewitched’ (twice). I love the frills as much as the rest, but there’s something to be said for moderation.

This uninhibited exuberance does, however, yield some enjoyable moments, including a snapshot of an Englishman who “danced with stiffened aplomb… hard, jerky movements that remained captivatingly rhythmic – the body relaxed but taut as s ‘it was… controlled by a joystick from above’; a description of a tree’s plump trunk as “Teletubby-hipped” is particularly memorable.

We learn a little more about the author along the way. Growing up in Edinburgh, he ate crisps out of puddles of water “as a show of my bravery”; he studied law at Durham University, where he enjoyed the novelty of being “labeled a rough yin rather than a softie”; after training as a barrister in a London law firm, he left a lucrative legal career to pursue his literary dreams. He suffers from pittakionophobia (a fear of stickers) and has an almost fetishistic weakness for polyester silk.

What about the deceased friend? Although present in many anecdotes, it is largely overshadowed by the force of the author’s elegiac lyricism; we get little clear sense of the man himself or the dynamics of the friendship. Boy Friends was written in the year immediately following his death, and perhaps the unintentional deletion of its subject matter tells us something about the engulfing nature of grief. Pedersen quotes C. S. Lewis who, reflecting on the death of his wife, observed that “passionate grief does not bind us to the dead but separates us from them”. It’s a relevant line, and goes to the heart of why writing about grief is so difficult: sometimes all you have to do is feel.

Boy Friends by is published by Faber (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


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