Book review: Boy Friends, by Michael Pedersen

In his new memoir, the poet Michael Pedersen pays moving tribute to his late friend Scott Hutchison, former frontman of Frightened Rabbit, and also offers much wit and wisdom on the dynamics of male friendships. Review by Roger Cox

Michael Pedersen PIC: Hollie McNish
Michael Pedersen PIC: Hollie McNish

Following the death of his friend, the airman Robert Gregory, who was killed over the Western Front in 1918, William Butler Yeats sat "beside a fire of turf in the ancient tower" – his new home, Thoor Ballylee, in Co. Galway – and composed a timeless poetic tribute. Fast-forward almost exactly 100 years, to 2018, and the Scottish poet Michael Pedersen found himself in a similar situation: artist-in-residence at another Irish tower, The Curfew Tower in Cushendall, Co. Antrim, where he was mourning the recent death of his friend Scott Hutchison, frontman of the band Frightened Rabbit, and also his creative partner – the artist behind the illustrations in his sparkling 2017 poetry collection, Oyster.

Unlike Yeats, however, who condensed all the pain he felt into the 12 eight-line stanzas of "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory", Pedersen's grief has bubbled over into a 200-page work of non-fiction, by turns raw and ribald, lyrical and laugh-out-loud funny.

He begins by writing a series of direct, dated missives to Hutchison – messages which constantly ping-pong between the mundanity of everyday existence and the huge, cosmic questions thrown up by his friend's passing. "Oyster is off on another reprint and I have to etch a new dedication" he writes on 9 July. But then: "I do not want a new edition of the book but my friend back. You do not keep living through these pages – a smoking candle where once there was a gorgeous amber flame... Our book travels on a different axis now; you do not travel with it, or with me."

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    Boy Friends, by Michael Pedersen

    Gradually, as the weeks pass, Pedersen's focus broadens, and he begins to consider not just his friendship with Hutchison, but all the significant male friendships of his life, from Daniel, his best friend at Portobello High School ("we got so close... rumours of us being 'poofs' quickly developed and were virulently spread") to David, a well-connected law student he met while studying at Durham ("Mostly kind, but sometimes cruel, he thumbed me like a trashy magazine, I read him like a clever comic") to Rowley, the rogue-ish sparring partner of his early 20s ("our friendship was a substance-addled romp through petty crime, addiction and indulgence").

    There is much wit and wisdom in Pedersen's reflections on male friendship, not to mention an admirable degree of self-knowledge, but just as Yeats, in his tribute to Gregory, recalls the exploits of a number of other friends before zeroing in on the qualities of his subject, so Pedersen soon circles back to his relationship with Hutchison.

    He reminisces about the various trips they took together promoting Oyster – in particular a South African sojourn packed with surreal happenings – and about a last blast of a Highland road trip the duo made in 2018 with Pedersen's partner, the poet Hollie McNish, just before Hutchison took his own life.

    In lithe, springy, never-predictable prose, Pedersen is excellent at capturing the intoxicating nature of their meeting of minds; perhaps even better at encapsulating what made Hutchison such a beloved performer: "As you began singing, you stepped away from the microphone and padded gently around the room, crooning up towards the balcony, coating every inch of the place in your mellifluous tender."

    As Yeats put it: "Some burn damp faggots, others may consume / The entire combustible world in one small room."

    Boy Friends, by Michael Pedersen, Faber & Faber, £14.99. Michael Pedersen is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 24 and 26 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk