Scott Hutchison, a musician and visual artist best known as the singer in the band Frightened Rabbit, took his own life in 2018, aged 36. He was close friends with the Scottish poet Michael Pedersen, providing the illustrations for his second poetry collection, Oyster. In his new memoir, Boy Friends, Pedersen pays tender tribute to his late pal, remembering his “marshmallow-melting gooey grin”, the brilliance of his drawings – “the morose made funny, dolefulness shadowed in love” – and the good times they shared: road trips in South Africa and the Highlands; indulgent binges on oysters, Argyll smoked mussels and various obscure tipples.
These reminiscences give way to a thoughtful meditation on male friendship in general. We revisit several of Pedersen’s intense early-20s friendships, including a “sword sharp, politically clued-up” fellow student called David – “he thumbed me like a trashy magazine, I read him like a clever comic” – and Rowley, “a wonderful, mis-wired weirdo of impetuous passions”. He is, by his own account, somewhat emotionally incontinent, prone to “clumsily spilling out sentiment here, there and everywhere … I would tell me friends I loved them constantly.” This trait seems to have been shared by those towards whom he gravitated: “I always found friends who wanted to love too much, who collided rather than simply met.”
Men, of course, aren’t supposed to be quite so full-on with one another: the book’s implicit message is that the world might be a happier place if we had permission to be a little less restrained. Pedersen’s ambivalence about conventional masculinity comes to the fore in a vignette about a tackle shop on the Edinburgh coast, where, as a youngster, he and his classmates would peruse fishing paraphernalia after school. He had little time for “the hunting element” of fishing, but went through the motions anyway – it was “something boys did, a banal rite of passage”. Older fishermen would regale them with “slow-moving tales of fish clobbering … a drawn-out affair of stifled emotionality”.
Poets, when transitioning to other genres, are sometimes reluctant to rein themselves in stylistically. Pedersen’s prose debut is liberally sprinkled with alliterative triplets of the kind you’d normally see in verse. Coupled with his penchant for archaisms, it makes for a somewhat mannered register: people “bide” in places rather than living in them; “activities reached a surcease” rather than coming to an end; we also get “fainéant”, “naissance”, “afore set-off”, “yonder”, “propinquity”, “nonpareil” and “ensorcelled” (twice). I like a flourish as much as the next person, but there’s something to be said for moderation.
This unfettered exuberance does, however, yield some pleasing moments, including a snapshot of an Englishman who “danced with stiffened aplomb … harsh, jolting movements that remained captivatingly rhythmical – the body loosened yet taut as if … controlled by a joystick from above”; a description of a tree’s plump trunk as “Teletubby-hipped” is particularly memorable.
We learn a bit about the author along the way. During his childhood in Edinburgh, he would eat crisps out of puddles “as a demonstration of my grit”; he studied law at Durham University, where he enjoyed the novelty of being “labelled a rough yin rather than a softie”; after training as a solicitor with a London law firm, he quit 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 of the departed friend? Though present in many of the anecdotes, he is largely obscured by the sheer force of the author’s elegiac lyricism; we get little clear sense of either the man himself or the dynamics of the friendship. Boy Friends was written in the year immediately following his death, and perhaps the inadvertent erasure of its subject tells us something about the all-engulfing nature of grief. Pedersen quotes CS Lewis who, reflecting on the death of his wife, remarked that “passionate grief does not link us with the dead but cuts us off from them”. It’s an apposite line, and gets to the nub of why writing about bereavement is so difficult: sometimes, all you have is feeling.