Boy Friends

Michael Pedersen

Faber, £14.99

Review by Neil Mackay


IT’S strange how we talk about friends. As someone who’s always had more women pals than men – because women are more interesting and most don’t just talk about cars or football – I’ve always found language going wonky when I discuss friendships. I’ll refer to my “girl (pause) friends”, not “girlfriends” – that implies some romantic or sexual relationship. Being straight, it somehow – stupidly – feels incumbent to underscore the platonic nature of my friendships with women. With men, I simply refer to my “friend”, which seems to rather do women down, as if they need more context than blokes. It speaks – pun definitely intended – of the inherent imbalance of language when it comes to the sexes, which is perhaps why I never use the word “mankind”, but opt for the more – gender fluid, we’d say today – “humankind”.

Michael Pedersen dispenses with all this linguistic idiocy and inequality and just describes the men who are his friends as his “boy friends”. Good for him. If folk see something sexual in that, it’s on them. Who cares anyway? Boy Friends is the title of Pedersen’s sparklingly dark memoir of his friendship with Scott Hutchison, the musician behind the celebrated Scottish band Frightened Rabbit who took his own life in 2018.

Pedersen is a well-kent Scottish poet – one of the singers, artists and writers who occupy what passes for our nation’s bohemian demi-monde. So unsurprisingly this is a lyric, an elegy to Hutchison, and a hymn to the joy of male friendships. While many male writers today (myself included) spend much of our time dissecting the unquestionably real horrors of toxic masculinity, Pedersen simply shows us that the reverse can be true: that men can brim with positive emotion, express their feelings as readily and eloquently as women, and be loving and rounded human beings. The change of narrative feels heaven-sent. It’s not time to move on, exactly, but it’s certainly time for the orchestra to play more than one tune when it comes to modern manhood.

Strangely, for a work centred on suicide, there’s a whole wardrobe of joys within. Chief among this book’s pleasures, is the delight which Pedersen takes in playing with the English language, the way a child explores a new toy. When something scares Pedersen it “shucks the plucky” from him. What a wonderful turn of phrase. When Hutchison sings, he does so with “mellifluous tender” – not mellifluous tenderness – making the sentence altogether more beautiful. At times, the urge to poetise becomes a tad baroque – like the alliteration “fantabulous fragments to frolic with” – but it’s entirely forgivable, and feels curmudgeonly to chide an artist having such fun and games. The book also rarely strays into mawkishness, which is impressive given its subject matter. There are a few overly sentimental lines (“stardust of memories” seems cliched for such an acrobatic writer) but, listen, who wouldn’t drift into a little saccharine melancholy when eulogising someone they loved?

On the flip side of the poetry comes a joyous and earthy vulgarity. Clouds separate like “a riven pair of b****cks”, a girl emerging with a wet dress from a river looks “Dickensian as f**k”. There are plenty of anecdotes about “shagging” and crack cocaine to get the moral majority in a frenzy. But anyone who picks up a memoir by a Scots poet about their friendship with a musician and finds offence in it must be worthy of a Nobel Prize for Idiocy.

The book feels like Leith’s answer to Brideshead Revisited – it’s fey and effervescent but shot through with hip, edgy street aesthetics. The influence of Scottish poetry slams throbs throughout. In places, it’s laugh out loud filthy-funny. The story about a cute puffball of a dog called Corky being subjected to the brutal lusts of an American pit bull during a trip to a South African winery is a routine that Billy Connolly would have been proud of back in his heyday. Flights of fancy about the Springbok rugby team engaged in mass sexual hijinks or acts of onanism in a Hobbit-style eco-pod are best read yourself than related second-hand here in review form.

In this puritanical and frankly repressed era in which we currently live, Pedersen plays mischievously with sexual imagery when he writes of his friendships with men. He’s happy to talk about kissing his male friends, or resting his hand on their leg as he talks to them. He drinks a whisky that he and Hutchinson both loved, sometime after the death of his friend, and writes: “I think of your mouth with these flavours lathered all over.” Hutchison’s lips were “full and ripe. I sip with them in mind”. It’s clearly the language of erotic love and for some folk today that’s going to be problematic. Good, I say. You can almost hear a certain section of Scottish society – the “men must be men and women must be women” brigade – clambering loudly onto the horse of Family-First outrage. My god, might this book be pushing a gender-fluid agenda? The horror. The horror. Pedersen is unafraid. Unafraid to discuss childish amounts of drug-taking, juvenile poetry attempts, the yucky yet gorgeous moistness of the human body, the narcissism of grief. He only really confronts “toxic masculinity” once – and then quite gently, when he talks of how “the fishing trip” is what passes for emotional connection between many men: the chance for blokes to awkwardly share thoughts and feelings, with the convenient distraction of sport readily to hand should matters get too real.

You end this book thinking, “that fella really loved his mate”, and there’s something beautiful about that. It is sufficient in and of itself to justify the work. Suicide is always there – mostly in the recurring symbolism of water and tides and sea that wash through the words – but this is no misery memoir.

In terms of the universality of the human condition, though, there’s one profound little wisdom passed on by Pedersen to his readers, and it’s this: “It’s holy to fall apart.” Scott Hutchison was just a man, and like us all, he had within him the ability to break. But he was loved, and that’s enough to ensure a taste of immortality.