Michael Pedersen’s new book Boy Friends explores his friendship with Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison

Michael Pedersen with his first 'prose poetry' book, Boy Friends, in Portobello Book Shop. Pic: Contributed
Michael Pedersen with his first ‘prose poetry’ book, Boy Friends, in Portobello Book Shop. Pic: Contributed

Prize-winning Scottish poet and animateur Michael Pedersen, has been on the move for the past week from Paris to Ireland to Northumberland with residencies and events and just landed at the Borders Book Festival where I catch up with him, on top of which describes himself as a “bit of a pacer”. This comes as no surprise as his latest book, Boy Friends, published by Faber next month [July] is almost as much about travel as it is about male friendships, focusing on one in particular, that with Scott Hutchison, founding member of the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit.

Boy Friends started as a celebration of Hutchison, its catalyst being the death of the musician in 2018, the poet’s way to keep talking to his friend as well as to honour the loss and commemorate his impact. Along the way it visited many of Pedersen’s seminal friendships and became a love letter to friendship in general, starting a conversation in which the reader is invited to share.

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Epistolary in style and addressed to Hutchison, it is Pedersen’s first prose book and while there is grief at its heart, the musician remains very much a life force throughout. It’s an inclusive, collective hug, sharing platter of a book that takes us along for the ride on road, train and plane trips, safaris and walks, accompanied by many meals. The words take flight and come into land, often with a laugh, on every page, and while it’s undeniably about male friendships, it’s a journey you don’t have to be a ‘boy’ to enjoy.

Hailing from Portobello on the outskirts of Edinburgh, Pedersen has been showered with literary plaudits and prizes since his acclaimed debut poetry collection Play With Me (Polygon) was published in 2013. Named a ‘Canongate Future 40’, he won the John Mathers Trust Rising Star of Literature award, the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship and along the way co-founded and co-runs the Neu! Reekie! events, publishing, and record label. After meeting Hutchison in 2012, when he booked him for an event, they became friends and the musician performed at his first book launch. By the time of Pedersen’s second poetry collection, Oyster (2017), Hutchison was doing the illustrations and the pair performed it worldwide as a live show.

Of their initial meeting on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Hutchison with guitar in hand, Pedersen writes:

“It was like a combination of déjà vu, finding an old love letter, and being gifted a hand-knitted cardigan from a friend no-one knew could knit. It grew like vines – leafed, flowered, fruited.”

Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit performs in Australia, 2010. Pic: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

They were friends until May 2018, when the singer was last seen walking out of a hotel near the Forth Road Bridge before his body was found at Port Edgar on the shores of the Forth.

Hutchison had sung about leaving the world, revealing his insecurities and dark times as well as light, which is what made his music so special to so many, giving them the strength to overcome fear and anxiety. As Pedersen puts it:

“As a source of inspiration, as a friend, as a human, as a songwriter, he’s going to continue to resonate with people because he was so candid, so clear, so vulnerable. He showed us his broken parts before he showed us any ego, any accolades, anything he’d achieved, and by doing so showed us how we could put ourselves together again.”

However, it was a lighter side of the musician that Pedersen saw most, the “inspiring, quick-witted, full of laughter and élan” Hutchison who lives in the pages of Boy Friends.

Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen, published by Faber & Faber, 7 July 2022, £14.99 hardback, £8.99 ebook, £22.99 audio digital download. Pic: Faber

On a month’s writing residence at Scottish artist and musician Bill Drummond’s Curfew Tower in the seaside town of Cushendall in Northern Ireland, just two months after his friend’s death, he found himself writing about their recent joyous Highland road trip just prior to Hutchison going missing, because he didn’t want to forget.

“It was so recent but now it had been shaken around like dandelion seeds in the wind inside my head,” he says. “Trying to piece together this really beautiful experience when it was juxtaposed by this really bruising experience alongside it, this life-altering loss, was very difficult to assimilate and I thought how risky it would be to lose the joy and the exuberance of the days that had come before. So I thought ‘well I‘ll have to write this down’,” he says.

“Really steep in that trip and revisit those days, where we went, what we ate, what the weather was like so I could keep this friendship on my own terms. It felt like something I could be in control of at a point where the world was uncontrollable and unfair. And after I’d finished diarising the road trip I didn’t want to stop and thought what better thing to do than revisit some of my favourite memories with him?”

And so he relives trips to South Africa and safaris, shows they did together, art exhibitions, meals shared, wine drunk, laughs and stories. For Pedersen the process saw him develop “the cerebral apparatus” to unlock memories.

Scott Hutchison on stage in Australia, 2010. Pic: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

“Here were so many pockets of memories I didn’t realise I had in that much detail. I found it scientifically bamboozling just how much there was. I was able to time travel a bit, as cliched as that sounds, back into some of the most joyous and celebrated moments of my life. I was giddy about how much was in the memory, hidden away deep in cellars just waiting to come back to life with the right olfactory sense, the right emotional trigger, piece of literature. It felt like one more thing I was thankful to Scott for and it was a beautiful time to be feeling gratitude rather than just pure, pure grief.”

When a friendship ends unexpectedly and explanations are impossible, it’s hard for those left behind. Does Pedersen think the book was his way of attempting to work out what happened and why, by continuing a live conversation?

“Yeah, exactly,” he says. “That’s why the book took this almost letter style, epistle form. Not all of the book’s about Scott, but I am talking to him throughout. It was my way to keep talking to him at a time when I wasn’t ready to stop and by going through this history of our friendship and the other friendships it put us in this big collective conversation that I was looking to open up and make more universal.

“I definitely wasn’t ready to start talking in the past tense about Scott so it was easing the transition. I wasn’t elegising or eulogising; this was a voyage through a very resonant friendship that was still alive on the page. It wasn’t done.”

Writing a book about a friendship with someone who was such a public figure and had so many other friendships and relationships, meant Pedersen felt a great sense of responsibility and was determined to be authentic.

“Scott was somebody loved so abundantly by so many different people. As a friend, as a family member, as a band member, and for his art, and his music which was so inviting that so many people all over the world have projected their own lives into. What made Scott such a skilled practitioner of language is he would invite you into his world and help you make it your own, so the fact that there was this whole abundance of people who in a way felt Scott belonged to them definitely creates a responsibility, but it’s also a blessing.

Poet and Neu! Reekie! co-founder Michael Pedersen has written his first prose book about male friendships, including that with musician Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. Pic: Kat Gollock

“I didn’t want to write a book which was showcasing who Scott was to me. It had no value unless it followed Scott’s own sensibility of writing, which was to allow other people to project their life into it, so I wanted to write a book that could be picked up by close friends of his who could read it and feel this was close to the Scott they knew and could envision their own stories spilling out of this. I also wanted to be just as inviting to people that had never met Scott but loved his music, just because it was a much wider story about friendship in general and what it could mean to us in our lives.

“I wanted to show a little bit of the love I was lucky enough to have invested in me and use it as a mechanism to invite other people to explore the love that he invested in them, or they invested in him. So provided it was an impetus for further explorations of sentimentality it was going to be authentic enough to what he created.”

Written from Pedersen’s perspective the book is full of fun and laughter with Hutchison, it’s about living life, rather than its ending, but were there darker times too?

“Yeah, there were definitely deep, painful moments, hard conversations we had, but overall as a friendship it was joy, it was celebration. Scott was a very bright human being. He probably only let me see the version of him he wanted me to see, or was ready to have fun with me alongside. He would maybe not be in my ether if that wasn’t the case – he would be away writing or doing whatever he did under those circumstances – but yeah, it was an authentic representation of the friendship.

“When I look back, it was silliness, jokes, a lot of beautiful meals, holidays and trips together. I guess because the Scott that I knew wasn’t the Scott in the band so when I saw him it was in between recording or touring and he had time to invest in friendship and life and sociality. So I got to see this really beautiful part of him that was ready to explore art, holidays, trips. I was very lucky and also I think he was very considered of the version he gave to me, and so for the book not to be as silly and sentimental and food-filled as it is, would have been disingenuous to the friendship we had and the man I knew.”

Once started on the process of ‘time travel’ to revisiting memories, Pedersen embraced it and applied it to other friendships, and a crew of friends including Daniel, Sparrow, Rowley, Jake, wee Scotty and more burst onto the page, often with laugh out loud consequences.

“As I started to bask in these beautiful memories of Scott it unlocked this real hunger to revisit some of the more seminal boyhood friendships that had punctuated and visited my life and buoyed me up through the teenage years,” says the 38-year-old writer.

“Often those moments were hilarious and seemed histrionic and heartbreaking at the time but now you can look back at them with a sort of childish humour and rosy view. I wanted to understand the version of myself that I was in that friendship with Scott so had to understand all the previous versions of myself and these other significant friendships.”

Always a hugger, Pedersen believes in telling his friends he loves them and has a desire to smash the constraints of male friendships, to wrestle masculinity from “the gatekeepers and guardians of that stiff old, outdated formula” where vulnerability resulted in a call to ‘man up’, deny a feminine side and maybe buy more fishing tackle, something he felt bound to do as a teenager in Portobello.

“I think there are a lot of beautiful mentors out there and sensibilities within younger literature and culture today which is just so much more promising,” he says, as his own book joins that wave.

Despite Boy Friends being about a friendship in which one of the parties is no longer alive, its life affirming and for the reader there’s a sense of being included.

“That was very much the purpose,” says Pedersen. “Even though grief is the belly of this book, it’s about celebration, creating something bright and buoyant out of something brutal. It was heartbreaking and traumatising but to do the friendships that I lived any justice would not be to be forlorn or mourning them for too long. Give them the respect and the sensibility, but use them as a catalyst to create new brilliant memories and experiences and to find the ebullience that encapsulated those friendships.”

As Boy Friends runs out of pages, the timeline is a year on from Hutchison’s death and Pedersen is still writing and performing, still having new conversations about Hutchison, about friendships and grief, a process that has only gained speed as he takes the book on the road.

“It didn’t feel like a conclusion when I finished,” he says. “I just felt like I had to stop writing at a certain point, but it’s definitely triggered new impetus to keep doing more about this. I’m only at the start of talking about male friendships and grief. And now I find myself able to sit down with Jackie Kay and Ricky Ross and Charlotte Church, Shirley Manson, Ocean Vuong and Kae Tempest in active conversations about friendships which are now bolstering the book as it unfurls upon the world.”

Manson and Church will co-present Boy Friends at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in a three-way artist conversation on friendship with readings by Pedersen, and the book has also given birth to the Good Grief! Salon series, with a repeat of last year’s EIBF poetry, prose and music ‘celebration of grief’ with writers and musicians E A Hanks, Gemma Cairney, Rachel Sermanni, Hollie McNish, and Michael Mullen.

“Grief is the loving and the missing, the final instalment of love. If we’ve got this love for someone that’s no longer around, where do we put it? How do we turn it into a testament, something that manifests with positivity in our life still? It’s about passing on those tips for grieving.”

“The book has been such a cathartic thing to write and it feels like it’s a bit of a life compass going forward.”

Boy Friends has also sparked a poetry collection, there’s talk of a narrative piece on quirkier tangents involving some of the friends featured, and there’s a Good Grief! Salon poetry collection too.

“This book has been such a gift out of the brutality of it all. There have been so many individual blessings,” says Pedersen. “So it was just gratitude I was left with. Beaten and bloodied, but full of joy and gratitude.”

And what does he think Hutchison would have made of his book?

“I hope he would have liked it. I know he liked my writing. I know he liked the prose of it. I think there definitely are enough food references and wine references and safari references to keep him amused for the time being, but I don’t know. It’s a guess in the dark. He was very complimentary about all my writing thus far and I’ve laboured over this stuff.

“And to be honest, even if he thought it was shit, he would be far too polite to let me know.”

Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen, published by Faber & Faber, 7 July 2022, £14.99 hardback, £8.99 ebook, £22.99 audio digital download.

11 July Waterstones, Glasgow with Ricky Ross: https://www.waterstones.com/events/an-evening-with-michael-pedersen-and-ricky-ross/glasgow-sauchiehall-street

24 August, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Boy Friends launch with Charlotte Church and Shirley Manson — https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/michael-pedersen-boy-friends-forever

26 August — EDINBURGH: EIBF’s Good Grief with Gemma Cairney, Ocean Vuong & others https://www.edbookfest.co.uk/the-festival/whats-on/gemma-cairney-michael-pedersen-good-grief

Scottish writer Michael Pedersen reflects on male friendships in his new book, Boy Friends. Pic: Hollie McNish

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