Platonic Ideals: Michael Pedersen On Boy Friends & Missing Scott Hutchison

Michael Pedersen's Boy Friends is a book about male friendships – especially the author's friendship with Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. He talks to Becca Inglis about art, language and opening up

Photo by Kat Gollock

In the early hours of 9 May 2018, when Scott Hutchison, the lead singer of Frightened Rabbit, first disappeared, poet Michael Pedersen was combing the beach along the Firth of the Forth for signs of his friend.

Just two days prior, the pair were road-tripping together around the Scottish Highlands. They visited the Glenfinnan Viaduct (of Hogwarts Express fame), crammed themselves into the world’s smallest working lighthouse, and stuffed themselves silly on a £75 seafood sharing platter in Mallarn. They were due at Ullapool Book Festival that week, where they would share gimmicky holiday photos to promote Pedersen’s poetry collection, Oyster, which Hutchison illustrated. But they would never make it. The evening after Pedersen went looking for him, a kayaker found Hutchison’s body in the water.

Pedersen recounts this devastating episode in his new memoir, Boy Friends, a tribute to passionate friendships between men (and especially his friendship with Hutchison). He began the book in Curfew Tower, an artist’s retreat in Northern Ireland owned by KLF co-founder Bill Drummond, where he had meant to draft his third poetry collection. It was only five weeks after Hutchison’s death when he arrived. Still in a fresh state of grief, Pedersen instead scribbled down everything he could remember about their time together.

“It was almost this desperate attempt to make sure that I didn’t forget any of the details,” he tells me. “It felt like watching some of my favourite movies at times.” We’re sat in a small office in Summerhall, which serves as the base camp for Neu! Reekie, the avant garde live poetry collective that Pedersen co-founded. It was under this office’s door that someone slipped a copy of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed for Pedersen – a reflection on grief that he recaps in his own book, which sits on the table between us. He speaks profusely and rapidly as he describes writing, and his friendship with Hutchison, as if he is still wary of forgetting any details. It is easy to see how what began as an attempt to write poetry spilled over into his first non-fiction book.

Although Hutchison’s suicide looms in the background of Pedersen’s retelling, his portrait of their friendship is largely a warm one, overflowing with love and mischief. “It was laughter, it was smutty jokes, it was sharing books and musical tastes, it was some of the best dining experiences of my life. It wasn’t in any way ever taxing to be in a friendship with Scott,” says Pedersen. “All of the other stuff he wrote about in songs. He kept that for himself. I was very fortunate, like a lot of others, to get this real fun, creative beam of glorious joy.”

Both creative people, the two sought ways to collaborate over the course of their friendship, at one point attempting a musical partnership. “We met up a few times to try and write some songs, which it turns out he’s already very good at,” says Pedersen. “My poetic intervention was entirely unnecessary, in fact was stymieing to the overall quality. I’ve still got a few botched attempts at songs sitting on my laptop.” They settled instead on a poetry collection. Pedersen would scribe and Hutchison would sketch the illustrations, which whimsically hinted at the yonic euphemism in the title Oyster. “There was a sort of juvenile ear to my writing and Scott’s imagery, but I think that also has a soppy, forlorn, melancholic and adult resonance as well. I felt they were nice bedfellows.”

Later, Pedersen experienced the peculiar sensation of grieving his own private relationship amidst a collective outpouring of grief for Hutchison, the public figure so well-loved in Scotland’s music scene. In the year that followed Hutchison’s death, close friends of Frightened Rabbit, The Twilight Sad, covered ‘Floating in the Forth’, whose lyrics “I think I’ll save suicide for another year” took on a prophetic slant. Hutchison’s family founded the mental health charity Tiny Changes in recognition of the catharsis that his songs had offered his listeners. For Pedersen’s part, he developed what he calls an “addiction” to reading the slew of anecdotes that friends and fans shared online.

“It was incredible to see the reach of him through his art, through his language, through his humanity as a human being. All those stories popping up with little notes he’d sent people and bespoke illustrations,” Pedersen says. “It made you realise how fortunate you are to have harvested a really personal relationship with someone so many people loved.”

Revisiting that relationship in Curfew Tower, Pedersen had some notion that his diarising might provide raw material that he could sculpt into poems, but it grew legs. “It became this social audit of all the friendships that have punctuated my life,” he says. “Each time I visited my friendship with Scott it led me somewhere else into the past. To understand the friendship I had with Scott and what made it sing so brightly for me, I had to understand who I was in all these other versions of friendship earlier in my life.”

The resulting tome is a tribute not just to Hutchison but to the intense romanticism found in friendships. Pedersen recounts being “smitten” with platonic first loves, the “magnetic pull” of a short-lived but deeply-felt kindred spirit, or feeling “dumped” when old friendships fizzle out. This lovestruck rendering has struck a chord. When Pedersen mailed out proofs of Boy Friends, he received reams of emails back from readers desperate to talk about their own friends, whether they were still in touch after decades or mourning a lost, but once great, connection. “People come into a room as a couple, and people say, ‘How did you meet? How long have you been together?’” says Pedersen. “If you come into a room as a friend, no one really wants to know your backstory, the ingredients of how you got together, but people are bursting to tell you about it.”

With such candid prose, Pedersen paints an unusually forthcoming account of tenderness between men. “It shouldn’t be anti-masculinity to be emotionally receptive to each other,” he says. He remembers feeling jealous of the physical ease that girls had with each other when he was growing up, and now espouses kissing, hand holding and open conversation for men too – something that still feels risky in contemporary Western culture. “Nobody really fits with that stoic form of friendship,” he says. “It’s something which I think has to be battled against, because within it is a loneliness epidemic. Within it is close friends that can’t find a way to tell each other that they need help. It’s a hesitation to reach out, which is dangerous and maybe unnatural.”

Given this stereotype of male reticence, Pedersen was surprised to find an abundance of models for closeness between men in popular culture. In his favourite film, Withnail & I, there is the fervent friendship that burns hot and fast, but ultimately must end before they self-destruct together. Meanwhile in Lord of the Rings, Pedersen notes Legolas and Gimli’s “Montague and Capulet” friendship, the camaraderie between jokers Merry and Pippin, and the goodbye kiss that Frodo gives to Sam. There is plenty of material to go on, he concludes in Boy Friends, to shape a new kind of male bond.

“I learned a lot about just how many beautiful male friendships are out there,” he says. “I’ve been watching Withnail and I and reading Lord of the Rings most of my adult life without seeing how much of a paragon of male friendship each of them was. They’re everywhere – look out for them.”

And what of Hutchison – what lessons did Pedersen glean from their companionship?

“To give it everything you’ve got,” he says. “That [friendship] is one of the true joys of human companionship. That a friend is such a special and mesmeric form of loving and living that comes with no incentives to keep it in your life, at times, apart from the pure joy of what it is. And that even if a friendship is not with us day-to-day, it doesn’t mean it can’t continue to buoy up our very existence.”

Boy Friends by Michael Pedersen is published by Faber

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