The extravagant, joyous, anarchic writing of Michael Pedersen’s ‘Boy Friends’ — our June Book of the Month — is a hymn to the alchemy of friendship, writes Helen Mort.
‘Every time I finish an excellent book,’ writes Michael Pederson in Boy Friends, ‘I announce a list of reasons why it was memorable. I wouldn’t want it thinking that I thought it was an arsehole or worse, that I was incurious about it. This method of celebrating the greatness around me I apply to all my friendships.’
When I finished reading Boy Friends, I had the urge to do exactly that, listing its brilliant observations, tender moments, witticisms and surprises as a way of preserving them for myself. I’d unintentionally and uncharacteristically devoured the book in one hungry sitting. Over the course of an evening, I put it down several times, intent on keeping a dozen everyday promises to myself: send emails, cook tea, fold washing. But the book made those things pointless. It was like a really excellent bottle of red wine that I couldn’t stop sipping and pouring from until it was inexplicably empty and 1am. That seems an apt analogy, because one of the presiding spirits of Boy Friends is M’hudi Pinotage, a wine made special to the author by the occasion and friendships surrounding its first tasting in South Africa. Every object or place mentioned in Boy Friends is suffused with the meaning and context that people we love can give, from oysters to albums, from the sea at Ullapool to a tower in Northern Island.
For a while, I’ve lamented the lack of good literature around friendship, how it seems to play second fiddle to romantic love (even though the boundaries may not be as clear cut as we pretend). I enjoy the way Sally Rooney’s novels complicate our understanding of intense female friendship. But bonds between male friends have remained weirdly neglected, as if we are scared to examine them too closely. Thank goodness for Michael Pederson’s honesty and humour. Here is a hymn to the alchemy of friendship, from tentative, formative childhood connections to the all-out ‘bromance’ of connections forged at university and beyond. We meet Daniel, his best friend at Portobello High School in Edinburgh, then Sparrow at University (‘Sparrow smelled like old books…a rich and nutty smell, sweetened by rain. He also looked like Frodo Baggins.’), and Rowley and Jake, friends from his early twenties whose companionship is often turbulent (Jake first ‘offered and advocated heroin to me’).
Pederson is a true poet and his observations are suffused with a Norman MacCaig-like mischief, his pen portraits sharp, funny and affectionate, his descriptions of place and weather brimming with inventiveness. The sea of Moyle is ‘a rowdy spill of water’. The elements are capricious: ‘I watch the sun make up its mind how bold a role to play in the day’. In Ireland ‘the sky flings spears of light in through the wee windows…bright rays corkscrew doggedly into each room’. The writing is extravagant, joyous, anarchic. Even the mixed metaphors feel exactly right, necessary. The book is peppered with lists which are like small poems in themselves. There’s a kind of irreverence at play, the kind that belies an extreme reverence and respect underneath, a fidelity to the subject.
And that reverence is abundant. Much of the book revolves around a ‘you’: Pederson’s cherished friend, musician Scott Hutchinson from the band Frightened Rabbit who died suddenly in 2018. The book aches for Scott and it honours him on every page. They met in 2012 at the Edinburgh night Neu! Reekie! after Hutchinson was booked to perform there. Describing their first meeting, Pederson says:
‘Sometimes a stranger’s stare lands so purposefully it’s safe to assume they’ve seen part of the future yet to unfurl. This is the way you first looked at me.’
Getting to know each other was a transformative process:
‘It was like a combination of deja vu, finding an old love letter and being gifted a hand-knitted cardigan from a friend no-one knew could knit.’
Anyone who has felt the thrill of a new, important friendship knows that feeling, but I doubt any of us have seen it articulated so precisely before. It was a meeting of hearts and minds. Living near to one another and working on artistic collaborations, they became closer:
‘I came to realise that there was not a single social situation that wouldn’t be improved by you being in it.’
In this friendship is the trace of all others, their joy but also their darkness, the sense of beautiful collision and the agony of momentary disconnection, seeing someone else’s pain and not being able to help them. When Hutchinson died, just days after being on a trip North with Pederson, just before they were due to gig together, his world was upended. The book contains some of the best descriptions of the contradictions of grief I’ve ever encountered: ‘time is standing still, until its races by like a cat with a bird in its belly…I feel important and guilty about it.’
The writing in Boy Friends is elegiac, but it is too expansive to be defined by the term ‘elegy’. Or perhaps that just makes it a true elegy, alive to the sprawling complexities of those we know best and yet can never fully know at all. Through the reflections captured here, Pederson comes to terms with his own sense of responsibility: ‘the happiness people need is bigger and more esoteric than we are able to ascertain.’ Friendship offers us a brief tether on this earth. That’s worth something. And its our duty to value it, celebrate it as Pederson does here.
On a writing residency in Northern Ireland, Pederson describes the sudden fear of the supernatural and the idea of a talisman to ward off spirits:
‘I still carry a glass bottle for protection, knowing full well I canna glass a ghost. What I can do is be brave enough to endure it and reach back, open the door and let the ghosts in.’
That’s what this book does. It is courageous and generous in equal measure. I am so thankful for it.
Michael will discuss the book with Bill Drummond at our event at The Social, London, on Wednesday 6th July. There’ll also be music by Eyes of Others and Withered Hand. More info/tickets available here.
Helen Mort is the author of ‘Black Car Burning’ and ‘A Line Above the Sky: A Story of Mountains and Motherhood’. She is also a poet. She appears in both capacities as part of our lineup for this year’s Good Life Experience, where she will read from her latest collection, and talk mountains and climbing with ‘Time On Rock’ author Anna Fleming. Follow her on Twitter here.