Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 277 pages; 2020.
Andrew O’Hagan is a Scottish writer and literary critic with several award-winning novels and non-fiction books to his name.
Mayflies, his sixth novel, won the Christopher Isherwood Prize for Autobiographical Prose in 2020, with the judges describing it as “exuberant and heartbreaking”.
They weren’t wrong. This is a rare novel that starts out full of bonhomie and youthful energy and a cheerfulness that resonates off the page. By the end, the reader is left feeling bereft in the knowledge that life, for some, can be full of challenges despite our very best efforts to make something of ourselves. But there is also an aching awareness of the importance of love and friendship in all stages of our lives.
A book of two halves
Mayflies is a coming-of-age story framed around a group of working-class Ayrshire lads growing up in Thatcher’s Britain and is divided into two equal parts. The first is set in the summer of 1986; the second, some 30 years later, in the autumn of 2017.
It’s narrated by Jimmy, a bookish 18-year-old who has “divorced” his parents, and largely hangs out with his larger-than-life friend, Tully, whose family have pretty much adopted him as one of their own.
It’s this friendship between the quiet, thoughtful schoolboy Jimmy and the mischevious and fun-to-be-around lathe-turner Tully that forms the heart of the novel.
Together with a group of friends — Limbo, Tibbs, Dr Clogs and Hogg — they head to Manchester for a weekend of music and mayhem, a weekend that turns out to be one of the most formative experiences of their lives, filled with banter, booze, adrenalin and a sense of freedom.
The Manchester scene
For those of us of a certain, a-hem, age (O’Hagan is just a year older than me), Manchester was the musical Mecca of the world in the mid-to-late 1980s and beyond, and O’Hagan beautifully captures the awe and excitement of seeing those quintessential bands of the time, as punk merged into New Wave, and offered up the likes of Joy Divison, New Order and The Smiths.
We came into Manchester like air into Xanadu*. The place was a state of mind to us and we saw cascades of glitter in ordinary things.
The novel is shot through with references to the record stores (Picadilly Records), music venues (G-Mex), nightclubs (Hacienda) and record labels (Factory) of the time, which lends a ring of authenticity — and nostalgia.
I was a record-shop obsessive in my day, so this quote particularly resonated:
We were all obsessed with record shops. The major churches of the British Isles, with their stained glass, rood screens, and flying buttresses, were as nothing next to some grubby black box under Central Station, or some rabbit hutch in Manchester, which sold imports, fanzines, and gobbets of gig information.
But I also enjoyed the name-checking of bands and films and books and political events — the UK miner’s strike et al — and I laughed out loud at the scene in which Jimmy and Tully spot the members of The Smiths coming down the stairs of the hotel they were drinking in and going out into the street.
I thought I was seeing stuff — nobody else in the foyer seemed to notice. I elbowed Tully and he turned to see Morrissey and Marr. A lurch in the stomach. The singer was wearing a red shirt and he hit the air like a chip-pan on fire. Right behind him was Johnny Marr, light and young as his melodies and smoking a fag. The word ‘vermillion’ came to mind, and so did his lyrics, all the band’s images, and that’s how it works when you’re a fan who thinks Keats might save the world. In an instant, without a word being exchanged, Tully and I were through the doors and onto the pavement, just in time to see the famous Mancunians stepping into a Rolls-Royce.
Change in gear
When the book reaches the halfway point, there is a definite change in gear. Gone is the exuberance and energy of the first half, instead, there is a sombre, more serious tone to the writing reflected in the age of the characters who are now middle-aged men living quietly middle-class lives, far removed from the working-class roots of their fathers.
Jimmy is a successful writer living in London with his wife, Iona, who works in the theatre; Tully has gone back to school to transform himself into an English teacher and he is now Head of English at a school in Glasgow. He has a long-term partner, Anna, and is relatively happy and settled.
A phone call brings them back together again and what follows tests both men’s friendship, Jimmy’s relationship with Anna, and their worldviews.
This part might sound depressing, but it’s shot through with humour — Tully never loses his zest for life and his penchant for banter — and there’s a wedding that brings together many of the lads from the Manchester trip who haven’t seen each other for decades, as well as a holiday to Sicily that is depicted with charm and vividness.
Throughout, O’Hagan treads a fine line, showing the contrast between middle age and youth, without sliding into sentimentality. Yes, it’s occasionally wistful and there’s an undercurrent of pathos, but the story, as a whole, is evocative and poignant.
It explores many issues including the positive long-term impact a teacher can have on a student’s future; the importance of defending working-class rights but not their prejudices; the far-reaching consequences of Thatcherite politics on an entire generation and the ways in which the more recent Brexit referendum will do something similar. But I especially loved its depiction of music, male friendship and mortality.
If you liked this, you might also like:
‘The Guts’ by Roddy Doyle: Male friendship, family and music form the central themes of this frank and funny novel about a man grappling with his own mortality in the face of a cancer diagnosis.
* This is how I felt about London when I first arrived in the summer of 1998!