Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Mayflies is written in two parts: part one is set in Summer 1986 and part two is set in Autumn 2017.  The seasons selected for the titles of the parts suggest the mood of what is contained within them.

The protagonists are Tully and his best friend James [or Noodles as Tully calls him].  They live in a small Scottish town and the year is 1986.  Their friendship is based on a love of music and films and a deep wish to escape the lives of their fathers.  James – the narrator of the story – calls them ‘the reluctant fathers’: ‘[t]hey sat at home opening cans of lager and cursing our Saturday nights’ [3].

Tully is twenty and James is eighteen and both are full of adolescent hubris.  Their conversation is peppered with film and music references and statements about life which seem almost to be aphorisms and perhaps unlikely to come from the mouths of young not-quite men.  James says of his parents [who moved away and left him behind] ‘they were put on earth just to make it smaller than it is’ [21].

Tully, James and some other friends are planning a trip to Manchester for a weekend music festival.  In July 1986, a music festival was held at the Manchester G-MEX Centre to celebrate the tenth anniversary of ‘Punk in the City’ and part one of this story is centred around this actual event.

The friendship of Tully and James runs deep and their weekend in Manchester is a defining moment for them.  The description of the boys’ activities over the weekend is beautifully rendered and captures the exuberance of young people free of the constraints of home and parents.  Tully and James and their other friends go from one music event to another drinking and drug-taking all the way with an unrealised hope to meet some young women for ‘snogging’.

What they wanted was ‘further adventures, more time, more everything’ [132] as if the shadows of adulthood and responsibility were already drawing in.  But that is the future and now ‘the boys are made of sunshine’ [133].

Thirty-one years later in 2017, Tully is the Head of English at a Glasgow secondary school and James is a successful journalist in London.  Both are married but they ‘never went far from the pond’ [140].  While they have had some contact during the intervening years, a phone call from Tully to James in 2017 ‘defined the year’ for both and with the call came a realisation that their ‘friendship had a final destination’.

Part two essentially charts what follows from the phone call and its immediate cause.  It explores the meaning of friendship and captures the nascent conflict between the two friends as one decides on a drastic course of action and asks the other to support him – to some extent against his better judgement.

There are contrasting thoughts from Tully’s wife Anna regarding whether the course of action is the correct one; and this allows the author to uncover the nature of male friendship and the implicit tension between a male’s friends and his spouse.  As Anna says ‘It’s the old game of men rescuing each other and being rescued.  While we watch’ [262].

Andrew O’Hagan has written a fine book based on his experiences as a young man and his close friendship with Keith Martin.  As with James whose life was defined by Tully, Keith was the friend who defined the author’s life.   The author has drawn on that friendship and the way it ended to shed light on the nature of friendship, love and loss.  The result is a very moving novel which encourages the reader to recall her/his adolescent friendships and the belief they would never come to an end.

The title Mayflies – apposite for the novel – comes from the name of the insect ‘mayfly’ or Ephemera Vita which lives for only a few hours after hatching.  The Latin name says it all – a brief few hours in the sun and then death.

Andrew O’Hagan is Editor-at-Large of the London Review of Books.   He has been nominated for the Booker Prize and has won the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Mayflies

[2020]

by Andrew O’Hagan

Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 0 571 27369 0

$29.99; 277pp

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