Mayflies | Andrew O’Hagan

Bliss was it was in that dawn to be alive, and to be young was very heaven… Circling the drain here in 2020, I now realise, mournfully, what a golden age for youth the mid 80s was. How blessed we were. Despite Thatcher and the misery and ruin that she and her toxic disciples wrought, it was a wonderful time to be young. The excitement of the music of that time was everything. Everything was new, possible, electric. Like Mayflies’ narrator, Jimmy, I lived for John Peel, the NME, records and books; I too unexpectedly found myself with a job in the dole office when I left school. This book brought back that time so tangibly; I wanted to go back and listen to the sparse spiky music from that time – Delta 5, The Pop Group, Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire. Even The Fall.

‘Mayflies’ – what an evocative and perfectly-chosen title. The most ephemeral of creatures, with just a single day to live its whole life, emerging to dance and sparkle in the light in a blaze of pure life force, and then gone. It’s a book of two halves – a concise rise and fall. In the first, the narrator, his live-wire best friend Tully and their mates go to what they consider the greatest gig of all time, the pinnacle of their youth, if not their lives. In the second half, 30 years later, Tully is terminally ill and enlists Jimmy’s help in arranging his final months of life. And that’s it really.

It’s something like a stripped-down Scottish Rotters Club / Our friends in the North hybrid. There’s a hefty bit of 80s social/industrial history (yay), and a lot about identity, music, youth, change, aspiration, allegiance, all set against the backdrop of the death of Scotland’s shipyards, coal mines and steel works, rather than Jonathan Coe’s Birmingham motor industry. It’s very dialogue-driven (yay again) and there is some brilliant banter between the group of friends, which reminded me of Ali Smith (another Scot) who does witty zippy dialogue while dealing with heavy stuff, and carries it off, as Andrew O’Hagan does. Must be something in the water. Or some other beverage.

Am I over-romanticising or did toxic masculinity loosen its grip a bit then as well? The post-punk era was a time when serious, shy, bookish, gentler males could be seen as cool; there wasn’t the blokey yobbery or violent tribalism of previous youth subcultures. At any rate Tully is exuberantly affectionate with his pals; Jimmy is literary and studious. Both are council estate boys, and while drinking and football are essential to their world (it begins and ends on a football pitch), both are determined to be nothing like the men their distant bitter fathers were. And they succeed.

Young Tully and Jimmy have a mania for quoting films (gangster movies and 60s kitchen sink dramas, an interesting combination), and whole conversations are carried out in film quotes, with a few song lyrics sprinkled in. I’ll be honest: although realistic, this grated a bit. It’s partly about creating a exclusive shared language of in-jokes and references as a bonding thing. But more, it felt authentic in that how as a teenager, before you’ve lived much, you appropriate these expressions to help define yourself, signal the kind of person you are or how you identify – same as wearing badges and t-shirts (and how important THEY were). Others’ words act as stand-ins to express yourself because life hasn’t given you your own words yet. It’s probably a bit overdone, but there’s a truthfulness to it. (That, and being a bit didactic at times, and few too many minor characters made it a 4-star rather than 5-star read for me.)

But the big thing, the bond between the two men, is really poignant and lovingly done. As youths, Tully offers Jimmy a home and family, and Jimmy persuades Tully to return to studying and not piss his life away as a factory worker. Three decades later their loyalty is undiminished, and Jimmy enables Tully to leave life being Tully in all his glory, in an ending which was genuinely beautiful, without being mawkish. A gorgeous bittersweet life-affirming little book that I devoured in two sittings, and highly recommend.

Advance reader copy supplied by Netgalley.