Andrew O’Hagan is open about the autobiographical nature of Mayflies. The central character Tully is based on a lifelong friend who died in 2018. He had the leader thing, when he was young, the guts of the classic frontman, and if any of us got together we instantly wanted to know where he was…He wasn’t so much the butterfly as the air on which it travels.The O’Hagan character is James, aged 18 in 1986, living in an Ayrshire town where “Thatcherism had passed through…like the plagues of Exodus”, a town where a mining engineer can’t get a part-time job in a petshop. But James and Tully and their friends are full of the hope and black humour of youth. They say you know nothing at eighteen. But there are things you know at eighteen that you will never know again. Mayflies is a celebration of their youth and a mourning for it, a reckoning in middle age of the trajectories their two lives have taken.
The first half of the book centres round an epic trip to Manchester for what is certain to be the best gig in history – a celebration of punk rock. I did learn rather more than I wanted to about punk rock and punk rockers, and about the films the boys have seen so many times they can quote them by heart. But the power of O’Hagan’s memories sweeps the narrative along irresistibly. You’d have to be a curmudgeon who’s never been young to fail to respond to it.
But there’s more to it than that. James is poised to break out of the hopelessness that surrounds him, having won a place at university, and the future is beginning to close in on Tully: That July it’s the hope and the humour I remember first, but then the shudder, the sense of catastrophic consequences if his father’s life was to become his.
The second half (spoiler alert) 31 years later, opens with a call from Tully telling James he has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now the question becomes, not how to live as if there were no tomorrow, but how to die. When they were young, Tully was the leader; now it’s James’ turn.
This is an important book for its portrayal of Britain in the Thatcher years, and the sense it gives you of how deep and permanent was the damage caused to ordinary lives, a damage that’s becoming more and more evident as time passes. Its celebration of the friendship of young men has rarely been done better. Sometimes the autobiographical element of a novel weakens it; here it has a heartfelt integrity that feels like real life with all its imperfections.