Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan appears to be one of those books especially designed for that subset of people born in the 1960’s – the babies of the baby boomers and the very first Gen X-er’s. Those people too young to get caught up in the whole 60’s music scene, but by dint of being born during that decade, have become associated with that time ever since. A group influenced by music mania, desperate for their own version, so that as they came of age in the late 70’s and throughout the 80’s, they embraced the new music of their age. The post-punk, goth-rock, new wave and new romantics, just to name a few.
This music is O’Hagan’s story.
The story begins with a group of lads from Ayrshire, who are mad for the music coming out of Manchester at this time – Joy Division, The Smiths, James, New Order etc. The kind of music that was informed by, and a reaction against, Thatcherite politics. They’re a group of lads, probably not unlike the ones you went to school with, who could quote entire movies ad nauseum and spend hours dissecting the latest album from their favourite band. It was pretty tedious for the rest of us, but for them it was everything. It was a club of sorts. A bonding process, a way to belong and to be accepted. I suspect many of these men still have their original LP collections, and when you least expect it, as your dinner party is winding down, The Smiths will suddenly blare from their specially designed music/speaker system.
The first half of Mayflies is this group of lads heading off to Manchester for a music weekend. Interspersed amongst the almost impenetrable movie quotes and obscure band references (to the uninitiated) are some lovely gems of writing about friendship, family life and coming of age in the early 80’s.
- being young is a kind of warfare in which the great enemy is experience.
- He had innate charisma, a brilliant record collection, complete fearlessness in political arguments, and he knew how to love more than anybody else.
- Each year, the boy who wasn’t expelled and the girl who wasn’t pregnant became joint dux.
- Some people’s lives are about their parents and some aren’t.
- remembering the good times was a duty of care.
The second half follows this same group of friends, now in their 50’s. It’s 2017 and one of them has just been given a terminal cancer diagnosis.
This is where things get heavy.
Tully is the guy in the group that everyone and everything seems to hang off. He has the charisma, the charm and the cheek that formed the centrepiece of the group. He was the one they all wanted to be like and to spend more time with. And now that he is terminally ill, they all have to reassess who they are and how they fit into the world. What will their lives be like without the Tully sparkle?
The added complication is Tully’s desire to die with dignity, in his own way. He enlists the help of one of the lads to research the Dignitas assisted dying organisation in Switzerland. But Tully, also has a new wife, who he doesn’t seem to be talking to about this, who is hopeful for a cure or a remission or at least much more time together.
For me, the first half of the book was way too long. O’Hagan really didn’t need to devote that much of the story to showing us how and why these lads were so tight. I got the male bonding message in the first fifty pages. But obviously, the world needs more stories about lads being lads whilst away from home at a music festival!
The second half was much more interesting, with a gritty topic up for debate and complicated, authentic dilemmas for our characters to work through. As we come to terms with Tully’s illness and his end of life wishes, we learn that one of the other lads had also committed suicide in his thirties. These lads-no-more, are fully aware of the fragility of life and their inability to change it, but it doesn’t stop them from falling back into the old banter whenever they get together.
That old banter is now full of bittersweet nostalgia. Memory and connection to their past, when they were young together, is the foundation on which their adult lives have been built. Like all of us, when someone we love suddenly gets sick and dies, a struggle takes place to come to terms with our own mortality and theirs.
His dying is now part of your life…It’s one of those events that will appear to reorder your whole past. That’s the story of life, if you’re open to life, and affected by the reality of death.
Mayflies was a tender depiction of male friendship. The endless banter may get tiresome for many readers, but it serves to remind us that intimacy comes in all shapes and sizes. That some men avoid, or don’t know how to have, the tough conversations. Instead, they show they care by remembering their shared histories.
What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of all of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew.
Epigraph: William Butler Yeats
Think where man's glory most begins and ends, And say my glory was I had such friends.
Tully Dawson made himself new to the world, and ripe for the glories of that summer, by showing he was unlike his father. It wasn’t a matter to fight over: some families are made up of strangers and nothing can change it.
Book: Mayflies | Andrew O'Hagan ISBN: 9780571273690 Publisher: Faber Publication Date: September 2020 Format: Trade Paperback