O’Hagan’s brilliant friend, a coming-of-age story for grown-ups

If you can’t imagine how much comedy, sadness and history there is in us, read “Mayflies” by Andrew O’Hagan. It reminds us of the unlearned things, makes us understand those that still elude us and allows us to learn new ones, necessary to continue our journey, perhaps in solitude. Maybe because our best friend is gone…

Mayflies, written by Andrew O’Hagan and published by Faber & Faber, has left an important mark on me.  

The novel – a semi-autobiographical narration of the author’s experiences – didn’t land in my hands by chance. Yet, the plot is so rich, so intense, and so sharp that I couldn’t help still being pleasantly surprised. When it was first announced, I’d been immediately drawn to it, the way a haunting dog is drawn to the truffles it’s been trained to find. The faces on the cover were the first thing that piqued my interest. Their gaze is quite striking. The vitality it communicates is a truthful snippet of the book.  The black and white image doesn’t only serve as a symbol of the historical period narrated, but it also prepares the reader for what there is in store. The pages tell the stories of youth, of «romantic, outraged, fierce and sublime years, of factories, depression, fears that grow throughout life». 

I must add that Scotland holds a special place in my heart, and therefore, in the last few years, I have been enjoying reading novels by contemporary Scottish authors set in that corner of the UK. 

That’s partially why “Mayflies” appealed to me. I hoped to find myself in Edinburgh or Glasgow. Maybe in a pub, sitting with a pint of beer amongst the working class, still left to deal with the psychological and financial consequences of Thatcherism, the open wound that characterized the 80s, as they are trying to face Brexit and the still-raging pandemic.
The novel exceeded my expectations.

This summer so far, this autumn so close

If I wanted to briefly explain the book, I would say that “Mayflies” is an epic tale about a friendship, that started and developed throughout the novel’s two sections.
The book jumps from past to present, and delves into a masterfully crafted tone shift while exploring a wide range of themes. Going from political and sociological analyses to conversations about the musical and cultural impact of indie and punk, the book finishes with a discussion about euthanasia.
The titles of the two sections summarise quite well the journey that is the brotherhood between Jimmy Collins, known as Noodles and literary alter-ego of the author, and Tully Dawson, inspired by Keith Martin, O’Hagan’s “brilliant friend” who died prematurely.
Actually, the titles serve more as metaphors than mere chapter identifiers: “Summer 1986” and “Autumn 2017”. How else could the writer have explained the fate of this close-knit friendship if not for the two seasons that represent respectively the blossoming and the maturity stage of any existential path? 

Music and comedy

The first part of the novel it’s all about «music and comedy». We are in Irvine Town, in Ayrshire. Noodles is barely 18, waiting for high school to be done and university to begin. His parents «stop being parents». They separate and move elsewhere to follow each their own dreams, dreams that feel more like a child’s tantrum than actual life goals. All that Noodles can do is let twenty-year-old Tully Dawson and his mother guide him; Tully, who plays in a band, has an «innate charisma, a brilliant record collection, complete fearlessness in political argument, and he knew how to love you more than anybody else. […] He had the leader thing […], 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». He’s ready for an adventure beyond the bushes in Ayrshire and he dives into it, bringing along not just Jimmy but the whole group of friends: the plan is to go to Manchester for the best concert of all times, a celebration of punk rock to be held at the G-Mex conference centre. 

“Summer 1986” is the tale of an experience destined to become legendary: teenagers with shining eyes that take control over their lives, hearts full, singing together «And the words we sang were daft and romantic and ripe and British, custom-built for the clear-eyed young words, written for them». «What we had that day was our story […]. Perhaps it would change our memory of all this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish». 

Learning how to say goodbye

Years go by. Jimmy is a successful journalist and writer, and he lives in London. Tully has become a teacher and he has not left Scotland. 

Unfortunately, they don’t have the luxury to forget that everything has to eventually end, that « humanity has a hundred per cent mortality rate». In the second part of the novel, we follow the protagonists as they face the hardest test there is: learning how to say goodbye. 

«It was always a struggle to reach the future». “Autumn 2017” walks us through all the difficult steps of the final fight, because the near future is – for one of the friends – the final bow. Tully has terminal cancer. He phones Jimmy to ask for three things: to organise his wedding to his partner Anna, to write a book about their friendship, to help him die by travelling with him to Switzerland. 

«Make death proud to take us». This verse from Antony & Cleopatra becomes the motto that leads Tully to choose euthanasia. The tone shift in “Autumn 2017” is piercing, but necessary. 

A long hug

“Summer 1986” is a 33-lap record played at the speed of a 45-lap record, its rhythm dizzying. In “Autumn 2017” O’Hagan/Jimmy’s voice slows down until it’s back to normal. It becomes insightful, warm, comforting. It turns into a long hug that in the ‘80s, when men were still not used to showing affection, could not have been imagined. 

If we assumed that getting older is just another stage in growing up, we could argue that even during these years people need a coming-of-age story.
«They say you know nothing at eighteen. But there are things you know at eighteen that you will never know again». This is why “Mayflies” can be that adult coming-of-age book. We need it to remember the things we unlearnt, understand truths that we still don’t know and find out new information, necessary to move forward – maybe on our own now that our own Tully is gone. 

If you can’t really grasp how much comedy, how much sadness, how much story there is in all of us, read “Mayflies”. Andrew O’Hagan rewrites his own experience keeping the essence of his friendship alive. He does it to honour Tully, himself and maybe even each of us. 

(Thank you Vittoria Francesca Zampella for translating the original piece)

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