Faber & Faber, £14.99
Review by Rosemary Goring
“They say you know nothing at eighteen, but there are things you know at eighteen that you will never know again.” So writes James Collins, better known as Noodles, from the vantage point of middle age. The narrator of Andrew O’Hagan’s impressive sixth novel, James recreates the summer of 1986 when he and a band of friends set off for a weekend music festival in Manchester. Some did not even bring a change of underwear but all carried high hopes. What happened there indelibly changed them all, shaping their aspirations and expectations in such a way that they carried those two days with them as a touchstone for the rest of time.
These raucous, iconoclastic, intellectual, seething and squabbling youngsters are the Mayflies of the title. They are not quite JM Barrie’s perpetual boys but Ayrshire lads so full of spirit, imagination and mischief they give the impression, for a short spell, of being immortal. This multifarious group, with nicknames like Tibbs and Limbo and Clogs, bond around the charismatic figure of Tully Dawson. A would-be musician, he fills the house with deafening heavy metal. His father is a disappointed man, but his mother is warm. She takes Noodles under her wing when his careless parents drift off, leaving him to fend for himself at an age when many teenagers can’t work a washing machine or cooker.
O’Hagan has distinguished himself as one of the country’s foremost writers, in journalism as well as fiction and non-fiction. Here, as in all his work, he shows his eye for the ordinary, using cameos of the everyday as the key to understanding. In most households, recalls Noodles, “dinner was a secretive affair, a ritual to be executed around six o’clock, when a swift heating of pies, a resentful peeling of potatoes, and a stirring of beans would be carried out in an atmosphere of self-pity”. Not so at Tully’s, where his mum would occasionally bring out a bottle of wine and elevate a meal into a memorable event.
Inveterate film-watchers, who are forever quoting favourite lines, Tully’s nickname for James comes from the part played by Robert de Niro in Once Upon A Time in America. That savage, poignant story takes the central figures from hustling Brooklyn childhoods into gangster adulthood and disillusioned advancing age. There is nothing of Brooklyn about Irvine in the 1980s, but as Mayflies progresses a dim connection can be discerned between the outline of the American friendship and that between Tully and James.
With a light touch, O’Hagan captures the mood of conversations between bright working-class boys obsessed with music, books and films, not to mention girls. When the pals head by bus to Manchester, they are on the cusp of independence. James is shortly going to university to study English, while Tully, who is a couple of years older, is a lathe turner, preserving his energy for his band: “He wanted the cover of the NME and a Peel session and a tour of Britain in a Bedford van. At that time, there was no other version of tomorrow that appealed to him.”
The dialogue between the boys is realistically larky and pretentious, although for anyone not in thrall to The Smiths and Joy Division, there are longueurs. What does grip, however, is O’Hagan’s evocation of being young. There is nothing patronising or shame-faced in the scenes in which he draws on material familiar to all those who found like-minded friends at this age, and who flung themselves headlong at experience. If O’Hagan does not idealise youth itself, he bestows it with dignity and importance.
The embarrassing gulf between Noodles’s world and that of his parents is succinctly described. For his mum and dad, Perry Como and Nat King Cole were the thing, along with the likes of “ration-book torch singers… dressed to the nines in yellow crochet”. Idolising Morrissey and Ian Curtis was shorthand for reaching the far bank of a cultural river so wide no bridge could span it.
Ayrshire is O’Hagan’s stamping ground, and its drizzle and never-ending Sundays infuse the summer of 1986. His version of the west-coast is far from glamorous – “Thatcherism had passed through the town like the plagues of Exodus” – yet the boys are suffused with restlessness and optimism. Tully in particular shines bright: “He wasn’t so much the butterfly as the air on which it travels,” writes O’Hagan, profligate with his insect metaphors, but hinting at a Shakespearean otherworldliness and impishness in his hero.
A book of two halves, divided by three decades, Mayflies flits from 1986 to resume in the autumn of 2017. At this point, the brio and charm of the opening develops into arguably O’Hagan’s…
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