Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan: A Love Story of a Life Shared


Lucy Wiggins (she/her) reviews Andrew O'Hagan's novel, Mayflies

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By Lucy Wiggins

I discovered Mayflies through its adaptation for the BBC, released at the end of last year, starring Line of Duty’s Martin Compston and Tony Curran. It is a tale grounded in the lifelong friendship of Tully and Jimmy, who have shared the first decades of their lives together, making a colourful history out of Thatcher’s Britain. The novel shifts between their memories of a misspent youth, culminating in a surreal weekend of New Order, The Fall and The Smiths in Manchester, and the reason for their resurfacing; the friends' struggles in the present. As mortality looms over them, Jimmy must be the one to come to Tully’s aid.

I found it to be one of those rare occasions where the adaptation captures the book’s feel almost perfectly, though at times the characters are underdeveloped to create a quotable adaptation. It doesn’t give you the full experience of reading O’Hagan’s descriptions of Jimmy’s (a writer) point of view. Every other page of my copy is dog-eared, containing wisdom I don’t want to forget and writing I admire.

The author has captured, through his use of natural imagery (Tully’s sister ‘wading’ through her thoughts to reach a meaning) contrasted with frank conversations, what a great friendship can be; a mix of the meaningful truths and the weightless nonsense we say and do in between. Yellow paint splashed drunkenly on books in their case. In his writing, O’Hagan has crafted a slideshow of old photographs, Jimmy dreaming on the train ‘in black and white’. It is an ‘ode to lost youth’ as Douglas Stuart describes it, but also something deeper. An ode to a unique type of love, one founded in the innocence of youth; a connection to something that cannot be lost.

In one line, O’Hagan can encapsulate the unanswerable nature of most questions that arise as life gets more serious. At one point, Tully’s wife Anna simply says to Jimmy ‘he needed you’, and the section ends. Is this anger at, or acceptance of their unique relationship and Jimmy’s decisions? There is no answer, no right feeling. And the novel reassures us that is okay, we are meant to focus on the things in between. Tully knowing Jimmy’s ‘top three smoking scenes’ in film is more important than what is right or wrong. There are questions we might never have the answers for, but there are truths we can believe in. Old friendship is a love nothing compares to. It can sustain us for a lifetime, and that is enough.

O’Hagan portrays the performative aspect of friendship so well, something particular to childhood friends where one liners are integral to refresh that bond. A friendship established and maintained by a double act you perform for each other. Success is their laughter and a look of affirmation. Tully and Noodle’s way of doing this is through old film lines from Al Pacino and De Niro. They talk about them and the revolutionary figures in their teens, like Mark E. Smith, as if they were mates from their neighbourhood. Tully talks about them having lived a life that can be traced through their quotes. Their ‘final quote’ underlies the book, ‘given’ to Tully by Jimmy. It is from Anthony and Cleopatra; make ‘death be proud to take us’. This performance, or romanticism of their lives, gives them realism, but also the magnitude their emotions are worthy of. Death would be proud to take the character of Tully Dawson, living on in the mind like the epic hero he believes himself to be until the final page.

Mayflies portrays the sense of immortality we feel in old friendship and a shared history. We know it is an illusion but, like Jimmy’s reference to Graham Greene’s take on friendship, we cannot admit  they have grown old as it would mean we have too. There are things that cannot be said, and people who are only part of that lost youth which, if mentioned, would expose the inherent falseness of this nostalgia. Tully and Jimmy lost their friend who did not want the good times to end and ended up being devoured by them. There are things they know they cannot say to each other, at risk that the dark should overshadow the light of their memories.

O’Hagan interweaves memories of his characters’ imperfect, but in many ways idyllic, youth; Tully and his mum, nights of music, booze, and things you can only feel at eighteen, and the present. The value the past holds for them and looking back to the realities they did not want to see, is the centre of the novel. O’Hagan portrays the complex and impactful relationships of parent and child subtly, but remarkably well through his focus on Tully and Jimmy’s relationship. Tully wants to make ‘death’ proud to take him, to be bold enough to ‘go at life differently’. Yet in the end he only wants to score a goal his father would be proud of.