Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Everyone has that one friend who is so vibrant that when you’re with them, everything else dissolves to mere backdrop. And everyone has had those nights that seem to simultaneously last forever and be over in an instant – in which memory and experience dance and tangle and become indistinguishable. And this mélange is itself usually inseparable from that vibrant friend who was inevitably there that night and is still with you now – forming a bridge that runs from past to present and makes some kind of future imaginable, too. The justly famous W.B. Yeats poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ provides a crystalline distillation: ‘That is no country for old men. The young/ In one another’s arms, birds in the trees, / — Those dying generations—at their song’.

Andrew O’Hagan’s latest book, Mayflies, is premised on a particular instance of this universally relatable trajectory. The first half of the book takes place over one night in Manchester. The protagonist is James, then twenty-one years old, new disciple of Yeats and also of English poetry, enjoying the carefree interim between high school and university. The friend is Tully: outrageously charismatic, loyal, lost, lover of post-punk, disciple of a good time. They watch The Fall, lay eyes on Morrissey, drink a disgusting number of pints – the night lasts a lifetime.

The second half of the book is everything else. That is, the afterlife of that night – the youthful friendship that matures with age and has to deal with ruptures and resilience that would have been inconceivable to a young twenty-something on his tenth drink. It’s a heartbreaking book, but it never loses the euphoria established in its first half, and so it becomes a testament to the time-traversing nature of friendship, to its power in opening the compatible registers of sorrow and ecstasy, confinement and freedom. It’s a joy – and the soundtrack rocks.

Jeremy George works as a bookseller at Readings Malvern.

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Andrew O'Hagan

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