Mayflies, by Andrew O’Hagan – book review / BBC adaptation

I read Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, and then I watched the BBC adaptation by Andrea Gibb. They are quite different beasts, not just because the format of the book doesn’t lend itself to a TV drama. In this review, I’ll concentrate on the book, but will also contrast it a little with the mini-series below. Now that last sentence sounds considerably more structured and formal than you normally get on this site. I guess that O’Hagan taking an issue with huge ethical and philosophical overtones, and then applying it to a novel which is about love and loyalty among the closest of friends, does that. There’s a deliberate self-awareness to the narrative which I suspect is quite hard to pull off. Although we are shown what it is like to be on the inside, we spend our time excluded. Tully, the force of nature at the centre of events, would claim to have no time for any of this introspection, so let’s dive in.

Front cover of Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan
Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan published in the UK by Faber & Faber on 1 September 2020. Source: review copy

Tully, the narrator James/‘Noodles’ and the rest of the gang are in their late teens in the mid 1980s. They live in Ayrshire but their rites and routines will be recognisable to many. Their big pilgrimage to an indie festival in Manchester is the set piece around which the first half of the book revolves. It’s fun, it’s riotous, and it celebrates being young and male and acting without consequences. Without the strength of the relationships forged in the lyrics of the Smiths and the cultural ephemera surrounding the band (eg kitchen sink dramas), the shared experiences and the banter balanced by kindness and generosity – without Noodles there can be no heartbreaking request thirty years later from Tully to James.

The best of these kinds of books take joy in the small detail of everyday life. There are ordinary moments that are important, ordinary moments that when combined with other similar moments become important, and moments of inspiration that rise above. O’Hagan explores this mercilessly: in nominating a writer as his narrator (Mayflies has some autobiographical characteristics), O’Hagan allows James to provide sharp insights or witty aphorisms that are frequent enough to cause us to stop but not so frequent that we get bogged down in them.

O’Hagan wants to know what it is that causes people to be important in our lives. He considers the effect that our immediate family (parents and siblings), teachers and friends may have. James and Tully have different approaches to each of these. A member of the clergy is brought in, more as a philosophical ear than as a figure of authority. The gang explore the relationship between Michael and Fredo Corleone from The Godfather. But Tully’s partner, Anna, is almost completely excluded. From a lesser author it would seem that the power of the long-standing friend overshadows that of the spouse. O’Hagan seems to swerve the bullet…

…but on the small screen Gibb takes a different approach. Anna’s point of view is given far more of an airing. Tully’s illness is known to the viewer early on, and the Manchester trip is dialled down – though a cameo by Johnny Marr survives. What is also lost on the TV screen – I think they had a stab at it but couldn’t make it overt – is a small reference towards the end of the book. James is presented with a seventeenth century copy of Ephemera Vita. 

‘Swammerdam believed that no being was higher than any other being,’ [he said].

‘It’s really wonderful,’ I said. ‘Mayflies’.

The final pages have the reader in pieces; the last sentence is bittersweet beyond possibility. Having got us emotionally where he wants us, O’Hagan ups and offs. It’s up to us to work our way through the morality and philosophy: Tully will go and we – James and Anna on our behalf – have to take it from here. A book which celebrates the patterns of life by championing the importance of the here and now couldn’t have it any other way.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the review copy.

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