(Faber & Faber)
(Faber & Faber)
In the summer of 1986, in a small Scottish town, James and Tully ignite a brilliant friendship based on music, films and the rebel spirit, and solidify it during a magical weekend in Manchester – the epicentre of everything that inspires them in working-class Britain. Thirty years later and James’s phone rings. Tully has news and needs his friend’s help. Scottish novelist and journalist O’Hagan’s latest book is a love letter to friendship and youth in a time of hardship and hope.
What does Manchester represent to your protagonists in 1986, and what does it represent to you now?
Manchester was just the most interesting place in Britain to us. It had great music, terrific films, a rousing industrial past – and there was a sort of magic to the city. There still is for me: I love the spirit of the place, the sense of a common inheritance. Not every city has that. Some cities could be anywhere, just shops, outlets, the same stratification of social life. In 1986, we felt that Manchester was the centre of the world. It was still very much a post-war environment then, none of the sparkly world-city-ness that you see now. You felt the struggle was real and the imagination was shared. The essence of that Manchester is still there. You feel it has an accent of the mind, as well as of speech, and I love it.
Through listening to music and reading about it in that period, working-class kids could find the worlds of politics, art and literature opened up to them. Was there something unique in the air that made that possible at that time, or was it just another period of youth culture?
It was a rare time, because the politics of working-class life was visible everywhere. There was a feeling of resistance during the Thatcher period, and the music carried it to a T. If you cared about social issues, such as homelessness, for instance, or global issues, like nuclear disarmament, the way to express it and to bid for decency was in the music, the drama, and the literature being produced. There was no social media, so social engagement and political realisation came via the music you liked and the politics that mattered to you. So it was much more hands-on and human, in a way. You didn’t think you had to go to Oxford or Cambridge or get rich or famous to realise your potential – you could form a band, or just follow one, and if you had talent and luck the world would listen. It was a golden time for DIY-culture: we formed bands in our bedrooms and designed the artwork ourselves and half the kids were signing on the dole. It didn’t matter. The thing was to inhabit your own culture rather than mimic somebody else’s. Factory Records, for instance, might have been a shambles, but it had a truth and integrity you wouldn’t find in the entertainment moguls of Los Angeles. It was somehow ours.
Teenage friendships are incredibly intense and help define our future selves but somehow become less vital in adulthood. Do they become more important in later years?
Those friendships feel important at the time, though – like school, like some of the bands you love – they often disappear. I was always lucky in that I held on to my teenage friends. I moved away but I never removed myself, if you like, from the people who knew me. There’s a magic, especially as you get older, in being with people with whom you don’t have to explain your language or the reality of your past. I would argue that people who just pick up new friends as they go, and have no history with anybody, are just exiles in a way. I think there’s a value in your question: old friendship can deepen your sense of the passing years. It grounds you in something beyond your own ambition – it calls you back, and I often come across people who I think have lost that. They only have themselves in adulthood and whatever new version of themselves is current. I can’t give advice about how to live a life, but the past is never really the past. As an adult you have to come to some kind of reckoning with where you’ve been and what remains.
Mayflies is a novel of two halves with a 30 year interval. Did you take a different approach to writing them?
They are like two speakers on a sound system, playing the same track. I couldn’t have written one without the other – just as no childhood really resonates without the promise of the adulthood to follow, so it is that no adulthood has substance without the preceding childhood. I wrote the first half of Mayflies knowing exactly what was coming. The drama, if you like, is in seeing how the central characters continue to be tested by the lessons of their young years. It was always a comedy and a tragedy, as life is, but for me there was a joy in trying to form a complete story about the friendship at the centre of the book. I felt I finally understood something about myself.
Jimmy’s adventure to Manchester takes place in the summer between leaving school and going to university. Do you think that summer can ever be recaptured for this year’s A Level leavers?
Yes, I do. This summer has been full of frustrations and government idiocy and today’s school-leavers will never forget it. But they will overcome it. It will come to represent a period of fast growth for many young people, and a lesson – a bit like a 1980s lesson – that the system cannot be trusted. That might sound like a negative thing, but out of such resistance and clarity great freedom grows. I love this generation, and think they will do things with the world – abolishing systemic prejudice, taking down ingrained privilege, giving voice to the voiceless – in ways that my generation tried to do but didn’t get close enough. I hope I have the courage to feel uncomfortable and to join them as they make the world their own. When you’re young you think people a few dozen years older than you are the enemy – and I’m sure we are, a bit – but when you expand your mind you see we are all just infants together, crowded into this tiny pocket of time. There is nothing separating us but our unwillingness to empathise.
Do all the best stories have to end in loss?
Well, all lives must end in loss – that’s the hardest fact of all. You might know it, but you just can’t see it clearly when you’re 18. When people you really loved begin to die, it revolutionises your sense of what living is all about. We are all orphaned, again and again. Even the happiest stories must echo into loss, but there’s a grandeur in what’s left behind – just knowing that there was something magical in your experience. The person who influenced Mayflies, my old friend Keith, had a story that ended, too early, in loss, but what he leaves behind is a legacy of all the gains he brought about in others. In that sense, a well-lived life – a life of decency, political awareness and joy – is perpetual. Earth is all the heaven we’ll ever know, and those who leave it – having really been here – are never gone, if they had friends.
As a non-fiction writer, you’ve covered people such as Julian Assange and Bitcoin pioneer Craig Wright, who are hard to pin down. Does fiction come as a relief, in that you can control your characters?
It’s a good question. But no writing is ever easy, if you’re serious about it. You use different muscles on different jobs, but if you really care about character and story, you’ll knock yourself out trying to write something ace, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. I’ve met people in life, spent years with them, who are as unreal, in certain ways, than anybody I’ve created in fiction. (Hello, Julian Assange.) And I’ve written others, straight from the heart of invention, whom I feel could walk up and shake my hand now. Good writing helps you to live your life, and furthermore it makes you ask yourself what life is. Reality doesn’t just exist, it is made, it is found, and there are things in this latest novel which are truer than any piece of reportage I’ve ever written. Having said that, I look forward to having a holiday from my own memories.