The eastern avant garde

Vítězslav Nezval – Woman in the Plural (Twisted Spoon Press)

Vítězslav Nezval was a founder of the Czech surrealists. This is the first English translation of Woman in the Plural (1936) along with Karel Teige’s wonderful original illustrations. Twisted Spoon have done a great job of putting this together, in a handsome hardback.

Breton’s Free Union poem (1931) seems to be a model for some of the work here. List poems that begin with ‘like’ open out in the mind, into weird urban blooms.

Like the rotations of a coffee grinder
Like the quivering eye of a neon sign
Like a barmoeter

The Czech surrealist collective Devětsil which Nezval co-founded – in its initial manifesto – advocated that its acolytes turn to everyday modernism. Big buildings, aeroplanes and posters. In this there is a similarity with Apollinaire, with Blaise Cendrar’s ‘Profound Today’, and they are precursors to the poetical sections of Ivan Chtcheglov’s ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, although by then the european avant-garde were bored with the city.

Here, Nezval takes on the theme of ‘woman’, of an everyday urban eroticism. The translators write that the way Nezval handles the subject of women would cause alarm today. But Toyen, the Czech artist who refused to end sentences with feminine clauses, who was essentially transgender, appears in its pages. It’s very tame, actually, in comparison with the – on one hand – pornified everyday landscape, and on the other the raging gender and culture wars. It feels like a gentler landscape, even though it was not, and in ’36 it was about to become intolerably harsh for a long time.

The founder of the Prague Linguistic School, Roman Jakobson, was also involved with Devětsil. Appropriately, then, there is some formal innovation here. Whole sections run like dramatic dialogue, for instance. The Prague surrealists are in and out of the theatres watching each other’s rehearsals.

A chapter runs as ‘Pages from a Diary’. This section is very rich, historically. A mention of a letter from ‘H Bousquet’ who is terminally ill and never leaves his rooms, makes me wonder if Nezval means Joë Bousquet. The dates fit, Bousquet died in 1950 and was in a bad way from the end of WW1, from 1918. This Bousquet wants to buy a copy of Toyen’s Yellow Specter.

This whole section is a snapshot of the european avant garde when everything was up for grabs, it was all to play for. They were writing to each other across the continent, hooking up, buying each other’s publications. In this section, the night-time dreams overlap with the accounts of daytime.

In one delicious moment Nezval and friends walk out of a museum and a boy comments, when he thinks they are out of earshot, ‘surrealists’. We could easily flash forward to 1977 to hear someone say ‘bloody punks’ under their breath. At the end of the section, Nezval seems to be suggesting the boy’s comment was channelled from the dead Apollinaire. They are practicing automatic writing.

A manifesto piece ‘Why I Am A Surrealist’ cites the ‘hatred of romantic gibberish’, but the Romanticism this movement emerged from is also tangible in the work, at this distance. The thing a movement defines itself against is very often still tangled up in it.

Still, they were Marxist-internationalists, this lot, too. Nezval ends his book with a poem in bold called ‘The Spirit of Corruption’:

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me most is my own impotence to bring
its murderers to reckoning

Especially since they are few enough
For me to strangle with my bare hands
I would scrub up like a doctor
Recomb my hair a bit
And go write my poetry

This world in which man rules over man disgusts me
And a humanity that does not want this world’s day of reckoning
disgusts me even more
But what disgusts me the most is the fool who laughs at this
desperate poem of mine
Which is how I should end all my books

Amen, buy this book.

Steve Hanson


Yoko Ogawa – The Memory Police (Vintage, 2019)

The Memory Police, going by the title, sounds like a story you’ve heard before. 1984, Brave New World, We, Swastika Night, Fahrenheit 451; there are plenty of books dealing with the eradication and falsification of history. But this is something new.

Yoko Ogawa’s story is set on a distant island. It’s an island that’s full of noises, like Propero’s, only here the noises grow fewer and fewer each day.

Whatever magic the island has seems to be in league with the memory police themselves. Each time something new “disappears”, nature collaborates with the police in getting rid of it.

When dates disappear, the memory police must search all houses and destroy the calendars and diaries. Nature then does her part by forgetting the change of seasons.

Nature disappears the birds and the memory police oblige by ransacking the house of our protagonist’s ornithologist father.

The people of the island help out by burning their possessions. Once everything’s burned they forget the disappeared items altogether, losing their words and the ability to even picture them in their memories.

Why is this happening, we wonder? No answers seem forthcoming. If there ever was a reason for the memory police or the disappearances, then that reason seems to itself have been disappeared.

This is one of The Memory Police’s bravest and most insightful literary decisions. Ogawa gives us no insider possessed of knowledge, no outlaw scientist to provide exposition. The old man who our protagonist befriends, an old fisherman, looks on just as astonished as the rest, as all the boats disappear.

The time of explanations has passed, Ogawa seems to say. Reasoning no longer comes first. Compliance comes first. Reasoning comes in after, putting us all at peace. Relieving our troubled consciences.

Ogawa plays with other staples of the dystopian dictatorship novel as well. Our protagonist is duly arrested by the memory police, as is inevitable, but here they let her off with a caution.

Our protagonist is a writer, but this gives her no power over the past. She complies, just like the rest, and when her own writings are shown to include disappeared words and images, she is more surprised than anyone. She has forgotten; the words mean nothing to her.

We learn that there are people who still have their memories (or, more accurately, lack the ability to forget). They have done nothing special to make this so. It is merely a genetic fluke; easily identifiable by a medical test.

Our protagonist, in her only real attempt to defy the memory police, takes in one of these remembering ones. The scenes of his hideout, with undertones of Anne Frank, are the only part of the novel that feels recognisable. The historical parallel here is clear.

The strength of The Memory Police lies in its lack of obvious historical parallels. It tells a new story, and it does so using unexpected ingredients. As a result, its direct relationship to our living world is uncertain, ambiguous, perhaps uncanny.

This is not a story you’ve heard before. For that reason alone I would recommend it, but I would also add that its mystery is both haunting and compulsively readable. There are twists, even beyond those I’ve semi-spoiled above, and an underlying tone that carries a weight of current meaning.

An unforgettable book.

Joe Darlington

Solstice Prayer

Lucy Rose Cunningham – For Mary, Marie, Maria (Broken Sleep Books, 2021)

Leeds-based artist and writer Lucy Rose Cunningham’s debut pamphlet is a paean to love and maternal kindness, alluded to by the title’s addressees: Mary, the Holy Mother of God; Marie Stopes, founder of the first birth control clinic in England and Maria Goretti, the Italian martyr. 

Divided into five sections, the poem muses on desire, art, loss and the carnal body. Each comprised of lyric fragments, almost Sapphic in their tenderness and succulent language. Cunningham utilises the white space of the page, space which signals absence in the sparse, early sections and is graciously filled in section V, ‘to New Love’.

Throughout the poem, a subtext is threaded in greyed-out text, almost as if the poem were a musical piece for two voices.

Most striking is the musicality of these lyrics, the words enclosed in this pamphlet beg to be read aloud, to become sound in air. There is a balance struck between hyper-confessional sincerity, ‘oh I want to bury myself between you and the / night’, and a mystical, folk sensibility, ‘tonight I am white gold with saints, / swimming in waxen wilderness’. 

Aside from its experimental form and subtle references to contemporary life (such as ‘listening to Lana’ or the Regenfenster at Tate Modern) For Mary feels classical in its treatment of beauty. Not timeless, but a poem where time stretches out like a ‘solstice prayer’.

Much of the content surrounds sexuality and reproductive choices, delighting in the sensual language of the body, where nectar and linden trees figure symbolic of bodily fluids.

Cunningham’s artistic practice looks at the performative use of language and voice, and has influenced this romantic meditation in which the speaker has ‘grown / peachy vowels; / thick, pitted, / raw’. The poem seems scored like a musical composition, the five-part structure, and experimental form guide the reader through each section.

Most stanzas are punctuated, except on occasions where the words run into each other, ‘swimming round round round and back / back space backwards’ creating an incantatory rhythm. For Maria has found a unique form and language for the complexities of lived experiences, however ‘burning thirsting pulsing’ they may be.

Lucy Rose Cunningham’s For Mary, Marie, Maria is due to be released on 31st January 2021. The first of many releases this year from Michael Marks Publisher’s Award winners 2020, Broken Sleep Books.

Tom Branfoot

A Paean to Pomo

Andrew Komarnyckyj – Ezra Slef, The Next Nobel Laureate in Literature (Tartarus Press)

I started this novel in January thinking it was serendipitous that I had hoovered up Roger Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess over Christmastime. I found the Roger Lewis biography in the organic food co-op (Chorlton of course) on the book swap. I opened and finished it in a few days. It’ll be going back there at some point.

The idea of the biographer going a bit mad, or rogue, or both, and talking more about himself, is the basic premise of this novel. What pulled me through Roger Lewis’s biography was the sheer rush of egotism. The asides about a prediliction for nipples as big as tractor buttons. Yet another scything remark about liver failure. One could conclude that Lewis’s biography of Burgess is simply scandalous. But it is, in its unreliability, in its scaffolding with nothing more than amplified hearsay and plain untruth, in its rudeness, quite ‘of Burgess’.

Komarnyckyj, then, has a fictional biographer break into a fictional writer’s home to be thrown out and told ‘you can write about anything as long as I am not involved.’ The biographer takes this as a massive green light and Komarnyckyj presents it all to us deadpan like a new Confederacy of Dunces for a contemporary neo-Grub Street.

The other subject of the book is postmodernism. Ezra Slef, the fictional writer, is a postmodern author. Him being called Ezra is always already a nod to Pound. In a mediated world – on a planet of representations – meaning’s endgame has always already been played out.

Komarnyckyj claims a love-hate relation with postmodernism. I agree. But then I read Pynchon and realise that the problem is often not with postmodern literary landmarks. It lies in the absolutely thumb-sucking languagescape I try to stay out of. But it’s everywhere, ironic take-downs of next-to-nothing, pouty-faced styles that entertain in order to disguise there is little or no content beneath the tonal posturing.

This novel gets at that uncomfortable truth by presenting the fictional biographer’s material during its in-progress state. It’s often dreadful crap, the disturbing dimension being that it will only take a little buffing for the material to be publishable.

So what marks Komarnyckyj’s take on literary postmodernism out – because that’s what I think this book is – is an understanding that on this litscape where meaning’s endgame is already lost, all that’s left to do is make a satire out of its fundamental literary-philosophical stuffs. And that’s why I think this is a great novel, not a lightweight one.

For example ‘Ezra’ and ‘Senor Humbert’ appear as themselves, but frosted with a little of the literary sugar of Pound and Humbert Humbert. Komarnyckyj then puts them in positions where that light dusting of connotation will do a lot of work. But you need to know your literature for that to happen, and so this is literary fiction, for all its cheeky re-arrangement of museum furniture. There’s a lot of this in the book and to over-discuss it here would ruin the reader’s fun.

When I got to the end of this book I realised its author had actually listed Lewis’s biography of Anthony Burgess as one of his source documents. Burgess’s Enderby is in there too: Perhaps I was more than accidentally on the right track with my coincidental reading.

Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson is also listed at the end. As the novel gets crazier and Ezra Slef becomes more a target than a subject, the influence becomes clear. Johnson’s Albert Angelo must be an influence too, as the author of the book, Andrew Komarnyckyj, is clearly in the text to a greater or lesser degree (how could he not be? Andrew Komarnyckyj invented the whole thing).

Stern’s Tristam Shandy is also listed, and I wonder if we might add Voltaire’s Candide as well. There’s a kind of nutcase, duo of journeymen quality to the book, which is very entertaining and a little bit brutal in places. The biographer blags his way into Oxford and then bribes his way into a job with an early folio of Joyce (as a professor of postmodernism, of course). In this there’s Hogarth too, I think, and so of course Smollett and Fielding. This is the very British – actually English – aspect of the book, for all its Pynchonism.

There’s been a lot of talk about exiting postmodernism. But I haven’t seen any convincing examples of form that can claim to be ‘out the other side’. All I see is drably worthy reheated humanism and modernism. A lot of it. I’m so fucking bored of it I can’t tell you. It reflects the last few years of batshit crazy times in no ways whatsoever. It’s just the dour underside of the contemporary cultural coinage. The bright upside is the chattering, giddy childscape of listicles about celebrity pets.

If you’re sick of that, and I am, then this is a damn fine novel to take in while we’re waiting for either The End or Something New.

Steve Hanson

* PS: I’ve never seen a Tartarus book before, they are beautifully made.

Intergalactic Grammars

Jeff Vandermeer – Dead Astronauts (Fourth Estate, 2020)

It is imperative that we alter our consciousness if we are to escape the planet. Professor Haim Eshed, the father of Israel’s space programme, recently revealed the Galactic Federation that awaits us in the stars. The Federation is waiting for us to develop. We are not ready yet.

If we are to evolve minds capable of surviving in space, we must look to our language. We speak an Earth grammar. A language rooted in soil and rock. Jesus, the living Word, recognised these limitations. That’s why he could only speak in parables.

Jeff Vandemeer also recognises these limitations: perhaps consciously, perhaps unconsciously. His new novel, Dead Astronauts, is a fascinating story, an experimental romp, but it is also a clear statement of intent; language as we know it cannot handle the future. It must change.

The story follows three dead astronauts. Moss is an elemental field, formed into human shape for the temporary benefit of her compatriots. Chen is trans-chronomic, travelling through time, constantly beset by other versions of himself, each struggling for supremacy.

Grayson is the closest we get to an everyman. She, lest we forget, is also dead.

Other creatures fall between vision, memory, and pure allegory. The blue fox. The duck that watches. Leviathan.

The action appears to take place on a desolated Earth, but it could be any planet. The Company – an ephemeral but hardly benign force – are everywhere and nowhere at once. It is impossible to tell who works for the Company. All you know is that you must escape them. Seize freedom where you can.

The astronaut’s great nemesis is Charlie X. A multidimensional Mengele; he warps and mutates creatures into new shapes, inspired by the tortures his own father inflicted on him as a child.

Charlie X appears to be both empowered and persecuted by the Company. Without the Company he could be free, but without the Company he also could not practice.

So far, so psychedelic. But the great promise of Dead Astronauts lies not in its characters and plot but in its mode of presentation.

Vandemeer’s language is ever-shifting. Strange tenses. Clipped lines. Concrete nouns that sit in ambiguous relation to each other. It is a post-Heisenbergian language of uncertainty.

Sitting within the language, our strange cast of characters is made mythic. I cannot help but notice the Biblical parallels: Leviathan the aquarial behemoth, Charlie X the morning star, and of course the three dead astronauts themselves: kings of reality, journeying across an existential desert, following their own stars.

Perhaps this is the kind of reality that we now attend to? Perhaps these are the kinds of creatures that we must become?

Our language has evolved alongside us; taking for granted the concreteness of objects, the unidirectionality of time, the notion that our senses must be detecting all possible phenomena.

In order to join the Galactic Federation, it is likely that we must evolve beyond this. We have to be flexible enough, right down in our language’s basic phenomenological foundations, to permit encounters with transdimensional entities, metaphysical para-objects, and timewarps.

Scripture has given us a glimpse of this world. The prophets already inhabited a state where meaning overflows surfaces; where appearances shift and materials themselves change to accommodate the intentions of transcendent beings.

The universe Vandemeer conjures is curiously Biblical, and thoroughly futuristic. It is the kind of book that serious readers must attend to; and writers even more so.

It is only one more in a huge line of “small steps”, to quote Neal Armstrong, but it is heading in the direction of the Great Leap that will finally take our minds, and not just our bodies, into space.

Rev. Demetrios Kanapka

New world needed, apply within

Black Lives Matter, Poems For A New World (Civic Leicester, 2020)

University of Leicester Centre for New Writing put out a call for poems on Black Lives Matter themes. Editor Ambrose Musiyiwa received almost 500 poems, from over 300 writers around the world. 107 are now published in this anthology.

This book is a snapshot of a moment in time. It is not just a freeze-frame of the horrific scenes broadcast from America – the George Floyd murder, the MAGA violence – but of a year of pandemic misery and global malaise. Mark Connors’ poem conflates the ‘can’t breathe’ of George Floyd with the can’t breathe in ICU units all over the world.

When things are bad, those who usually get the harsh end of things get the worst. This anthology also takes in the longer history of black struggle too, and although aptly published in Leicester – one of the most culturally diverse cities in Britain – that perspective is global.

Peter A’s poem takes in Einstein’s comments on race in America in 1946, as a disease of white people, as well as the DNA of Cheddar Man, dark, swarthy. The Oak too, I believe, is actually a migrant to the British Isles. Time and again these poems question the way easy clichés become violently defended identities. They point to a world in which we could all try to live without such futile struggles. Struggles against each other, but also struggles with ourselves. The diseases theme continues into Jim Aitken’s poem on the pandemic and ‘the times’:

And what we really need is a vaccine for Capital;
for the greed that consumes the entire planet
so that none of us can breathe. If applied well
fresh air will surely flow with justice and peace

I’m not so sure about easy cures for that these days, but yeah. Funmi Adewole quotes an unnamed person on Twitter declaring that George Floyd was a drug user and so ‘the black race is the only race that celebrates dysfunction’. This short poem, just hanging in space, contains an explosive tension.

Surely, white culture is the ultimate culture of dysfunction celebration? Just look at ‘rock’n’roll’ culture in the 1970s, not only was the music stolen from black artists, but junkie chic, Keith Richards through to Pete Doherty, is a leering example of dysfunction elevated to status within white culture. It’s not only OK for them to be off their heads, draped in designer fabric, it is celebrated. If you were poor, and black, or both, then you would be a hunted criminal. I mean god, even the Scottish estate junkie has its mythical British Odyssey in Trainspotting – none of them are black.

But the British attitude against racism is tracked just as well in this book. The Colston statue toppling is marked by Rosalie Alston, with a short, dated poem. Richard Byrt’s contribution seems to follow that up, referencing the making of manacles in Bristol in the mid-18th century, alongside the noble 2020 risings against monuments to slavers in the city.

British victims are remembered, Blair Peach and Rashan Charles. We must never forget these people, or the grimy cover-ups.

A poem written from the perspective of a ‘man who wishes to remain anonymous’, and another named poet, leads me to reflect on how there are different stakes involved for different people in simply writing a poem at all. Sometimes, I think, we have come little further, socially, than the 18th century. Then I turn a page and find British actress Sharon Cherry Ballard’s poem Black Queens, and there is a new world in it:

Today I break the cycle for future generations
Smart, creative, fearlessly owning my black excellence

I particularly like the poems that are rooted in everyday life. In some of these, the site of joy and the site of symbolic resistance is one. For an example, I will reproduce in full a piece by Jenny Mitchell. Here, style, safety, and cultural presence in public spaces, come together:

Black Men Should Wear Colour
for my brother

I mean an orange coat,
sunlight dripping down the sleeves.

A yellow shirt to clash with bright blue trousers –
taking inspiration from the most translucent sea.

Pink leather shoes. Fuchsias might be best
to contrast with brown skin.

Red socks should add some warmth,
so long as they’re the only flames to ever touch your feet.

A tie could be mistaken for a noose,
unless you choose a rainbow swirling on your chest.

It will help to show the heart
has all the colours in the world.

Walk down any street with head held high.
I will wave my colours back and we’ll both be safe.

This book should be read by everyone, but especially by white people. It’s a great themed anthology of global poets, but it is already an important time capsule for an historic year as well.

Steve Hanson

Philosophy in the Watchtower

Scott Beauchamp – Did You Kill Anyone?: Reunderstanding my Military Experience as a Critique of Modern Culture (Zero Books, 2020)

Tradition. Honour. Ritual. Duty. Purpose.

With that short burst of linguistic gunfire I’ve presumably killed off my more sensitive readers.

Which is a shame, as it’s concepts like this that we consistently fail to understand in our modern world and, in failing to understand them, close ourselves off.

In Did You Kill Anyone? Scott Beauchamp offers us a series of short ruminations on concepts like these, utilising insights from his military career. An infantryman in the U.S. Army, Beauchamp lived with the reality of honour and hierarchy every day. He depended on them for his survival.

But Beauchamp’s book is not a simple veteran’s memoir. It’s originality, and importance, lies in his choice of style. Digressive, sweeping, heavy on the quotation; Did You Kill Anyone? fits in perfectly with the style of the contemporary left.

The book is published by Zero; a far-left publisher. It sits happily on their list alongside Mark Fisher, Angela Nagle, and the occasional ode to Maoism.

By writing in this context, Beauchamp shows us how the old fashioned values of traditionalism are, just like the old fashioned values of socialism, dramatically at variance with our capitalist dreamstate.

Both demand some form of effort, potentially even sacrifice; unfathomable demands to make in a system wherein every material need is supplied. Very few of us will ever experience genuine hunger, cold or exhaustion. Those who do have usually fucked up their lives terribly, or else have joined the army.

It’s through Beauchamp’s contact with military values, and the necessity that shapes them, that he reaches his understanding of life outside the army. Modern life, he argues, is dominated by “acedia”: the noonday devil; a total absence of meaning. It was a state first diagnosed by the desert-dwelling monk Evagrius of Pontus.

In the civilian world, authority is an imposition, boredom is depressing, and rituals are silly things to be laughed at. In a military unit, authority keeps you alive, ritual binds you together, and boredom in pursuit of duty – sat up a watchtower for months on end – takes on a spiritual quality.

It’s commonly believed that most soldiers leave the army with mental traumas. From Beauchamp’s experience, it’s civilian life that traumatises them. Leaving the discomfort of an ordered military life and finding the world outside to be for far comfortable, and yet totally barren and meaningless, is the real cause of breakdowns.

Pointless comfort is a paradox too strange for the veteran to face.

Against this acedia, Beauchamp offers time-worn values. From within the military microcosm, he warns of acedia’s traps.

Individualism. Once a rugged concept; the struggle for “a society that knows how to mind its own business,” as Burroughs once put it. Now, a set of consumer choices. Supposedly personal but, as identical hipsters from Brooklyn to Berlin demonstrate, ultimately hollow.

Authority. Imagined by the civilian as a drill instructor barking orders. The target of tinseltown rebellions. We like our bosses soft in the new HR-ed world, but Beauchamp knows better. He’s met these new bosses in the chain of command;

“In many cases, the ones who wanted to be your friend were even more dangerous than the hardened sadistic ones, because that friendship really only moved in one direction, only benefitted them. It was a kind of moral laziness. They felt uncomfortable making demands of you, and then would throw you under the bus the instant that their own superior came down on them.”

Better to be led by a hardass than a tell-tale. At least you’ll know where you stand.

But better still, Beauchamp says, to be led by someone capable and confident. Someone who knows that leadership is responsibility, responsibility means duty, and duty is honourable.

It is a perverse commander who commands only for their own benefit. True command is selfless; at least in the sense that the individual personality is subsumed within the larger cause.

The issues with the book arise when it comes to extrapolating its lessons. Beauchamp is aware throughout that his celebration of military virtues and traditional values do not transfer easily to civilian life. He seems quite content with this, and offers the book in the spirit of thoughtfulness and critique.

Capitalism lacks order. Despite Beauchamp’s critique, this is probably its greatest redeeming feature. Yet, like Plato offering martial solutions to Athenian democratic problems, Beauchamp’s insights are of tremendous personal value. Order is admirable, as long as it’s freely chosen.

Did You Kill Anyone? offers a way back to a language we have forgotten through a form that is familiar. Original, sharp and counterintuitive; it is a truly refreshing read.

Joe Darlington

A passageway of rites

Andrew O’Hagan – Mayflies (Faber)

In the mid-eighties, in between punk rock and acid house, there was a thriving independent music scene that you accessed via the weekly music papers, John Peel shows, and chains of record shops. For those of us from working class towns who were in our teens at that time, this period remains both a high water mark for music, and a gateway to a different path away from the mainstream. Less documented is how the scene provided a different model of masculinity than rock music usually provided. Bands like New Order, the Fall and particularly the Smiths wrote about a world that we recognised at a time when mainstream music said “nothing to me about my life.”

It is into this milieu that Andrew O’Hagan’s biographical novel Mayflies pitches us. Jimmy (aka Noodles) is an overachieving young intellectual in a small Scottish town, ignored by his parents who he “divorces” when they leave him for Arran, bookish in a way that even scares his supportive English teacher, but at the same time wanting to fit in with the world around him. His mentor is Tully, slightly older, and sharing in musical tastes, but more than that, one of those larger than life characters that all of us are lucky if we’ve found them. Tully’s self-confidence provides a shield for Jimmy, and he is nothing if not loyal to his younger friend, with his mother Barbara bringing him into the family home to brighten a domestic setting darkened by the descent into alcoholism of Tully’s father, characterised by the cigarettes he smokes as “Woodbine.”

O’Hagan has written about Scottish fathers before, but in Mayflies he’s talking about their sons. Thatcher has blighted the older generation, taking away the jobs and closing the shipyards. At the same time, those working class men, wedded to their football and beer, are exposed as being difficult to live with, often violent and racist. Through Tully, we have a fearless young interlocutor who both accepts the world he has grown up in – and makes it look at itself. Whilst it is Jimmy (O’Hagan’s surrogate) who will go down to London, Tully stays around, eventually retraining to be a teacher, where his charisma and energy can be made use of. Yet that is to come. For now Tully has a plan, and that’s for Jimmy to give up his admin job at the jobcentre – where he is meant to be encouraging people to sign up to a new Enterprise Allowance Scheme, or else lose their benefits – and come for a weekend in Manchester.

Tony Wilson has decided to celebrate a decade since the Sex Pistols kickstarted the Manchester scene with a “Festival of the 10th Summer”, and a massive gig at the G-Mex, featuring, alongside the Factory bands like A Certain Ratio and New Order, those other iconic bands, the Fall and The Smiths. Unlike 24-Hour Party People, Wilson’s rewrite of the Factory story, it is a band who he didn’t sign – The Smiths – who are critical to the success of this event.

With plans made, a motley bunch of Scottish music fans descend on Manchester. Arriving in Piccadilly Gardens they go to Piccadilly Records, Spud-U-Like and the Britannia Hotel – as the only place where they can get a beer mid-afternoon with the unhospitable English licensing hours. Here, O’Hagan is masterful. The first half of the novel is entirely set within this “rites of passage” weekend, which they’ll all remember for the rest of their lives. It’s the high-watermark both of their own late adoslescence, and of the scene that it briefly captures. On the first night they end up kipping on the floor of some newfound friends in Withington, except for a couple of them who appear to “cop off” with some nurses – but also end up with the floor as their bed. Jimmy gets talking to, then briefly kisses, a beautiful black girl, Angie, at the International. The second day, they get to hang around Manchester, and Tully and Jimmy go on a fool’s errand to Salford, ending up sitting on the edges of the new dockland developments that will soon begin to transform the city. Finishing their evening at the Hacienda, the new drug-fuelled music – house music – that would transform British youth in a different way is at its birth. The budding romance with Angie was nothing more than a taste, for he sees her on the dancefloor for a brief moment, amongst the dancing and the ecstacy fuelled joy, and then never again.

We are in a moment in time, instantly recognisable to someone of my age and tastes, and captured in all its grubby grandeur. O’Hagan expects his readers to know who Mark E. Smith, the Fire Engines and the Shop Assistants are, but its never like someone over-sharing their record collection. Though memory can fail, his recreations of the International, G-Mex and the Hacienda are clearly from first hand experience.

O’Hagan is often a lyrical writer, and his romanticised prose is perfect for this novel of male friendship and nostalgia, so that when he mentions clutching Hardy novels to him, or quoting W.B. Yeats as a eulogy on hearing his old teacher has died, it feels not sentimental but compassionate. When the novel shifts to 2017, where Jimmy receives a phone call from Tully that he has ineoperable cancer, we are thrown into a very different act, with Jimmy rushing back from London to see his old friend. Compassion is what both Jimmy and the writer need to show at this point.

Though we have to treat this as a “novel”, and the lives are shaped to a fictional point, you have to feel that the majority of the incidents are true or based in truth, whether the trip to Manchester, or the heartfelt conversations over Tully’s cancer. Having lost a couple of my own schoolfriends before they were fifty, I’m grateful to O’Hagan for writing a novel that so winningly encapsulates the role friendship plays in our young lives, and how short – “the Mayflies” of the title – they can sometimes seem to be.

Adrian Slatcher