Mayflies: Punk Rock to Hard Decisions


MAYFLIES (2020/21)

By Andrew O’Hagan

Faber and Faber, 207 pages.





Nature has its own rules. Mayflies have an average lifespan of 24 hours. In his sixth novel, Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan uses them as a metaphor to remind us that our own moment in the sun is briefer than we imagine when we bask in our youth and the world seems a cool stream into which we can wade at our leisure.


Mayflies centers on youthful male bonding. At is heart is the lifelong friendship between Tully Dawson and James “Noodles” Collins. Collins has just “divorced” his irresponsible parents. He is bright, well-read, and if his mentor English teacher has anything to do with it, bound for a university education. He’s not sure about that. His real mentor is Tully, whose dad Woodbine is a local soccer legend and whose mother Barbara treats Collins as one of her own.


Like most males in the Paisley suburb of Glasgow, Tully and Noodles are mad about football, especially Celtic, which commands fierce loyalty among Irish-heritage Scots such as they. But it’s 1986, and the Scottish working-class is reeling from Margaret Thatcher’s barbaric economic policies, the crushing of a massive miners’ strike, and her assault on unions. Thus, Tully and Noodles have a love greater than football: punk rock. Punk is to them as early rap was to disaffected black youth: a grassroots voice of defiance, rebellion, and rejection of Establishment values. Not since the mid-1960s had Western society experienced such a generation gap.


The first half of Mayflies depicts a drunken, stoned, f-bomb-laced, snogging, spit-soaked, head-bashing road trip to Manchester, England, for a punk rock band fest. It’s a veritable Mohawk-haired Woodstock–the 10th anniversary of punk–headlined by heavyweights such as The Smiths, The Fall, Shop Assistants, and New Order. Everyone is going, even if means walking away from their jobs to be there. Or perhaps, especially if it means thumbing their noses at employers; Tully proudly calls himself a socialist and is of the anarchist end of that spectrum. Tully, Noodles, “Limbo” McCafferty, and “Tibbs” Lennox set off for Manchester, meet some young women, and run into other mates such as Bobby “Dr. Clogs” McCloy and David Hogg. Of their id-driven descent into mayhem O’Hagan writes, “The night seemed to last forever and there was no direction home.”   


What they did not realize as they spiked their hair with Coca-Cola was that they were experiencing an ending, not a beginning. The DYI ethos of anarcho-punk soon gave way to polished musicians and the music fragmented into subgenres such as alt-rock, New Wave, post-punk, and pop songs with grungy echoes. In short order, Thatcher was gone and followed by empty Tory suits like John Major and Gordon Brown. Then, Tony Blair took power, but his government often resembled Thatcherism with a human face, not a revival of the Labour Party.


Move the clock forward to 2017 and Jimmy Collins is a tie-wearing successful writer/journalist married to Iona, an in-demand actress/playwright. Tully has kept the faith, but only sort of; he’s Head of English at an East End Glasgow school and playing drums with a band called Kim Philby*. Tully also has terminal cancer and has two things on his plate before he checks out at age 53. He agrees to marry his long-term partner Anna, a Glasgow lawyer, but he makes Jimmy promise he will take him to Switzerland for a doctor-assisted suicide when his suffering becomes intolerable.


The wedding is more posh than Tully wished, but the Manchester lads reassemble. As is often the case, some remain simpatico and some are not. Clogs still insists, “Punk was right…. We are in a constant state of co-exploitation,” but Tibbs seems “made for reading glasses and sharp angles and a bit of grey.” The nuptials go well enough, but the final decision is tougher. Anna is against it and Iona, though supportive of James, observes, “Men have a way of writing themselves into each other’s experience and placing it away from the women they love.”   


Mayflies is a powerful book, but it should be noted that its two settings are radically different in tone. Numerous reviewers have commented upon the book’s “dark humor,” but some have confused smart characters and witty banter with comedy. It is more accurate to say that the first half is shot through with angst and the second with pathos. O’Hagan boots us from the world of potty-mouthed anger and into one described with prose that is eloquent, moving, and reflective. Is it too much of a stretch? Since we know nothing of the intervening 40 years, Mayflies occasionally reads as if it is two different novels welded together with a globby bead. I leave it to you to decide if the shift is too jarring, or an unsettling reminder that we are all mayflies.


Rob Weir  


* Kim Philby was a British intelligence agent and double agent who fled to the Soviet Union in 1963, when his cover was blown.  


Laura: A Twisty Noir Classic


LAURA (1944)

Directed by Otto Preminger

20th Century Fox, 88 minutes, pre-ratings system

(In black and white)





There are multiple reasons to prefer Laura for film noir fans wishing to discover/rediscover actress Gene Tierney. They begin with Otto Preminger. He was a legendary director, whereas John M. Stahl, the director of Leave Her to Heaven, was merely middle of the pack. Preminger also had the sense to film this noir classic in black and white, which is how films about shadowy characters should be done. Preminger dusted his frames with psychological theory rather than encasing them.


Laura is a study in obsession. It begins when New York City Police Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) is assigned to a grisly murder scene. Wealthy advertising executive Laura Hunt (Tierney) is the presumed victim of a shotgun blast to the face. Although she was beautiful and accomplished, she also had a reputation for being difficult and ruthless, which means any of a number of people had motives to dispatch her. At first, McPherson centers his investigation on her snooty, no-account fiancĂ© Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price). Carpenter, though, is a classic “kept man” with no discernible skills of his own, and that doesn’t completely add up. Maybe Hunt’s aunt, Ann Treadway (Judith Anderson), knows more than she lets on. She has also been bankrolling Carpenter and may have been having a side affair with him. There’s also a matter of a missing murder weapon and the ace in the hole: Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb). He’s a newspaper writer who “made” Laura by lifting her out of her uncultivated bumpkin ways, mentoring her, and showering her with expensive gifts, including her pricey apartment and most of its flashy appointments. Lydecker insists their relationship was asexual, but he speaks of Laura as if she is one of his possessions.  


McPherson finds himself making repeated trips to Laura’s apartment, but we soon suspect that his motive is partly to solve the crime and partly because he has become creepily attracted to the large portrait of Laura hanging above the fireplace mantle. One night, McPherson falls asleep beneath her picture. When he is awoken, Laura is standing before him and it’s not a dream. It is soon deduced that the actual victim was one of Hunt’s models, Diane Redfern. Now, McPherson must add Laura to his list of suspects–perhaps even place her atop it. Yet, Mark finds himself falling in love with Laura. Can he do his duty or will he help her, even if it means letting a murderer walk away? We know what Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade would do, but is McPherson cut from the same trench coat cloth? And is Laura actually guilty of anything?


Laura is a corkscrew mystery involving a cast of oil-covered, morality-challenged characters. Who, if anyone, is telling the truth? And where is the rifle that killed Diane Redfern?  I called it a study of obsession and that should be interpreted literally and broadly. It seems that everyone–especially Lydecker and McPherson–is obsessed with Laura. She, in turn, seems demure, but we come to imagine she’s infatuated with herself. Or maybe not!


The acting–though affected in 1940s’ ways–is superb, even though Vincent Price apparently built this part of his career playing Tierney’s castoff lover. The much- underappreciated Dana Andrews strikes the needed balance between believability and cheesy fascination, and Tierney scores as a raven-haired femme fatale. (Don’t believe those garish 1940s posters in which she’s colorized to look like a redhead!) Clifton Webb, though, comes close to stealing the glory. His is a performance that walks several lines, not the least of which is the thin one between utterly contemptible and wholly fascinating. For what it’s worth, elements of Preminger’s own personality can be read into Webb-as-Lydecker. One could easily become obsessed by this film.


Rob Weir


Leave Her to Heaven: Technicolor, Histrioics, and Outmoded ideals




Directed by John M. Stahl

20th Century Fox, 110 minutes, pre-ratings system




Leave Her to Heaven is sometimes dubbed the first “film noir” movie made in color. That is, of course, an oxymoron, made evident from its use of Technicolor, which remains the most vivid and crisp film stock in cinematic history. (Nothing used by today’s CGI whiz kids deserves to be mentioned in the same breath!) Leave Her to Heaven was Fox’s top-grossing movie of the entire 1940s and, though she was an also-ran, it garnered actress Gene Tierney’s only Oscar nomination.


First, a few words on Tierney. Beyond her first name­–she was named for her father’s brother who died young–there is nothing remotely sexually ambiguous about the glamorous, sultry, and striking Tierney. Today, though, only hardcore film fans recall her. If we cast pre-World War II actresses into the Big Dipper, the “bright” stars would bear names such Bacall, Bergman, Garland, Kelly, and Hepburn; Tierney would be at the duller end of the star spectrum hovering near Alcor. Such is the cruelty of popular culture fame.


There is also the issue that some things don’t age well and Leave Her to Heaven is one of them. Brush up on Freud and Greek mythology or you’ll wonder what the fuss was about in 1945. Tierney is Boston socialite Ellen Berent who, on the train to a New Mexico vacation “ranch”–and its posh digs deserve the quotation marks–encounters novelist Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde) on a train. He is taken by her beauty and unconventional spunk, but doesn’t expect to see her again. But, of course, he ends up at the same dude ranch. Small problem: She is engaged to marry soon-to-be district attorney Russell Quinton (Vincent Price). This is overcome when Ellen decides Richard is more fun–and he is–than the ambitious and sullen Russell. The two marry after a whirlwind courtship whose only note of discord is that Ellen is fixated on her late father and maybe a tad jealous of her cousin/adopted sister Ruth (Jeanne Crain).


This is overcome when they move to Warm Springs, Georgia, to be near Richard’s beloved brother Danny (Daryl Hickman, brother of Dwayne, who was TV’s Dobie Gillis), who was felled by polio and is rehabbing. Outwardly, Ellen is affectionate to Danny, thus Richard dismisses a warning from Ellen’s mother that she has a problem in that she “loves too much.” After all, who could object to that? Call it the film’s Chekov’s gun.


This psychosis–as it was considered in prevailing Freudian psychology of the day–becomes acute when Danny is released from rehab and the three of them move into Richard’s “cabin” on a remote lake in Maine, where caretaker Leick (Chill Wills) presides with assumed paternal charm. (It’s no more a “cabin” than the New Mexico location is anyone’s idea of a working “ranch.”) Ellen yearns for a universe of two, not four, and certainly not the six to which it swells when her mother and Ruth come to visit. Several “accidents” occur, before the overwrought Ellen is driven to dispatch herself, but not without first framing Ruth for her “murder.”


By today’s standards, the acting is histrionic and numerous things transpire that fall into the category we could label: “That Wouldn’t Happen.” The court scene is especially non-credible. Can you imagine a trial whose prosecutor was none other than Ellen’s cast-off fiancĂ©? Or that he’d be allowed to lead and browbeat witnesses without a peep from the defense attorney? The film’s resolution also seems as abrupt as Ellen and Richard’s leap from sparring to marriage.


In retrospect, the gorgeous Technicolor tones are the most memorable thing about the movie. The title comes from Hamlet, though you might come to doubt that heaven is Ellen’s final stop. If you give it a whirl, know that there are oblique nods to Greek figures such as Hippolyta, Medea, and the Sirens. Know also that the Electra complex was much en vogue in the 1940s, and that Chill Wills–who now seems like a character from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood–was once a respected comic actor and sometime country music performer from back when that genre was supposed to be goofy. Or, you might want to wait from my review of Laura, which was perhaps Tierney’s best screen performance.


Rob Weir