August 3, 2009
Magnus Mills: The Maintenance of Headway
Magnus Mills came to prominence in 1998 when his debut novel The Restraint of Beasts was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (and at least one judge, Penelope Fitzgerald, wanted it to win). Even the tabloids were interested by the idea of a £1 million advance (which wasn’t true) for an author who was a bus driver (which was; and furthermore, he’s back on them again). But more interesting than the author was the work, and this book and Mills’s second, All Quiet on the Orient Express (“in which a man spills a tin of paint and thereby condemns himself to death”), remain his best. Both are funny, unsettling and at least to some extent deserve those normally misplaced comparisons with Kafka and Beckett. After his disappointing fourth novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, he enjoyed a return to form with Explorers of the New Century and its extraordinary twist.
The Maintenance of Headway bears closest comparison to The Scheme for Full Employment: but don’t despair. Here Mills applies the qualities and subject of the earlier book to somewhat greater ends. As with all his other books, the lack of specific details of setting invite a reading as allegory, but there is enough detail to place it in a pseudo-England, where people go on holiday to “the seaside” and never complain on public transport. It is the bus service of a unnamed city which provides the setting, and provides Mills with the opportunity for plenty of broad satire on monolithic public services (“It’s not a business, it’s a service”). Prime among these is the unswerving approach of the management to schedule disruptions: “There’s no excuse for being early,” is the catchphrase of one official. This is because, faced with the impossibility of running a proper bus service in the city, the management have adopted
‘…a single, guiding principle from which they will not stray whatever the circumstances.’
‘What is this guiding principle?’ Jeff asked.
‘The maintenance of headway,’ replied Edward. ‘The notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.’
‘But that’s preposterous!’ said Jeff.
The management is ever-vigilant in its attempts to maintain a regular flow of buses. “I’m going to adjust you and I’ll tell you why,” says Greeves. “I’ve got too many buses up this end and not enough down that end. You’ll be pleased to know you’re part of the remedy.” The problem for the drivers is that they like to make up time where they can, save a minute here and there, and when the management insists on them not being early, well, “you’ve lost your freedom of action.”
As with other Mills books, the narrator is unnamed and most of the characters speak in the same register: one of affable resignation. The location, also as usual, is unspecified, with the only markers sounding suspiciously allegorical: the cross, the crescent, the southern outpost, the bejewelled thoroughfare. Even the nature of the analogue is deliberately unclear: at times the bus service seems like a church, at others a prison. As always, women here are an endangered species. There is mild comedy in the passive-aggressive exchanges, reminiscent of All Quiet on the Orient Express:
There was a man standing in the road holding a large key. He was surrounded by a circle of traffic cones, in front of which was a red and white sign: ROAD CLOSED. I pulled my bus up and spoke to him through the window.
‘Morning,’ I said.
‘Morning,’ he replied.
‘Will be in a minute,’ he said. ‘I’m just about to relieve the pressure.’
His van was parked nearby. He was from a water company.
‘Would it be possible to let me go past before you start?’ I enquired.
‘I’m afraid not,’ he said. ‘I’ve already put my cones out. Can’t really bring them all in again.’
I counted the cones. There were seven in total.
Overall, what the management finds is unsurprising: that “it was people of one kind or another who ultimately disrupt the bus service.” Drivers, passengers, other road users. A system, they discover, can never operate while people are around to gum up its works. People create the system, and people are the problem. The narrator, as passengers dispersed from his bus, “found myself unable to answer the question: What are we here for?” It is a question many Mills characters have pondered, and will no doubt continue to. The Maintenance of Headway seems either a summation of Mills’s vision, or a rehash of all his old tricks. Nonetheless, as a fan, I’m just pleased to see him still writing, and still producing books at a fixed interval on a regular service. We can only dream of the day when three will come along at once.