August 3, 2009

Magnus Mills: The Maintenance of Headway

Posted in Bloomsbury, Mills Magnus at 8:00 am by John Self

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.

Magnus Mills: The Maintenance of HeadwayThe 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.

‘Busy?’

‘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.

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27 Comments »

  1. Annabel said,

    I love your pay-off line!
    I actually adored ‘The Scheme For Full Employment’ with its circular conceit which cracks under pressure. I love his laid-back gentle style with tongue firmly in cheek. I must get this one asap.

  2. John Self said,

    Thanks Annabel – when you put it like that, Scheme sounds better than I remember it! Just goes to show that as with any author, each book is someone’s favourite.

  3. JonathanM said,

    Greetings from the southern outpost a ‘remote and desolate place’. Sorry to gang up on you John but, I agree with Annabel. My least favourite of his books, if there can be such a thing, is probably Three To See The King.Two thirds of the way through this one and enjoying it greatly, particularly the trenchant use of the C word.

  4. JonathanM said,

    PS the avatar that WordPress has given me looks perfect for reading the new Pynchon.

  5. bill r. said,

    My favorite is still The Restraint of Beasts (though I haven’t read Scheme… or the new one). I was just about to say something about each of his books seeming too much like the last one, until I remembered that Three to See the King and Explorers of the New Century are actually quite unlike Beasts and All Quiet…. So what made me almost say that? The tone, I suppose.

    Anyway, the last book I read by Mills was All Quiet…, and at the time I was slightly disappointed by it. But I’ll be damned if it hasn’t stuck in my head in a way that many more traditionally eventful books have not. Mills’s books are weirdly insidious.

    How are his short stories, by the way? I never hear anyone talk about them.

  6. kimbofo said,

    I love Mills. My favourite is Three to See the King, but I also loved All Quiet on the Orient Express.

    Thanks for this great review. I’ll be adding this one to my Wish List.

  7. Tom Cunliffe said,

    I’ve just finished this one myself and will be reviewing it later in the week.

    I have to say, I think his first two books were the best, and in fact, The Restraint of Beasts was THE best in my view. Since then I’ve found them “amusing” rather than compelling. However, still an author to watch for his future work.

  8. John Self said,

    I think I’d agree with that, Tom. My favourite is probably All Quiet on the Orient Express, which may simply be because it was the first book of his that I read (a common condition, I think).

    I haven’t read any of his stories, bill. I did read a critical review of this new book on Amazon, which said it was just like an extended version of one of his short stories. Which may give some idea (but probably won’t if you haven’t read this new one…).

    Here is a list of Mills’ ten favourite books, published in 1999 when All Quiet came out.

    Incidentally, I forgot to mention in the review but there is a nice (or possibly self-indulgent) reference to The Restraint of Beasts in The Maintenance of Headway. A former employee called Thompson was sacked because of what he did (“we never talk about it”) and the narrator tells his colleagues that this is what gave rise to the phrase “an early bath for Thompson.” An Early Bath for Thompson is the title of a book which Richie keeps trying, unsuccessfully, to read during The Restraint of Beasts.

  9. gav said,

    I love Magnus Mills and have this waiting for me when I get home from work. I’ve found things to love in all his books, though Restraint remains my favourite with its spooky, claustrophobic ending. I’d say Three to See The King is the weakest, while Explorers seemed a much darker work and felt like a progression in his style at the time. I remember Graham Linehan came close to adapting Restraint but it fell through at the last minute.

  10. John Self said,

    Interesting points, gav, and although I liked Three to See the King, I think it tried to spread its concerns too widely and suffered for that. I didn’t know about Linehan.

  11. Classic Mills indeed. I’ll eventually get around to typing up a quick review over on AiB, but in the meantime, I’ll practice the arguments in your comments!

    While Mills has covered transport before in The Scheme for Full Employment, he’s extended the metaphor and moved it up a level in this book with the examination of corporate objectives and management mandates, looking at how different workers cope with seemingly sensible/stupid policies, and how poachers can turn gamekeepers.

    If anything, it’s not as deeply dark as his previous work. As if there’s light at the end of Mills’ tunnel. It’s definitely not as excruciatingly depressing – which was nice change – though I expect the next book to be as tense as before!

    There – that’s the guts of what I’ll get around to saying.

  12. John Self said,

    Thanks Alan – that’ll do to be going on with!

  13. Fuller review now posted. It’s probably his most accessible novel to date – the one people are least likely to set down in disgust. Hope the next one’s deeply dark.

  14. Tim Perrin said,

    As a Canadian fan, I just had to order this new book over e.bay. I’ve always had a habit of going Magnus Mills hunting in bookstores on trips to the other side of the pond.
    I picked up “Beasts” at Heathrow on the way home several years ago. I had no idea what I was getting into….and I remember finishing it just as we were landing in Toronto going “Who is this guy?”. Been a big fan since.

    My fav has been actually one of the short stories from that collection that came out a few years back. Can’t remember the story name, but it was the guy staying at the hotel where he can always hear the other guests but never actually meets them. Mills is a “the tone of menace” master. I always expect an extra chapter in his stories where the devil appears and pulls back the current to reveal that we are actually in hell and have been all along.

  15. John Self said,

    Hi Tim, thanks for your comments. It’s a shame Mills isn’t published in Canada. Beasts is certainly a bolt from the blue, and I think both it and All Quiet on the Orient Express have a certain something that his later books lack – though I remain a fan.

    Interesting that you seem to be the only person here who has read his stories! The two collections are Once in a Blue Moon and Only When the Sun Shines Brightly. I’ve never been that interested in them because I always felt Mills’s effects require a bit of space to get going, and these two collections are just 80 pages apiece – with four stories in each, apparently. But your recommendation does tempt me to try them. The collection Only When the Sun Shines Brightly is blurbed thus:

    One of Aesop’s Fables tells the story of a wager between the sun and the wind to see which can succeed in removing a traveller’s heavy coat. The wind tries first, but however hard it blows it fails to make any progress because the traveller simply buttons his coat even tighter than before. Only when the sun shines brightly does he finally remove it, and the wind roars away in a bad temper.

    The four stories in Once in a Blue Moon are Once in a Blue Moon, The Good Cop, They Drive by Night and Screwtop Thompson. Is the story you refer to among those, Tim?

  16. Pretty sure we’ve Once In A Blue Moon on the bookshelves next door. But the more I read the comments the more I realise that the full horror of the first couple of bokks has never quite been matched.

  17. Andy said,

    Sorry to say that this one was a disappointment, scheme for full employment was a much more enjoyable read I’m afraid. Have read all of Mr Mill’s offerings and he does appear to be dropping in standards with each, this is a real shame for such a genius ! Hoping for a return to form for the next one – obviously too close to the subject matter with this one Magnus.

  18. Bit late to join in, but just finished ‘Maintenance’. A slight book, but I wouldn’t agree that his standards are dropping – more that he is paring down to some sort of minimal essence.

    ‘All Quiet’ made the most impact on me, because I read it first, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. The publishing trade is routinely full of hype but there really is no-one quite like Mills.

    ‘Screwtop Thompson’ is my favourite short story.

  19. John Self said,

    Not too late at all, Andy – like you, I read All Quiet first and still like it best. I must get those story collections (instead of just continually saying here that I must get them) and read ‘Screwtop Thompson’ and the others.

  20. Neil P. said,

    Just finished Maintenance of headway after re-reading Restraint of beasts. Restraint is clearly the better book with a dark (black comedy) atmosphere, but there are some nice touches in Maintenance. Mills obviously writes from experience here but you don’t have to have been a bus driver to enjoy this, just to have ridden on buses is enough. What’s this obsession with Thompson, though? I’ve a feeling he is going to show up again later on along the line. ‘An early bath for Thompson’ sounds very much like a ‘Ripping Yarns’ story to me.

  21. Adam Luebke said,

    Mills truly is a master at storytelling. He is one of those rare writers that I read, and reread.

  22. John Self said,

    I agree Adam, and thanks for taking the time to comment here. I’ve reread Mills’ first three books, and will revisit Explorers of the New Century sometime. I doubt I’d bother with The Maintenance of Headway or The Scheme for Full Employment, both of which seem to me lighter fare than his others.

  23. Simon T said,

    I’m just reviewing this, and have linked back to your review, but I was a little overwhelmed – having read your great review, I’m keen to try out his first two novels.

  24. John Self said,

    Thanks Simon. I’m pleased that, having felt somewhat indifferent to The Maintenance of Headway, you still want to read more – I think if this had been the first Mills I read, I probably wouldn’t have bothered. I’d recommend The Restraint of Beasts (which, as you may know, Bloomsbury will be reissuing later this year: and well done on getting quoted in their new catalogue!), All Quiet on the Orient Express and also Explorers of the New Century (which I really must reread).

    Fans of his stories will be interested to know that Bloomsbury will also be reissuing his short stories in October, in one volume which comprises the contents of Once in a Blue Moon and Only When the Sun Shines Brightly as well as two uncollected stories. The collective title is Screwtop Thompson, which Andy above mentions as his favourite Mills story.

    • Simon T said,

      Thanks! I will have a look at those, see which my library has. I could feel, behind my underwhelmed response to Maintenance of Headway, that there was a kernel of an author I could love… so will find out in due course!

  25. Leila said,

    I’m late to this but wanted to say that I love his books too – I am reading Maintenance of Headway at the moment. It is so skillfully done, you feel the humour and the darkness is there, but you can’t put your finger on exactly how he does it. I have also read Explorers, which was powerful and startling, and All Quiet which so far I think is the best. I remember I started reading it, and realised some time later that I was a third of the way through, that I couldn’t stop turning the pages, that I was absolutely hooked, and yet nothing had happened! It was fascinating to try and work out *why* exactly I was gripped. Stylistically, he is a master of his art.

  26. John Self said,

    I agree Leila: All Quiet on the Orient Express is my favourite too, though that might be because it was the first of his I read. The Restraint of Beasts is excellent too, and Three to See the King is very interesting, though I think it may try to cram too many things into its short length. The only of his novels I didn’t like was The Scheme for Full Employment.

    He has a new one out in September with the curious title of A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, which I believe is his longest novel to date. I am of course looking forward to it.


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