Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 152 pages; 2009.
You know you’ve really enjoyed a book when you titter your way through it, which is exactly what I did when I eagerly devoured Magnus Mills‘ latest novel, The Maintenance of Headway.
Mills, who is one of my favourite authors, is, admittedly, not for everyone. He writes in a deliberately understated way, with an almost childlike naivety. He doesn’t bother with extraneous detail, because everything moves forward chiefly through dialogue. This allows him to really get to the heart of the matter, which, in most of his novels, is this simple premise: English life is plagued by bureaucracy and officialdom for no other reason than it keeps people in employment.
In The Maintenance of Headway, Mills turns his scornful eye towards the running of the London bus network. (Mills himself was a bus driver when his first novel, The Restraint of Beasts, was published.) Well, I suspect it’s London for the city isn’t named, but the description of the street system — “The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless squares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row” — is unmistakable. I’m also convinced that the “bejewelled thoroughfare” (“a great canyon of flagship stores stretching side by side for nearly a mile”) mentioned in the text is actually London’s Oxford Street.
As to the story, there’s not really much to it. In fact, it’s pretty much devoid of plot. The book is essentially a satire that pokes fun at the overly regimented (and somewhat unsuccessful) way in which the Board of Transport runs its buses, where “there’s no excuse for being early” and everyone bemoans the loss of the Venerable Platform Bus (which can only be another way of describing the now defunct but rather iconic Routemaster) with its conductors and no doors. It covers the running battle between the bus drivers, who just want to drive buses to their required destinations with a minimum of fuss, and the inspectors, who meddle with the timetables and routes under the guise of “maintaining headway” .
Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny, particularly if you have a dry sense of humour. The wit comes chiefly through the conversations held between drivers on their tea-breaks. I was rather partial to the rogue driver, Jason, with his reckless attitude to passenger safety. In a discussion about passenger’s who deliberately ring the bell with no intention of getting off, Jason says:
‘If they keep doing it on my bus I give them some treatment with the brake and the accelerator. Rough them up a bit: teach them a lesson.’
‘What about all the innocent people?’ I asked. ‘The ones who haven’t touched the bell?’
‘Tough, isn’t it?’ said Jason.
If you’ve ever experienced the joys of being a bus passenger, there’s a lot in this funny little novel you’ll recognise. And next time you wait ages for a bus and then three come along at once, you’ll know exactly who to blame.