Magnus Mills - The Maintenance of Headway
- Henry Northmore
- 23 July 2009
It’s questionable what’s more unlikely about this sixth novel from Magnus Mills: that he’s managed to eke out 136 pages about the delicate art of driving a bus, or that he succeeds so well in making the job’s habits and peculiarities seem like a thrilling battle against nature. ‘Nature’, in this case, being the set-in-stone dictat of whichever shadowy planners devised the London bus system, and their emissaries on earth and street corners, the bus inspectorate.
At the time of his initial success (he was Booker-nominated for his 1998 debut, The Restraint of Beasts), much was made of the fact that the Birmingham-born, Bristol-raised Mills had once been a bus driver himself (and a fence-builder in Scotland, which gave rise to the theme of that first novel). It follows that this short tale is written with the kind of ingrained detail which can only be earned through well-drilled experience. One by the one, the characteristics of drivers, inspectors and passengers are dissected in clear, crisp prose which flows pleasurably by.
The Sisyphean element of the job is elaborated upon with a metronomic reoccurrence of statements, sentences and even whole chapter beginnings. In their fussy control over when precisely each driver must pass their arbitrary roadside checkpoints, the inspectors seek ‘the maintenance of headway’; in other words, ‘the notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained’. It’s an eye-opening window on an unheralded occupation, but Mills also hints in a broader sense at the impossibility of creating perfect order from the rhythms of a society of individuals.