The Maintenance of Headwayby Magnus Mills
I’ve read and loved three of Mills’s previous novels – especially All Quiet on the Orient Express, (review here). They’re deadpan, full of black humour, and expound upon the trials and tribulations of the ordinary working man. He’s dealt with fence installers, odd jobbers, and White Van Man; in The Maintenance of Headway he tackles bus drivers. Mills, of course, is famous for having been a bus driver for a while, so surely he could nail his former profession?
The answer is yes, but. Yes, life in this bus garage feels horribly real. But, it’s rather boring. There’s only so much you can say about a particular bus route and the bus drivers that travel it, which is probably why this book is a short one. As for the subject of the title – the fabled rather totalitarian ideal of all buses running on time and at the appropriate gaps – time-keeping is rather a dry concern. However, I don’t remember a single instance in this story about a driver actually running on time, they prefer to run early and never late if they can help it.
That’s not to say the book is without humour, and, like Blakey in the old 1970s TV comedy On the Buses, most of the laughs are at the bus inspectors’ expense, especially when the drivers are discussing them at tea-time….
‘What Breslin attempted this morning was a form of alchemy,’ he continued. ‘If he’d have left the buses to sort themselves out they’d most probably have been back in the desired sequence after a couple of hours. Instead he tried to dispel chaos at a stroke, and as usual nobody gained. The fact is it’s almost impossible to run a proper bus service in this city. The forces ranged against you are just too numerous. I know there are cities on the continent where buses are a byword for efficiency, and people wonder why it can’t happen here. But those places are bland and featureless. Mostly they’ve been bombed flat and rebuilt from scratch; the roads are spacious and the populations obedient, rational and unselfish. Buses sweep along keeping exactly to schedule, punctual at every point from start to finish. In this city it’s different. The streets are higgledy-piggledy and narrow; there are countless quares and circuses, zebra crossings and pelicans. Go east from the arch and you’ve got twenty-three sets of traffic lights in a row. All those shops, and all those pedestrians pouring into the road. Then there are the daily incidentals: street markets, burst water mains, leaking gas pipes, diesel spillages, resurfacing works, ad hoc refuse collections, broken-down vehicles, troops on horseback, guards being changed, protest marches, royal cavalcades and presidential motorcades. Shall I go on?’
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this book, just not as much as the others of his I’ve read. It all seemed too real, lacking the surreal bite and sense of danger present in The Restraint of Beasts or All Quiet on the Orient Express. Maybe it was a little too much of a busman’s holiday. (6.5/10)
I am looking forward to his new novel though, A cruel bird came to the next and looked in, which sounds like a return to the surreal and is also set in a fictional empire which suggests Gulliver meets Gormenghast to me – can’t wait!