The Maintenance of Headway
By Magnus Mills
THE RECENT announcement of the Man Booker Prize long-list prompted numerous editorials in the British press concerning one unifying aspect of the candidate books: their length. Brevity is out, according to the Booker judges, and the favourite for the prize - Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - is a 600-page opus about a minister in the 16th century English Reformation.
Aching bookshelves must have groaned their appreciation, then, that the new Magnus Mills book was released a couple of weeks after the Booker announcement. The Maintenance of Headway is more pocket-sized novella than literary breeze block, weighing in at a mere 152, widely-spaced, A5-sized pages. Mills claimed to have written one page per day at the end of a shift driving a London bus, the same manner in which he wrote his first book – 1998’s The Restraint of Beasts.
That book introduced a largely incredulous literary world to a new and surprising talent: a blue-collar worker apparently writing about blue-collar themes in a simple language and style free from pretensions.
But Mills was no lightweight. His story of a trio of idiosyncratic labourers, living in a caravan as they travelled the country erecting high-tensile fences, was at once unbearably menacing yet bleakly comical and delved into issues of free-will, punishment and (literally) the consequences of turning up the tension too high.
It was nominated for the Booker, Mills became something of a sensation, and through four subsequent novels – parables, really – he honed this sparse yet deceptively resonant style, always dealing with the common man engaged in uncommon meditations. He may never find the need for words of more than two syllables, but he regularly reaches rare profundity.
The Maintenance of Headway is the one we have all been waiting for. Mills has finally set a novel on his beloved buses. His narrator, unnamed as ever, is one of a team of loyal drivers across an unnamed city (recognisably London), spending time between runs drinking tea and idly discussing their dreams and frustrations with fellow “worker ants”.
Once on the road they are all cogs in the vast machine known as the Board of Transportation, where the drivers are governed by the pedantic officials and specific rules of the organisation, including its guiding principal known as “the maintenance of headway”. This is neatly defined by the most outspoken driver, Edward, as “the notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to”. It is the impossible goal for a driver, yet crucial to all busmen.
The maintenance of headway was sacrosanct. Any violation threatened to undermine an entire ideology. Hence, they feared that if all the buses came at once, the walls of their citadel would tumble.
On the surface, then, this is a book about the trivialities and procedures of driving a bus – and readers will be delighted to learn that yes, it does answer the eternal question of why you wait for an hour and then two appear at once. But as in all of Mills’s work, the surface is only where what amounts to a narrative occurs; it is the sinister machinations behind the scenes that cultivate a unique and peculiar disquiet and reveal Mills’s true strengths.
The characters’ canteen tittle-tattle is a very specific brand of Mills-ian double-speak and although the drivers themselves are unwilling or unable to join the dots, The Maintenance of Headway is Animal Farm set aboard mass transportation. As the drivers discuss their company’s advertising policies – “When are they going to learn that you can’t run a business on slogans?” – and lament the lack of individual freedom amid the preoccupations of a functioning society – “’People aren’t important,’ Edward declared. ‘Only bus movements.’” – it’s clear that Mills has now written his satire on communism.
Most disturbingly of all, the drivers watch with benign acceptance as their colleagues vanish from the rota without explanation, sometimes reappearing in the uniform of an officer, sometimes never seen again.
“You don’t get sacked from this job unless you do what Thompson did.”
“What did he do then?”
“We never mention it.”
At last, the definitive answer to why London buses are painted such a sharp and vibrant red.