Monday 19 April 2010

You wait all day for one book about buses...

...and, to be honest, there's still only one book about buses that comes along. Bloomsbury sent me a copy of The Maintenance of Headway by Magnus Mills ages and ages ago, probably around the invention of the first bus, but somehow I've only just read it. Such is the state of my tbr mountains (which are already looking nervous about the idea of moving house in three months' time.)

The Maintenance of Headway is a very short book (you know how I like short books) all about the politics of bus driving and the interaction of bus drivers. I really like novels about unusual professions - not that bus driving is inherently unusual, it's just unusual for a novel to focus on a bus driver - and so was intrigued about how this one would work.

Well, the unnamed narrator works amongst a group of fellow bus drivers who must adhere to the various Bus Driving Rules. Mills was apparently a bus driver himself, so he should know what they are. Chief amongst them - and iterated as chapter headings throughout the book - is 'There's no excuse for being early'. And then, of course, there is the Maintenance of Headway, intended to stop that phenomenon where three buses turn up at once. These rules are sprinkled throughout the novel, and I'm certainly going to feel more sympathetic next time I hop on a bus - but any action that came alongside was so understated that I think I missed it. There are some interesting touches about the hierarchy of driving, about drivers' various idiosyncrasies, and some nostalgia for old-fashioned buses. All understated. Understated seems to be Mills' thing.

I hadn't heard of Magnus Mills when I received this novel, but everyone else seems to have - he was nominated for the Booker, and has all sorts of accolades on the back of the copy I have. Indeed, he is variously compared to PG Wodehouse, The Office, Brave New World, the Coen Brothers, and Alan Bennett. What an intriguing mix. What do they all have in common? That they're all funny - and that's the thing, I just didn't find The Maintenance of Headway particularly funny. Interestingly, the one bit I wanted to quote is the bit a few other reviews have quoted:

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.


‘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.

It had some interesting quirks, but it wasn't quirky in the way that someone like Edward Carey is... somehow it just meandered. For a short novel, it went an awful lot of nowhere. Which isn't to say I didn't enjoy it - I think it would be closer to the point to say that I didn't understand it, or tune into its wavelength. Even after reading two brilliant reviews by Kim and John, I know I'm missing something - and I'd like to read some of his earlier novels to see if that 'something' doesn't elude me there.

Magnus Mills has a whole raft of interesting-looking novels in fact - All Quiet on the Orient Express, although I know little about it except its title, has already found its way into my Amazon wishlist. Although The Maintenance of Headway didn't bowl me over, I'll certainly be looking out for more Mills in the future...


  1. 'There's no excuse for being early'

    I knew it! I knew there had to be some unwritten code of the bus driver that included this rule! So many hours spent huddled in the rain waiting for late buses...finally, an explaination!

  2. funny...when i was little and trapped on the schoolbus, i would imagine up stories about the busdriver. sometimes they'd be so funny and i'd be laughing, when i would realize i was all by myself. no wonder i was always sitting alone in seat 8....

  3. You leant me this ages ago! I agree. I liked it, but it wasn't laugh-out-loud funny, apart from maybe once. I don't think it's supposed to go anywhere, it's just a nice little observational piece. But they're fairly obvious observations, so that doesn't make it massively entertaining. Have read better. But would read more. (Mills is just The Pygmy Giant's cup of tea...)

    I do love the titles of his books, though.

  4. I have only read his Three to See the King. It had the misfortune of being read alongside Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link, which contained stories that were just as whacky, but so beautifully written that Mills' book seemed rather mundane in comparison.


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