The Maintenance of Headway, By Magnus Mills

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The Independent Culture

It's finally happened: Britain's most famous bus-driving novelist has given us a novel about buses. All your questions will be answered: why do you wait for ages only for three to come at once? Who are those men who hang around bus stops muttering into handsets? And why do buses suddenly terminate halfway into your journey?

But this is no mere gimmick from a mid-career writer run out of ideas. There is a perfect match between Mills's subject and his peculiar obsessions: the monomaniacal elucidation of the inner workings of systems, and a tenderness towards very British institutions. The title refers to "the notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to". A conflict simmers between a cadre of contemplative drivers, who naturally incline towards earliness (who would have thought it?), and the inspectors who would prefer everyone to run late than to undermine the principle of headway.

Maintenance is a long-standing interest of Mills. From The Restraint of Beasts' fence-menders to the compliant camper in All Quiet on the Orient Express who is quietly coerced into a life of servitude to the anchorite of Three to See the King, perpetually sweeping sand away from his house's wall, Mills has lovingly documented the strenuous effort required to keep things as they are. This is one of the reasons why his novels are so uncanny. They analyse our familiar experience of running just to stand still, but this is an odd fixation for a novel: a form that normally gives pleasure through advancing the story. Mills, meanwhile, is a steady-state theorist: his narrators are innately conservative, locked into the recurring rituals of their lives.

In The Scheme for Full Employment and now here, Mills examines the incapability for organisations seeking uniformity to absorb disparate personalities. The bus system is able to incorporate both the manic Jason, contemptuous of passengers and speed limits, and Mrs Barker who supplies a personalised service, oblivious of the nominated stops. Both survive because the powers that be, in their worship at the altar of efficiency and statistics, lose sight not only of their customers but the individuality of employees.

The narrator spends most of his off-duty time in Socratic conversation with Edward, a repository of omnibus arcana. All this takes place in an unnamed London, but Mills has leached it of all texture and renamed famous locations: Oxford Street becomes "the bejewelled thoroughfare". There is no plot to speak of. Instead, the narrator meticulously details his journeys and shares his musings with a weird candour.

In a number of senses, this is too knowing and lacks the creepiness and intimations of apocalypse that haunt his previous work. But Mills's whimsy is always engaging, there are some brilliant jokes, and it is just the right length for a traffic-afflicted bus journey.

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