The Maintenance Of Headway

There are times when you stumble across just the right book for your mood, completely by accident.  I’ve been undergoing a saggy period of late, when I’ve been made anxious by a number of things and relentlessly beat myself up for being a mopey twat.  It’s not healthy.

In the library on Monday I selected a wafer sized novella by an author of whom I’ve been a fan for many years.  Magnus Mills drives London buses and writes books which brilliantly skewer the inane pointlessness of modern life.  He won his most acclaim over ten years ago for the Restraint Of Beasts, but appears to still produce material now and again, and still drives London buses, as far as I’m aware.

His is a very specific type of humour which might be best appreciated by those who don’t take themselves, or any form of authority too seriously.

This novella, “The Maintenance Of Headway” was all about driving London buses – a home subject but not one I’d seen him write about.  (Erecting high-tensile fences was an earlier subject).  I was surprised to see that this one was published a few years ago but I hadn’t read it before.  The Maintenance of Headway is the guiding principle which governs (or governed) the gaps between buses in any service.  When your bus stops and waits for no apparent reason, to ‘spread out the gaps in the service’ – as they say on the tube, they are effectively maintaining the headway.

The book’s quirky officious characters inspect the buses and their drivers, constantly ensuring none are too early and headway is maintained.  But its quirky, officious characters clearly stand equally for the self-important officious characters who work in practically all sectors and industries.  Their importance is always questionable and the random behaviour of people and circumstance will always be prone to upset plans.

However much you might enjoy considering yourself an outsider or a nomad, you are always – or at least for the most part, respecting those inspectors and working for them.  We shouldn’t take it so seriously, but we do, because we do it day in, day out.  All the time.  That repetition is critical and makes it seem more personally important than it should be.  Nobody knows the general drudgery of our own existence like ourselves.

But Mills is somehow able to inject light and air into this and make us laugh at ourselves, by laughing at the bus inspectors.   His commentary is injected by wickedly deadpan dialogue, unfussily delivered.  Although my favourite and most obvious gag was as follows.

(Bus drivers on a tea-break)

‘Jason was quite interested in the articulated bus,’ I said.  ‘Perhaps he’s applied for a transfer.’
‘But most of those buses are still in the factory,’ said Edward. ‘It’s going to take a while till they come off the production line.’
‘Maybe he got the sack,’ suggested Jeff.
‘You don’t get the sack from this job,’ said Davy.
‘What about Thompson?’ I said. ‘He got the sack.’
‘Oh yes!’ retorted Davy. ‘You’re always mentioning this Thompson who no one else can remember. Go on then! Tell us why he got the sack.’
‘He lost patience with his people,’ I replied.  ‘They were complaining he was late when he was actually early, so he drove his bus into the vehicle wash and switched the water on.’
‘Full of people?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘All the windows were open.’
‘Good grief,’ said Edward. ‘No wonder they sacked him.’

The Maintenance of Headway, Magnus Mills. [Bloomsbury 2009]

The book is 152 easy, joyous pages long.  Find it.

We all have to numbly adhere to the maintenance of headway.  I’m sure I’ll be bored and frustrated and navelgazing and full of self-loathing again in a mere matter of minutes.  But for right now, thanks Magnus.

prudent deceit

The steep path clogged up, turning into a Forestry Commission-hacked mesh of muddy sticks.  I reflected on the past, uncharacteristically interesting week.

She was like those all too rare barmaids who make you feel special and witty and welcome.  Their smiles convey such genuine warmth that you actually think you made a connection.  You carry your drinks away thinking, Wow, she was amazing.  A minute or two later you glance back to the bar for a third or fourth time and see she’s serving another customer.  In fact she’s giving those exact same smiles and laughs – YOUR smiles and laughs – to some other mug.  And the dispiriting penny drops.

We’d chatted on the phone several times in the lead-up to the two days’ work.  She’d sounded warm and chatty, had laughed a lot – even when I hadn’t intended to be amusing.  She sounded upbeat and cheerful: a kind of consistent upbeat cheer that an unattractive female might struggle to achieve.  It’s easier to have such a breezy outlook if everyone around you reacts positively, appreciatively.

Her sensible shoes and legs appeared first as she descended a flight of stairs and crossed to speak to the receptionist.  I immediately recognised her accent and introduced myself.  Her permanent smile broadened.  She had thick, dark, glossy hair and cute chipmunky features which accommodated smiling more readily than frowning; an indiscriminate trust in her 24 or 25 years.

It wasn’t long before I understood that she was genial, smiley and prone to easy laughs with everyone – even slightly slimy 50-something businessmen.  There was something about her unblemished youth that I wanted to shake in frustration – not everyone is like that!  They’re just like it to you because you’re adorable!  And there was part I wanted to hold and protect.  How could you ever tell if a reaction was spontaneous or simply behavioural?

A couple of days earlier I held the attention of six youngish females in a pub: drinks after the final class of an evening course.  Their presence and attention flattered my vanity and my performance, both in telling stories and conversing one-to-one, felt ok.  Laughs weren’t alcohol-induced, or At me rather than With, I don’t think I appeared like an idiot at all, Facebook friend requests arrived.

So in that period I was confident.  But like those all too rare barmaids and the smiley chipmunk: while warm and adorable, you never quite know where you are if they’re like it with everyone.  Seeing them peel into giggles at a patently unfunny line delivered by an ageing idiot, it makes you wither and sag and reassess.  They just laugh and simper and charm because it’s professionally prudent.  Of course they do.  YOU are the idiot, idiot.

There was no path now.  I battled on up the mountain, over logs and between stubborn pointy branches of fallen trees, into a wide clearing of recently flattened wood at the peak.  Music review podcasts played in my ears as I tried and failed to figure the geography of the distant hilltops.  A week previous I’d been on another, roughly how many miles east?  Where’s east?

When I returned to the car I’d planned gaze across the scenic valley view, maybe eat some fruit, read a chapter of a book, listen to some music: enjoy the setting.  There was nowhere I had to be.

I found a path and began my descent.

Yet I’d had lucky breaks with people last week, particularly that one day when an unprinted-out eticket had threatened to ruin my day.  I mightn’t have made my destination, which would have had professional implications.  But I explained rationally to each of three people – a train guard, a gate inspector and a gloriously weathered general enquiries attendant whose thick Birmingham accent suited him perfectly.  All were understanding.  Sometimes you get them, even when you expect you won’t, when you grow to anticipate the officious Nazis with the power to gleefully wreck your plans.

They’re probably less frequent still if you’re pretty and female.

Finally approaching the car park I heard the offensive, deafening tinny whinge of the motorbikes.  Little scrotes.  The trees thinned to present two bikes whizzing around the car park: one smaller two wheeled one, ridden by a young boy wearing a helmet; and a larger quad-bike, ridden by two younger boys – neither wearing anything vaguely protective.  The youngest must have been around seven.

Next to my car was a van, presumably owned by the children’s guardians.  They sported questionable facial hair and cans of Carling.

I didn’t hang around.

queasy bromance

It was driving back through the blackened Wye Valley during a brief pause in conversation that I realised it:  I hadn’t spent this long in one person’s company, certainly not without the lubricant of alcohol, since I didn’t know when.  It’s sad that our social lives tend to revolve around it, are largely dependent on it; that we, or at least I, don’t do too many things where it doesn’t feature at all.

It had been around eight hours since I picked him up outside his flat and we started the two and a quarter hour drive in a north easterly direction.

Knowing my new friend’s love of film, I stocked up on review podcasts in case there was any lull in conversation, but there wasn’t.  Our chatter was easy and relaxed and required little thought.  Less than I would have ordinarily expected with such a new acquaintance, despite the substantial size of our already well -established common ground: football (played together), music (gigs attended together), film (not attended together – too much), alcohol (drunk together), terminal singledom and occasional borderline misogyny (moaned together).

His company was dryly amusing too.  I’d laughed a couple of times as our chatter inevitably turned to women and our mutual failures.  It felt strange and surprising to laugh like that, so spontaneously, candidly and widely.  To feel my mouth make that shape and noise was unusual.  It didn’t happen often.  Maybe only the company of other people can do that.

I’m not sure he actually likes women as much as he says he does, if there a requisite level of compromise exists in him, a much more extreme nomad than I.  He moans that ‘they’ look to change things about you from the very start, sometimes even before they’ve met you.  Fuck that.  If they want to do that then they’re not gonna be right for me.  Perhaps he did have a point that ‘their’ ideals are more specifically pronounced than ours – wear a nice suit, sharp clothes, have a smart haircut, smell nice; but I fancy I’m more willing than him to bend in some ways.

“I’m sure if we went out wearing suits and sat in some posh bar drinking champagne, we could pick up… you know,” he said.  In truth I couldn’t even imagine him dressed in a suit or drinking champagne.  Not him, the same man who said “I don’t know why Big Issue sellers and homeless people seem to target me.  I mean, I think I look as bad as them most of the time.”  You could see where he was coming from.  He has an odd line in questionable knitwear.

Thanks to his low-key, unexcitable demeanour, the nine hours were comfortable.  It felt novel to have company for such a long time, to freely voice anything that came into my head.  “Nice” punctuated approving nods as a young Mum walked across a zebra crossing in front of the car.

Now, added to the shared ground, we had watched a top flight football match together.  His family ties had secured us tickets for an away match at an ostensibly unglamorous yet still top level match.  And it was a particularly good game with plenty of goals, excitement and high quality play.

His unflappable nature only grated when Tottenham scored – any one of their three excellent goals – none of which made him crack a smile, even when I tried to shoulder bump life into him.  Quietly appreciative, didn’t really care about the game.  With no other fans to the left of me, I celebrated alone.

A small flicker of pride only briefly danced across his face when the few thousand travelling supporters began to sing his cousin’s name, the young man he’d travelled across the country to watch play football since he was ten years old, a man whose life was being propelled in a quite different direction from his own.

the wrong man with one leg

A short silly tale based on real life events.

She hovered nervously outside the weights’ room, a meek but well-presented old lady, then looked at Tony as he exited.

“Hello,” Tony said, because she was unavoidable and looking right at him.

“Oh hello, I wonder if you could do me a favour?” she asked, predictably well-spoken.

“Certainly,” Tony smiled reassuringly.  “How can I help?”

“Would you mind looking in the changing room to see if my friend is there.  His name is John and he only has one leg.  Do you know him?”

“I know of a chap with one leg who comes here, yes.  I can have a look for you.  Message?”

“Oh, yes.  Well I’m not sure if he’s even here you see but if he is there could you say Heather is waiting if he wants to go for coffee, like we..” she trailed off.

“No problem at all.”

“Oh thank you so much.”

Tony walked the few paces down the corridor to the male changing room.  The one person in the room had one leg.  He was slowly drying himself.

“Hello, are you John?”

The oldish man looked up from what looked like a complicated operation.  “No.  Frank.”

“Oh, I..”  This threw Tony.  “A lady outside was asking me to check if a man called John with one leg was in here.  And here you are: a man with one leg..  But you’re not John.”

“No.  Frank.”

“Didn’t think there’d be so many of you around!”

He chuckled merrily.

“Check in the pool.  Not sure if there was anyone in the Sauna.”

“Good idea.”

Tony poked his head around the doorway and into the pool area, conscious that he was still wearing his sweaty gym gear.  There were a handful of men in the pool and around the Jacuzzi, but they all appeared to have two legs.  There was no discernible presence through the door of the Sauna either.

This meant he would have to disappoint Heather.  Maybe she’d been stood up by a man with one leg.

He walked back through the changing room and addressed Frank.

“I don’t suppose you want to go for coffee with her anyway?  She seems nice.”

He chuckled merrily again, which Tony took as a No.