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.


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