The Maintenance of Headway – Magnus Mills

When you pick up a book you don’t always know quite what you might get. Sometimes you get an inkling you might really enjoy a book though because of what you have heard before. ‘The Maintenance of Headway’ was recommended by Kim of Reading Matters a while ago. Kim is a blogger who I have come to know in person and is someone who I do quite rely on for pointing out books or authors I might have missed out on. Magnus Mills is an author that has been mentioned in conversation more than once. What If I didn’t like it though?

I do like a good book which embraces the average normal man or woman. In the case of ‘The Maintenance of Headway’ the average men, and one woman, who make up the book are a group of bus drivers driving the public to and from their depot in a large unnamed city (the book heavily conjured London throughout, but that might be because I live here). That pretty much is the synopsis of this fairly short novel, and no to be honest it didn’t initially grab me that it would be a brilliant work of fiction from just that synopsis. Yet it is a marvellous, witty book that you will read quicker than you could think.

There were two things that really won me over with this book, the first was the characters. There is nothing extraordinary about them, but that’s what makes them so great. You can picture this bunch of men (and a woman) going about their daily grind with complete clarity, in fact if you live in a city you have probably met a lot of them. Some of them love their job, a few to the point of obsessing, others are complete jobs-worth’s (calling themselves ‘mass transportation operatives’) and others are clearly there for the cash and if they can get over time the will try their damndest to. You don’t see more than their daily working lives but you don’t need to through their work ethics and methods Mills leaves you with firm opinions of what sort of personalities they are.

The second thing that won me over with the book is the feeling that I have been there too. We have all waited forty minutes for a buss for four to arrive, we have all been annoyed/pleased when someone runs to get on a bus and the driver stops just as they are pulling away, we have all cursed diversions and water leaks for making us late. With this book we see it and laugh along with it. Not that the book ever becomes a caricature, more it pokes fun at the reader almost saying ‘you know you’ve done this’. The book is very simply written, its dialogue and thought but Mills doesn’t need heaps of depth to make his point and make you read on, you just do.

When I learnt that Magnus Mills was actually a bus driver until he became a paid writer an initial lazy thought of ‘oh well, he just wrote what he knew’ and yet I am sure in part that is true but it does a disservice to Mills to think its just down to that. I get the feeling Mills watches people intently and with a mixture of celebration and pessimism takes note of people, their characters and the situations they might be in, stores it, mildly tweaks it and then puts it on paper for us to enjoy occasionally admitting that this could actually be about us ourselves. 8/10

A very enjoyable and quirky taster of a writer, he might not be for everyone but I feel I would like to read much more of his work. In fact I am lucky as Kim gave me another of his books ‘Explorers of the New Century’ a few months ago (possibly a year – oops) so I already have another of his works to turn to. Who else has read Magnus Mills? What other works of his would you recommend?

Savidge suggests some perfect prose partners:

I cant think of a specific book but I want to suggest that if you like Alan Bennett then you give Magnus Mills a whirl and vice-versa.


Filed under Bloomsbury Publishing, Magnus Mills, Review

18 responses to “The Maintenance of Headway – Magnus Mills

  1. Hmm – this sounds interesting and I *do* like Alan Bennett so perhaps I should also follow up on this author who I may have been missing out on!

  2. gaskella

    I’ve read two others of Mills’ work, not this one yet although it’s in the TBR pile, but I am convinced he’s a genius for depicting everyman’s everyday life with such a wry satirical eye. You can’t help but chuckle.

    I loved ‘The Scheme for full employment’ which is a novel of White Van Man and has a marvellous circular conceit at the centre of its plot. It’s not meant to be his best, but really resonated with me. Maybe it’s because one of my friends became one for quite a while and you only had to mention a place name in GB and he’d go into raptures about the route he’d take to get there, how long it would take, and where you could get a good cuppa. He’d also moan about the jobsworths at the depots he delivered to! Funnily enough, I haven’t seen my friend in the flesh for about two years, and blow me, the doorbell rang yesterday evening and there he was – stopped off for a cuppa as he was passing by 😀

    • I think if this is anything to go buy he’s going to become an author I really enjoy as its the everyman’s everyday life that I love reading about especially when the quirks are celebrated and laughed along with.

      White van man novel sounds brilliant, could that be a new genre I wonder Annabel?

  3. Phew. So glad you liked it. I’ve read all his work, and this is probably his weakest book, but I still got very many chuckles out of it.

  4. I really need to find it over here.

    I’ve read Mills’ other works and find them weird but good.

    In my book club, we read All is Quiet on the Orient Express. At first, the members said that nothing really happened, but as they got into the novel, they saw the genius in the writing. And, they were still thinking about the novel a week later.

  5. bookgazing

    You have made a novel about buses sound interesting – bravo! But you’re right we have all been there, waiting for that bus to turn up only to see it go sailing past, or break down just up the road…I think there’s room for a novel on bus shelter encounters too because that is where I’ve met some off the oddest people around.

    • Its not me who made a novel about buses sound interesting it was the novel that choose the subject that made me find something interesting in it lol.

      A bus shelter novel would be wonderful. In fact I might have to look into any other fictional books about public transport full stop.

  6. Deb

    I second the previous recommendation of THE SCHEME FOR FULL EMPLOYMENT. Like MAINTENANCE, it’s a deceptively simple book–this time about a group of people who have figured out a way to stay employed by running vans back and forth carrying equipment to maintain the vans. It works perfectly until…well, that’s the fun of the book. I think it would make a great book club read. I also enjoyed THE RESTRAINT OF BEASTS, although not as much as SCHEME.

    • Deceptively simple… why oh why did I not use that in my review? Curses. That sums the book up wonderfully.

      The Scheme for Full Employment is another of his works I shall look out for as so many have heartily recommended it.

  7. novelinsights

    Sounds a offbeat and interesting read!

    • I think living in London you would really get this book Pol. Offbeat is indeed the word. I should go back and edit my review using all the wonderful snippets from these comments.

  8. This sounds like a nice quick read. I also love stories of ordinary people, so I think I would like this!

    • It’s worth taking a little time over though Amy I would add, its a very fast read your right, but let the characters sink in a little as they are to be treasured… even the vile ones.

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