Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A Busman's Holiday - Magnus Mills, Author, Bus Driver and Ordinary Bloke

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There seem to be two words favoured when speaking of Bristol-born author Magnus Mills - deadpan and original. 

dead·pan  (ddpn)
n.
1. A blank, expressionless face.
2. A person, especially a performer, who has or assumes a blank expression.
adj.
Impassively matter-of-fact, as in style, behavior, or expression: deadpan delivery of the joke.
adv.
With a blank, expressionless face.
v. dead·panneddead·pan·ningdead·pans
v.tr.
To express in an impassive, matter-of-fact way.
v.intr.
To express oneself in an impassive, matter-of-fact way.

o·rig·i·nal  (-rj-nl)
adj.
1. Preceding all others in time; first.
2.
a. Not derived from something else; fresh and unusual: an original play, not an adaptation.
b. Showing a marked departure from previous practice; new: a truly original approach. See Synonyms at new.
3. Productive of new things or new ideas; inventive: an original mind.
4. Being the source from which a copy, reproduction, or translation is made.

These two definitions are often accompanied with another - Kafkaesque.' There is a surreal quality to his work but I think his style is totally his own. If comparisons should be sought then Ivor Cutler might be the obvious one. Slightly absurd, deadpan as already mentioned and dry as a nuns wotsit. Mills style is direct and to the point much like Hemingway. Ernest with a twist of Franz with a dash of Ivor perhaps. or as the Independent on Sunday suggested - Albert Camus and Enid Blyton. I think in reality Magnus is very much Magnus Mills. It is something every serious literary critic thinks is true - the man has an original voice.

So then deadpan? Yes. Original? Absolutely.

As the only London bus driving author I know of I think it fair to say Magnus fits no preconceived ideas of how a writer should be. He is, even with his bevvy of qualifications, grounded. He has few airs and graces preferring the working man's life to that of the garret ensconced writer. In other words, he works for a living but still finds time to write.


"No experience compares to driving along Oxford Street and the concentration required. People keep walking in front of the bus and look quite angry if you keep going. You don't want to constantly hit the brake when there's standing passengers. Mums shoving their buggies out into the road are the worst - usually on mobiles, talking to someone other than their child."

When I read "A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In" I was by turns enthralled,captivated and excited in ways I  thought I had grown out of. It was a bit like the time when I, as a twelve-year-old, bought a copy of The Beatles 'Paperback Writer' and flipped the single over to find what must be one of the greatest B-sides ever recorded. The song was 'Rain.' It, like this book, was something quite incredible. The song has lasted. I think the book will too.

"Far away, in the ancient empire of Greater Fallowfields, things are falling apart. The imperial orchestra is presided over by a conductor who has never played a note, the clocks are changed constantly to ensure that the sun always sets at five o' clock, and the Astronomer Royal is only able to use the observatory telescope when he can find a sixpence to put in its slot. But while the kingdom drifts, awaiting the return of the young emperor, who has gone abroad and communicates only by penny post, a sinister and unfamiliar enemy is getting closer and closer..."

"'A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In' is Magnus Mills's most ambitious work to date. A surreal portrait of a world that, although strange and distant, contains rather too many similarities to our own for the alien not to become brilliantly familiar and disturbingly close to home. "


Born in Birmingham in 1954 (a vintage year it has to be said) but raised in Bristol Magnus Mills He grabbed an economics degree but couldn't be arsed with getting his masters and took of fixing fences for a living. It was this down to earth start to working life that seems to have informed his lifestyle since. Mills worked for a short time as a columnist for the Independent before turning his focus, in 1999, to being a novelist.A high-flying author with low life needs.

So then, is he serious author or comic writer? The honest answer is yes. You see he manages to do both and all at the same time too. There is meaning behind the myth's and fables he creates. If his stories are but idle whims then he has been busy creating a series of curious masterpieces many of which have been short-listed for various literary prizes.

"When The Restraint of Beasts was published I packed in driving buses. I thought I was going to live the life of a writer, sitting in pubs drinking Guinness. But I like having a day job, too. I can only write, it turns out when I have no apparent spare time."

There appears to be no limits set upon his imagination. He has set his target to the sun and unlike the chap who flew too close seems impervious to the heat. He is  no Icarus. His wings are not of wax and feathers but of flights of fancy sewn into a literary fabric that leaves the story accessible and fun to read. Adult and very dry. Very English in the way Yorkshire is with its iron-hard wit. A dry built stone wall that sits resolutely defying the passage of time and fads of fashion. But still funny.

"Fencers Tam, Richie, and their ever-exasperated English foreman are forced to move from rural Scotland to England for work. After a disastrous start involving a botched fence and an accidental murder, the three move to a damp caravan in Upper Bowland and soon find themselves in direct competition with the sinister Hall Brothers whose business enterprises seem to combine fencing, butchering and sausage-making. The Restraint of Beasts introduced readers to the now much-loved unique voice of Magnus Mills and his surreally comic world."


“‘With a tone that wavers as unsettlingly between Ken Loach and Franz Kafka
as its locale switches from Scotland to England,
 Magnus Mill's first novel is a work of rare originality and power ...
It is very, very good'” –  
Independent



His art is much like his day job: a deceptively difficult thing made to look comparatively easy by the effortless manner in which he applies himself. There is also a rhythm that drives things along, sort of engine like with its chug chug feel. It is never boring, though. The direct prose allows reader freedom to interpret the flat narrative as a platform from which the deadpan delivery can be made all the funnier. The style becomes the foil from which the humour bounces against. The characters are real, living real lives often depicted as mundane. It is this apparent tedium that gives leverage to the comic bits. As they say up north - 'there is nowt as queer as folk' and in Magnus Mills case this is patently so.

"If you don't want to eat junk food while you're driving, it's important to have a good breakfast. I've had the same caff breakfast for three years. Toast, marmalade, poached egg, hash browns, black pudding, two mugs of tea. But if I could survive on a tablet, I would. Then I could spend an hour in perfect peace, not thinking about getting fuelled up."

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"I don't like repeating a word on a page, let alone in a paragraph.But there's one word I didn't realise I used twice in a paragraph in The Restraint of Beasts. I'm getting it changed before another reprint. But it's my secret which word.".

In some respects, Magnus Mills is our best-kept secret. I rather think he'd like the cat to be let out of the bag, though. I mean it is time after all. Once nominated for the Booker Prize, a winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award and also the Mckitterick Prize. I am aware what two of those awards are but not the last.

Magnus Mills is the sort of author both modernists and regular, run-of-the-mill readers would like if only more knew of his quite incredible talents. I can see a possible future, a time when I and poor old Magnus are pushing up daisies and the world of literature is extolling said authors virtues posthumously in the way they now do Franz Kafka. A lot of bloody use that is eh?

"The travelling public won't understand, but we're never told over the radio to travel faster. We only get messages to slow down, to stop for one or two minutes. It's about maintenance of headway. No drivers would personally choose to be late because then you get more passengers to deal with. But we're only admonished by inspectors for earliness.".
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“Magnus Mills is Britain's most original writer, so forget everything you've been told about fiction - he has never even heard of the rules that apply to everyone else” –  The Times

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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers

1 comment:

Spectra Ghostseeker said...

One never knows what fascinating tales lurk in the minds and experiences of seemingly common people.