View from the Bridge: 52

by John Morrison


52: The English Marinade

It's the first day of the cricket season so, naturally enough, the weather is positively Arctic. The editor of the Milltown Times sits in his tiny office, staring distractedly through the window at the unseasonal flurries of snow. A troubled man, his gloomy mood is echoed by this unheralded resumption of winter. A letter lies face down on his cluttered desk.

His pre-lunch routine (coffee, crossword, cigarette, crap...) has been brought to well-honed perfection by years of journalistic indolence. But that routine has been rudely disrupted by the morning's post. There's a watery feeling in his bowels, and an unpleasantly light feeling in his head. Having read the letter once, he can hardly bring himself to look at it again.

A local newspaper is supposed to reflect the tenor of local life, but the Milltown Times has lost its way over the years. It's been allowed to drift in the doldrums of editorial neglect: a rudderless boat becalmed on a placid millpond. On how many other newspapers, for example, would a story be summarily spiked for being "too interesting"?

The editor has developed the unerring knack of elevating the dull and the uneventful into headline stories, and burying anything of genuine significance towards the bottom of page five, next to the results of the Women's Institute's Most Exciting Tea-towel Competition. So resistant has he become to the siren voices of newsworthiness that he would no longer recognise a good story if it crept up behind him and bit his arse. He takes a long hard look at what makes Milltown shine in the presence of the town's less exalted neighbours... and then ignores it altogether.

The result is that Milltown - a town that fairly buzzes with creative endeavour, boasting a host of fascinating characters and a hard-earned reputation for eccentricity - is served by a newspaper for which even mediocrity would represent an unfeasible ambition. For as long as he can remember, his journalistic life has meandered uneventfully through the tranquil backwaters of local affairs. If you discount the regulars at the Grievous Bodily Arms - generally a good idea, whatever the context - then the people he writes about every week are the very same people who read the paper. There isn't much call, in a small town, for scoops, exclusives and salacious headlines. A blistering exposé of nefarious goings-on might briefly attract a few extra readers. But what's the point, he reasons, of upsetting everybody just to double the sales figures? In any case, if his readers were ever to develop an unhealthy interest in randy vicars, kiss-'n-tell bimbos and three-in-a-bed romps, they'd be unlikely to salivate over the paper's more mundane headlines, such as this week's opening salvo: Milltown Man Dies of Natural Causes.

But nothing promotes amnesia more effectively than unfulfilled ambitions. As a cocky young hack he felt he had a glittering career mapped out: a few months on the local weekly rag, rapid relocation to a provincial daily, before hitting the big time on a national broadsheet. As he summarised court reports and ghosted readers' letters he really felt he was writing the first rough drafts of history.

Over-eager to make a name for himself, he made the mistake of penning an honest obituary - thereby breaking one of the cardinal rules of provincial journalism. Instead of the weekly rag being a stopping station on the fast-track to better things, it proved to be a dreary terminus. At twenty-seven, the age by which Alexander the Great had already annexed most of the known world into his empire, our hack's career had suddenly hit the buffers. Yes, that weekly rag was the Milltown Times and, yes, he's still here.

With a sigh of resignation, he turns the letter over. It's from the managing director of the paper's publishing company who, a few years back, had won a job-lot of local newspapers in a crooked poker game. The company accountant, already late for a liquid lunch, had hidden away the first annual figures from Milltown in the petty cash column. That set an irreversible precedent; in order to balance the books in the years that followed, the Milltown Times was conveniently erased from company records. So it came as quite a surprise to the publishers to find that not only did Milltown have a newspaper of its own, but that they actually owned it. Once they'd found Milltown on the map (a map so old that much of the South Pennines was uncharted territory and labelled, enigmatically, 'Here Be Dragons') a letter was hastily dispatched. Couched in polite yet unambiguous terms, it asked the editor to account for the paper's financial deficiencies over the years.

Our editor's careworn reverie is interrupted by his sub, who drops a fragrant, paper-wrapped parcel onto the desk. It's his lunch: fish, chips and scraps, as it is most days. What is the magic ingredient in newsprint that transforms a simple meal into something that smells so appetising? Newsprint, salt and vinegar: the English marinade. The delicious aroma makes him forget, for a few precious moments, the problems that undeniably lie ahead.

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