View from the Bridge: 59

by John Morrison


59: Unchanging Times

The Milltown Times is celebrating its centenary this year. Launched during the last years of Queen Victoria's reign, the paper first found success as a cure for insomnia. Since then, of course, it has witnessed - and largely ignored - the momentous events of the twentieth century. The editor had planned to bring out a special facsimile edition of that very first issue, but abandoned the idea when he realised it looked much the same as what he's publishing today. Even that first headline had a familiar ring: Mafeking Relieved: No Milltown Residents Involved .

It's easy to knock a local newspaper for being parochial and dull, but it's become part of our lives. We read it avidly from cover to cover and, for most of us, those five or six minutes are the highpoint of our week. A subscription to the Milltown Times makes an ideal present for an uncherished relative, or anyone who has left the area and might want to keep abreast of local issues. There'll be nothing in the paper to disturb delicate sensibilities and, indeed, nothing to make the recipients regret for an instant their decision to leave Milltown.

The Milltown Times is like the maiden aunt you feel obliged to visit. You don't want to miss a week, just in case she decides to cut you out of her will. You settle yourself into a wing-back chair, adjust the foot-stool and rest your head against the antimacassar. You are so bored you could eat a scatter-cushion. You give yourself up to fantasy (yes, a lengthy bout of oral sex with Michelle Pfeiffer will do nicely) and adopt an indulgent smile you hope will be taken for rapt attention... while your aged relative rabbits on and on and on...

"I think I'm 100... Maybe it's 101... I've been taken for 99 in a dim light. I can work it out. I was born the year they repealed the Corn Laws. Or was it when they built the Crystal Palace? It all seems so long ago. It's different now, of course, you only have to blink and another year's gone. Now, where was I? Oh yes, the young people of today think they know it all, but I've forgotten more about Milltown than they'll ever know. And their music - if you can call it music - well, it's just noise really. Now where did I put my glasses? And what's that smell? Sorry, you'll have to speak up, dear, I'm a bit deaf. Oh, yes, I don't mind if I do, a small sweet sherry, thank you..."

The centenary nonwithstanding, these are difficult days at the Milltown Times . The paper's owners have decided to break with long-standing tradition, and get the paper to show a profit. It's never been the kind of paper to chase celebrity interviews; it doesn't even chase stories very hard. Our editor, unaccustomed to ultimatums, is floored by a terse phone-call from his publisher - "Make a fucking decision for once in your life" - that leaves him open-mouthed with shock.

However, we should never underestimate the obstinacy of weak men. His first idea for making the paper more profitable - selling it pre-shredded as hamster bedding - is greeted with a snort of derision by his sub-editor. His second idea is to cut down on expenses. So it's goodbye to company bicycle clips and pies funded from the petty cash tin. When this idea, too, is openly mocked, our editor take his publisher's words to heart... and sacks his sub.

It's not easy to replace the only member of staff who really knew what he was doing. And, although she's easier on the eye, the temp who arrives from the secretarial agency seems disturbingly inexperieced. "What's that ringing noise?", she asks brightly. "It's a phone", the editor replies, with a shake of the head and a world-weary sigh.

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