by John Morrison


83: Hitting the Buffers

Once he's packed his meagre belongings into a bin-bag, the outgoing editor of the Milltown Times takes a last, lingering look around the newspaper's tiny office. This is where he's spent his entire working life, stabbing one-fingered at the keys of his ancient Remington typewriter. It pains him to leave. What hurts most, though, is the manner of his going. Getting the sack is bad enough; it only adds to the trauma when the dismissal notice is a terse fax from head office.

Regrets? He's had a few. When he first began work on the paper - running errands and making tea - he was still in short trousers. He imagined that an apprenticeship on the Milltown Times would catapult him, via a stint on a regional daily, to the heady heights of Fleet Street. As he ghosted readers' letters and summarised local court reports ("But, Your Honour, the sheep consented...") he persuaded himself that he was writing the first rough drafts of history. Perhaps 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.

Months turned into years - where did they all go? - and those early ambitions atrophied like unflexed muscles. The only time he was ever head-hunted, after that particular gaffe, was to be offered the post of features editor on the Exchange and Mart. He was tempted, briefly. The job seemed a bit of a doddle, like being agricultural story editor for the Star Wars films. By this time, however, he was part of the furniture at the Milltown Times: so firmly ensconced in the editorial chair that some days - after one pie too many - he had to be prised out of it with a crowbar. He'd become used to the comfortable pace of life in Milltown. Instead of being a stopping station on the fast-track to better things, the paper proved to be a dreary terminus.

He's given his life to the paper. Journalism courses through his veins; even his conversation can be measured in column inches. So dedicated has he been to his craft that not even a breaking story has ever tempted him outdoors. He slept through the moon landings, dozed fitfully as the Berlin Wall came crashing down, and was taking a nap while Bill Clinton's sexual indiscretions seemed to be on everyone's lips. He'd wake up disorientated and covered in pie-crumbs, with a stalactite of dribble extending from the corner of his mouth to form a pool of drool on the threadbare carpet... only to find stories unwritten and deadlines looming. Yes, happy days.

The rest of the paper's staff are giving him a little send-off today, with drinks and nibbles at the Stoic. They've pulled out all the stops with the catering: a box of cheap plonk and a bowl piled high with salt & vinegar crisps and pork scratchings (offering a choice of 'with hair' or 'without'). A downmarket strippagram girl has been engaged, to embarrass the hell out of him. Since our ex-editor doesn't know the difference between a golden handshake and a golden shower, it was probably a mistake to wear his best suit. As he sits at the bar, dabbing at his trousers with a beer towel, he wonders what the future holds for him.

The paper's depleted staff are more concerned to discover who will be taking over the editorial hot-seat. All the publishers have offered, by way of information, is an intriguing collection of business objectives, mission statements and customer care charters. It's a diversionary tactic that fools nobody. Only one thing is certain: there'll be some startling new initiatives to keep this stately old craft afloat in the choppy waters of newspaper publishing, into the next century and beyond.

Millennium fever is proving less than contagious here in Milltown. While the travel agents are trying to persuade us to spend the first morning of the new millennium in some sun-drenched holiday paradise, we don't really care where we'll be... as long as it's a place where we won't have to rely on computers and microchips. So we'd prefer not to be 30,000 feet up in a doomed jumbo jet, or hooked up to some crucial life-support machine. We'd settle for some safe vantage point from which to survey The Collapse Of Civilisation As We Know It. If it happens to be a country pub with a log fire, picture window and some decent hand-pulled beer, so much the better.

The millennium scenario is strangely familiar; our more anxious citizens have replayed it many times in their feverish imaginations. The clock chimes twelve on the last night of the old year. Digital timers click fatefully from 1999 into the uncharted territory that is the year 2,000. Computers explode, instantly. Irreplaceable data disappears into the ether, never to be seen again. Household appliances go berserk. Savings and investments evaporate; the FT index drops through the floor; we're reduced to bartering with beads. Within seconds we're back in the middle ages, the fabric of society unravelling like the badly-knitted sweaters that so many Milltown folk seem to favour.

That's the worst-case scenario, at least if you listen to the merchants of doom who are prepared, at a price, to rid our computers of those pesky millennium bugs. They present a Shakespearean vision of global meltdown: sour, stinging winds; plagues of boils; birds singing out of tune; the seasons blending into one, an endless winter. But they would say that, wouldn't they?

As unpleasant as these predictions may seem, there's an alternative possibility so terrifying that no-one dares even to consider it. What if nothing happens on that fateful day? What if everything is the same as it was before? Just another day. Just another dollar. The familiar routine: five days of meaningless labour, with only beer and telly to ease the pain, followed by a weekend spent shopping at Tescos and ploughing listlessly through a pile of Sunday supplements.

What if aeroplanes keep flying, toasters work perfectly and computers continue to spew out specious nonsense? We'll be feeling rather silly on the morning after those 'what the hell, we're all going to die' Millennium parties. Adulterous couples creeping out of lustful beds, red-faced and chastened, to face the music from their respective spouses. Disgruntled employees begging to have their job back, having unwisely told the boss, the week before, where he could stick it. Now that's the nightmare scenario...

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