A bunch of wild photons that had been travelling for twenty-seven billion years narrowly missed the mirror of the James Webb telescope and five seconds later landed on Earth. It is one of the great tragedies of science that these photons scattered undetected because the information they carried would have explained the age and origin of the universe and generated a swag of Nobel Prizes. Instead they caused a quantum bifurcation event, or reality burp, in an obscure newspaper office and fused all its computers. But there is no point trying to explain first causes. It just happened…
One moment he is tapping on the keys of his workstation, composing a few pars of Council Notes (some time past deadline, but the editor doesn’t need to know that), and the next moment there is darkness and a heaving sensation as if the universe has started to hiccup. Worse still, at the end of one hiccup it feels as if the universe is trying to throw up.
When the light comes back he finds his fingers pounding the keys of an old-fashioned manual typewriter. The office is the same but different; the air, the light, the background sounds all similar, but not the same.
One can imagine many reactions to this reality-shredding experience, but probably low on the list would be Edward Herring’s actual words, which possibly channel Douglas Adams:
‘Oh no, not again.’
After two quiet, industrious decades working for the Byron Shire Echo (which God preserve), Edward suspects he has been pitched once more into the bowels of the controversial tabloid the Mullcogan Times.
His suspicion is confirmed when he reads the title writ large in apparently reverse characters across the double glass doors of the office, and also engraved small on a plate screwed to the side of the typewriter, where the words are preceded by ‘Property Of’ and followed by ‘Do Not Remove – By Order’.
Edward closes his eyes and tells himself that it is just a dream. He has not been, cannot have been, transported to an alternate universe where all things are the opposite of what they should be. Instead of writing for a conservative journal of record, The Echo, in this counterfeit world he will be inventing scandals and conspiracy theories for a local rag.
It has happened before, but so long ago that he has almost forgotten the experience, or classes it as one of the vertiginous hallucinations of his wild youth.
He cautiously opens his eyes and focuses on the room. It is solid, three-dimensional, utterly real – and it is without doubt the office of the Mullcogan Times. There is even a placard on the desk saying so, along with the word ‘Editor’.
Edward stands up quickly. The editor he remembers from long ago would not be pleased with anybody sitting in his chair. He looks around; the office is empty, but there are sounds coming from the room next door.
Next door turns out to be the office kitchen, and it is packed with people in party hats drinking beer and wine. He stands on the threshold and peers into the throng.
‘Come on in, mate. What have ya lost?’
The speaker is a middle-aged man, dressed in a poncho, who manages to combine the airs of both authority and whimsy.
‘I’m looking for the editor. My name’s Edward Herring and I shouldn’t be here.’
‘Mine’s Shimon Salahm and I shouldn’t be here either. My wife thinks I should be home with her. Where should you be?’
‘It’s complicated. Can you point out the editor for me?’
Shimon takes a swig of his drink and purses his lips.
‘Well, here’s the thing. We don’t really have an editor any more. We have a flat command structure and an editorial collective. One of the paper’s owners, in a fit of efficiency, read an article in a management magazine not long ago and we’ve been a small-scale soviet experiment ever since.’
‘That’s completely… that’s remarkable. But what about the desk next door with the sign marked “Editor”?’
‘We move it around to confuse people. Tell you what though.’ Shimon takes another swig and looks at the glass. It is empty. There is a long silence while he stares wisely into the middle distance.
Edward, remembering how the Mullcogan Times functions, finds a bottle and refills Shimon’s glass. He ventures a quiet, ‘Tell me what?’
‘What was I saying?’
‘You said the paper doesn’t have an editor. I’m a journalist myself and I cannot imagine how that works.’
‘Right. It doesn’t work all that well, but at least the blame is shared around. But I think the experiment has run its course. We’re all tired of collective responsibility because it leads to collective abuse. An editor is needed as a lightning rod to divert the hostility that’s otherwise directed at all of us. Edward, I’m making you the editor of The Times.’
‘No, you can’t – ’
Shimon ignores the objection and turns towards the room, tapping his glass with a spoon. When nobody notices this signal, he bellows, ‘People! Pay attention. Say hello to our new editor, Edward Herring.’
When Shimon makes his announcement Edward hears some tepid cheers and at least one strangled cry of ‘Good Luck!’
He knows he should not have acquiesced in his fate so easily but when you are lost in some mysterious interdimensional world you find yourself groping for any strand of familiarity. Edward is used to newspapers; his first duty is to look after himself, and a promotion is a promotion.
Shimon Salahm, the newspaper’s manager and general factotum, steers the new editor towards the conference room of the Mullcogan Times, which turns out to be a local café, and enquires about his background.
‘Don’t worry, the job is yours, nobody else wants it, but I am curious to know how you turned up so providentially. Where did you work before?’
‘At the Byron Shire Echo,’ says Edward sadly, thinking that Shimon would not, could not, have heard of it.
‘Rings a bell. We had an exchange employee years ago, before my time, who was from a paper with a title like that. His visit started a bit of a tradition in our workplace.’
Edward brightens. ‘I did? I mean, he did? What was the tradition?’
‘It was a piece of folk wisdom, actually. “If you want to prosper, always do the opposite of what The Echo does.” Of course we only had a second-hand description of the paper and its community, but it helped us avoid many mistakes.’
‘What sort of mistakes?’
‘Oh, the usual stuff. Relying too much on the intelligence of readers. Believing in the political process. Not agreeing with the views of corporate advertisers. Campaigning for environmental causes. Arguing with the local assembly – I think it’s called a council where you’re from. Now if you reverse all those pitfalls, you get an idea of our core values.’
‘So the Mullcogan Times must be very popular.’
‘We can always do better, Edward. In fact I believe the time is ripe for The Times to do a spot of journalism, I mean investigative journalism.’
‘Won’t that interfere with your core values?’
Shimon nods. ‘It might do. Don’t tell the shareholders.’
‘What do you want me to investigate?’
‘Do you know we had a terrible flood last year? Well, we did, some people drowned, and many people lost their homes. The government promised assistance, but nothing has been done. People are really upset, so we should find out why the promise was broken.’
‘That’s easy: because it was made by politicians and carried out by bureaucrats.To be continued…
The Adventures of Edward Herring – Part two
The Adventures of Edward Herring – Part three