Dear Ruffians -
I started this newsletter in 2017, as an experiment. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it or what would be in it. I just liked the idea of having a space all my own where I could regularly set down some thoughts without having to squeeze them into somebody else’s box.
I’m not against writing inside an editorial box, which can be a very productive constraint, and of course I still write for various publications. But I wanted somewhere to try out ideas that didn’t fit anywhere else or were not yet fully formed (hence the awful pun of the title).
I soon had a couple of hundred subscribers, and then a thousand, then a few more thousand…and at some point I realised I had an actual audience and therefore something of an obligation to deliver this thing on a fairly regular basis, even though it was free.
It has never really been onerous, however, especially because so many of you have been kind enough to say, in private and in public, how much you enjoy it. Believe me, that matters. There were times, especially in the first couple of years, when I wavered about whether to continue. The Ruffian does take time to write, time isn’t always easy to find, and writing without payment can feel otiose. But whenever I’d question whether it was worth the effort, someone would say something nice about it and I’d feel a renewed sense of purpose.
This thing is now four - FOUR - years old. And I still don’t really know what The Ruffian is about or for. But that’s OK.
All the advice to newsletter writers, including from Substack itself, is to identify a niche and work it consistently. If you’re a finance specialist, write about finance, if you have expertise on Chinese politics or French poetry or whatever it is, then stick to your knitting, indeed maybe knitting is your thing. That way you send an unmistakable signal to the world about who you are and what you do. Those who share your obsession will come your way, and be prepared to pay for what you do.
This is very good advice which I’ve more or less totally ignored. I’ve written about UK politics, US politics, business, music, marketing, culture wars, psychology, sport, history, Bayesian reasoning…Sometimes I write short notes, sometimes lengthy essays. Sometimes I have video, sometimes I don’t. The only common thread seems to be stuff I find interesting - le niche, c’est moi (By the way, if you think it’s obvious what this newsletter is about I’d love to hear your pithy take). This makes The Ruffian harder to market but it’s also the only way I can write it, and I think most of you prefer it that way anyway.
Anyway, let me move in the direction of the point. The amount of time I spend on The Ruffian is now impossible to justify without getting paid for it. I have other things I could be wasting, sorry investing, my time in (see below for one big new thing). And actually I’d like to spend more time on it. For instance, I’d like to introduce a series of email interviews with interesting people. I’d like to do more longer pieces like Bamber Bridge. I’d like to do book reviews. Creating The Ruffian of my dreams or indeed sustaining this one means charging for it, or some of it. In short, I’m a professional writer; I really should be charging for my writing.
So, this post is all free but after that, I’ll start charging. Now, I intend to keep every one of you on board, and so there will continue to be free content - this is not a hard paywall, it’s more of a paid tier. The division between what’s free and what’s not isn’t set in stone and will evolve, but broadly speaking, the longer pieces will be free, while pretty much everything else will be for paid subscribers only: the Miscellany; various notes on various topics; what I’m reading, and so on. Subscribers will also have access to the comments which I intend to do more to cultivate, since whenever I do invite them I get really thoughtful and interesting responses.
For full access I propose charging four pounds a month (I think that translates to a little over five dollars a month, depending on the exigencies of the global economy). I guess this is about a flat white and a half, and should you really be drinking that much caffeine anyway?
If you sign up for a year then your commitment earns you a discount - that will be forty pounds.
HOWEVER - as an opening offer, and seeing as you’re already here, I’m offering subscriptions for half price: two pounds a month, or twenty pounds a year, to anyone who signs up within the next week.
YES THAT’S RIGHT YOU HEARD ME THAT’S HALF PRICE, TWENTY POUNDS FOR A WHOLE YEAR OF THE RUFFIAN. AM I CRAZY? MAYBE!
(To be crystal clear, after one year it goes up to £4 per month/£40 per year. Although of course you can cancel anytime.)
Finally, I’m going to offer a premium premium tier, for particularly loyal and generous Ruffians, at 72 pounds a year, equivalent to six pounds a month. For this you get signed copies of any current or future book you would like. Plus the satisfaction of knowing you are helping to make this thing viable. Plus some perks I haven’t thought of yet. And I’ll write to say thanks.
Click on the “subscribe now” button and get yourself signed up in whatever fashion you choose. And tell your friends.
JOHN AND PAUL
I am delighted to say that Faber & Faber have commissioned me to write a book about John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Getting paid to write about The Beatles - well, that’s it, I can retire. After I’ve written this book.
The Ruffian played an integral part in the birth of this book. Towards the end of 2020 I wrote a piece called 64 Reasons To Celebrate Paul McCartney and published it here. It was the quintessential lockdown project. I’d been making notes towards it for years but never found time to actually write it. I also had low confidence that anyone except superfans would read a 10k essay about Paul McCartney. It didn’t fit any obvious spaces in established media, at least not the way I wanted to do it. But I knew some of you would appreciate it, so once I’d completed it, I dropped it here. Unexpectedly and gloriously it went viral (in a good way).
When I was writing 64 Reasons I found I had to cut a lot of material to do with John and Paul’s relationship, a topic I am obsessed with, just to keep the thing down to its already overgrown length. (In fact I mentioned that in #63 - I was already thinking hey, what if…?). Given the scale and intensity of the response to that piece, I started developing an idea for a book about the two of them.
The conventional narrative about their relationship is deeply flawed. It was set in stone shortly after The Beatles’ breakup and hasn’t been much modified since. Constrained by the myopia and prejudices of the time, it misses out a lot and gets much wrong and consequently we have a very thin and limited view of both men and of what they did together.
Lennon and McCartney were more than just great mates, or fierce competitors, which is how they’ve generally been portrayed. They shared an essentially romantic friendship, a passionate love that ignited mutual creativity. The love (and the insecurity and jealousy that came with it) fed into the music, and vice versa.
I’ll track the relationship from the day they met in 1957 to the day John died in 1980: 23 years. Hence John and Paul: A Love Story in 23 Songs. I’m not just writing this for Beatles fans but for anyone who loves a love story; to me, it’s the greatest romance of the twentieth century.
OK I’ll say no more about it. I need to write the damn thing.
Many thoughtful responses to last week’s post, some in the comments section, some in replies to me (just hit ‘reply’). In the comments, Little Librarian offers an intelligent alternative reading of Kelley’s remarks, although in the end I don’t think there is much of a distinction there. The question is whether it’s OK for lesbians to reject the class of people with male bodies, regardless of gender orientation. Kelley says or implies that such a preference is a choice and a prejudiced one, which is consistent with the Stonewall position overall. The fundamental tension here is that, on Stonewall’s view, L/G/B/T/ are both identities that must be fiercely defended and superficial, ultimately meaningless categories, given the fluidity of sexuality and gender.
In the replies: reader L says “the position of Stonewall could be summarised as ‘Stonewall apparently no longer wishes to protect the existence or rights of lesbians to choose women as their sexual partners.’ That is, as you say, astonishing and for many people heartbreaking. It’s also incredibly damaging for young lesbians who are being pushed back into a closet from which my generation hoped they had escaped forever.”
Reader M’s response is worth quoting at length:
“Yes to all of this. I have gay friends who have been in this exact situation, and it’s hideous. But while sexuality may not be actively chosen by the individual, I believe that it IS collectively imagined and chosen by societies. Gay, straight, trans - these aren’t constants; that’s clear from history. But the fact that they’re made up and mutable doesn’t make them less real or worthy of respect as current social categories. I think we’re in the process of changing the available categories at the moment, and it’s understandably unsettling to live through. It seems to me that Nancy Kelley is taking a broad, historical view in saying that we can, as a society, challenge ourselves to widen who we’re attracted to. And I think we will. But asking it of each individual, who has already accumulated the complex set of experiences and beliefs that constitute a sexual preference, is asking too much, IMO - especially if you also want people to honour and respect one another’s preferences, as, I think, we do. Finally, why are women always forced to be the battleground? I’ve heard nothing about gay men being bigoted for not wanting to sleep with female-bodied trans men. I feel as though women - natal women - are carrying the burden (and bearing the scars) of all these sex and gender debates while gay and straight men are largely allowed to spectate.”
WHILE I’M SELF PROMOTING…
I’ve given two paid talks in the last month - in person. My first in-real-life talks since you-know-what and it was great to be back. Both were to businesses interested in how to disagree more productively. I also talk on communication strategy and the practice of curiosity. If you’d like me to speak at your conference or company in 2022, get in touch.
I wrote a piece for The Times on negotiation skills, drawing on research from CONFLICTED, pegged to COP26.
An unusually lucid account of NFTs, and how businesses and marketers should think about the opportunities they present.
Wonderful podcast interview (from Silver Screen Video) with the great film critic David Thomson. Everyone even remotely interested in film should own a copy of his Biographical Dictionary Every time I watch a classic movie, afterwards I consult that book and also Have You Seen? Now eighty years old, Thomson is still on fine form and has a kind of magisterial long game perspective on the whole Hollywood story, which may or may not be coming to an end. A truly great and original mind, and by the sound of it a lovely man too.
Teju Cole on ‘epiphanic writing’ with passages from Joyce, Woolf, and Morrison.
Only country music makes such a ruthlessly direct assault on the lacrimal glands…