Congratulations! You've decided to start an email newsletter. Or you've got one, and you're trying to work out how to build a bigger audience.
I'll write another time about (i) why you might want to start a personal newsletter, and (ii) if and how to consider monetising it by going subscriber-only.
In this post I'm gonna talk through newsletter strategy for individuals. There's a bunch of information out there for business newsletters and copywriting for sales conversion, but less for the regular person (or individual journalist) wanting to start a personal newsletter for the sake of communicating. Thing is, you start a newsletter because you've got something to say - but you quickly realise that what you actually want is for people to read it. How can you make that happen?
First I'll talk about what type of newsletter you're writing, and the implications of this for its growth potential. I'll then share some stats on how my newsletter, Disturbances, grew - and then finally a set of strategies based on my experience, and that of some of the best newsletter writers I know.
What sort of email newsletter are you writing?
The way I see it, there's three types:
Having a clear idea which type of newsletter you're writing is essential to get a realistic sense of how big your list can grow - and how that growth is achieved.
Hint: it's actually all about the reader, not the author. How and why is your work is relevant to your audience?
I'll look at each in turn.
Why do Useful newsletters grow?
Useful newsletters are probably the easiest to grow, and certainly the easiest to monetise. The 4x factors determining growth are:
As you can see, there are obviously trade-offs here: for example, many people are interested in tech startup employee self-improvement (say), but there's a vast amount of competition on this topic and it's hard to stand out. If you started a newsletter on learning to play the tuba as an adult, on the other hand, you're the only person meeting that need! But the total audience available is obviously diminutive.
At their largest, useful newsletters can at their largest reach 1M+ readers - though NB these are all professional operations
The value to readers should be relatively obvious, so priorities for growth are a) communicating that value clearly, and then b) getting the sign-up page in front of as many people as possible. But I'm not going to dwell too much more on this type of newsletter: Dan Oschinsky has it covered with his Not A Newsletter monthly GDoc aimed at pro newsrooms - so go read that instead.
Why do Writerly newsletters grow?
Writerly newsletters grow based on two factors;
Which is really one factor: quality of the writing. Do good work, and the audience will come.
Existing networks certainly help, but if your writing is that good - if it is beautiful, if it is moving, if you are saying things about the world that nobody has ever said before - people who read it will want to share it.
The strategy here is, in marketing terms, that rarest of creatures: organic growth. The question to be asking yourself is, "Is this essay good enough that people who don't know or care who I am will share it?"
This is a high bar, and the challenge with this type of newsletter is that your writing needs to be of publishable quality. Why should the reader pay attention to this newsletter rather than The Baffler or The Atlantic or so on? This isn't, "sit down at the end of the week and pull something together" blogging. You need to have something to say, and you need to have spent the time with your writing so that you are saying it well. Unlike professional writing, you're probably working without an editor here - though it can be worth sending drafts to friends for feedback prior to publishing. And the question becomes, why then publish it in a newsletter vs. pitching it to publications that already have established, large audiences? That's something for you to think about - though I'll write another post on this decision, too.
Each newsletter is, conservatively, a couple of days work, and it can be a lot more - one reason my Disturbances newsletter (where I was writing about dust!) slowed down was because I ended up writing 5,000 word essays. Obviously what 'writerliness' means for you depends on what style of writer you are - for example my friend Daniel Trilling writes a newsletter that's almost a haiku. But by and large, I think it tends to mean essays of at least 1200-1500 words and up: as an avid newsletter reader, I tend to value the ones that feel substantial, and are long enough to properly explore an idea and make a strong and original point. Huw Lemmey's newsletter, Utopian Drivel, on sex, queer history, and memory, is one of the best I know and it's building into a really substantial body of work.
If you're curating and summarising existing ideas, your newsletter might be "useful" (i.e. an aggregator), or it could be interesting to readers because they like to hear these ideas in your personal voice. But to grow an audience for a 'writerly' newsletter, quality of the work is what counts.
Why do Personal newsletters grow?
Personal newsletters are the hardest type of newsletter to grow. Why? Back to what I said at the beginning: it's actually all about the reader, not the author. How and why is your work is relevant to your audience? Personal newsletters are the hardest ones to make more widely relevant to an audience beyond your friends.
The #1 factor determining the audience growth for your personal newsletter is your existing personal audience size.
Newsletters I would include in this "personal" category are:
Where personal newsletters tend to succeed is where they cross over with one of the previous categories:
People with big audiences - e.g. Instagram influencers, popular podcasters, or columnists for major newspapers - can certainly build good-sized audiences. Ann Friedman's Weekly newsletter, for example, has 47,000 subscribers. The links she selects each month are nicely done, but they're recommended by a lot of other newsletters, too. Instead, people subscribe because they like Ann, and they know her from her podcast Call Your Girlfriend, about women's friendships (i.e. topic-based and as much "useful" as it is personal), which has "hundreds of thousands" of listeners.
How my newsletter grew
Jay, how do you know this?
Because in 2016 and 2017 I grew a newsletter to over 2,000 subscribers in just seventeen episodes.
It was called Disturbances, and I was writing about dust, of all things. Nobody is inherently interested in dust - but that was the point: what could we learn by thinking about a substance typically beyond the limit of thought or vision?
Of the three newsletter categories I have outlined here, it was very much a writerly one. The content is, in style, a little rougher and bloggier than I might want to write now - but newsletters seemed 'newer' then, and the competitive standard probably a bit lower. The strength of the work was that it was startlingly original: nobody else was writing anything like this anywhere online. The element of surprise - "Huh! I never thought dust could be interesting" - made it shareable.
Here's a chart of my newsletter growth per episode, both in cumulative terms (line chart, left-hand axis, total subscribers), and the percentage growth between each episode (bar chart, right-hand axis)
What drove this growth? Four factors;
Did I benefit from recommendations from other, more influential sources with big reach? Yes, absolutely. Why did I get those recommendations? The work was good, and they felt it would be interesting to their audiences. Why was Warren following me already on social media? The work was good, and adjacent to his interests.
I can analyse the dynamics of social networks, community and privilege until the cows come home - I have a social anthropology degree and published studies in social network analysis. I know the work isn't the only factor that determines support and patronage. But it's a big one - and, more's the point, it's the one you can control. Be a good community member too. But most of all, do good work. Do great work. Do the best work you possibly can.
Basic tips and tricks
Beyond "do brilliant work", and/or "already be famous" - which are, I'm afraid, the main two principles if you're writing a writerly or personal newsletter respectively - what can you do?
I'm afraid there aren't any magic growth hacks.
But based on my experiences with my own newsletter, my professional knowledge as a digital strategist, and talking to a lot of other newsletter writers about their newsletters - here's what you can and should be doing to maximise your newsletter audience growth:
What doesn't work
1. Paid advertising - for personal, writerly, or free newsletters
There's a place for doing this with a "useful" newsletter IF it's monetised AND you're pro. Why can it work here? Because
If you know what I'm talking about when I say "Cost of customer acquisition", "conversion rates" and "customer lifetime value" - and you can model this in a spreadsheet, A/B test different advertising options, and optimise your strategy accordingly - then fine, you know what you're doing (though it's still not necessarily the best growth method, and go look again at your newsletter sign-up placements on your website...)
For everyone else, paid advertising is wasting your money. Writerly newsletters people need to read before seeing the value; personal newsletters there is no value unless they already know and like you. As such, ads just can't be persuasive enough for either. And if your newsletter is free, then be aware that paying for readers is basically vanity: it's
2. Trying to grow a paid newsletter
People want to try before they buy. By and large, you can't grow a newsletter or mailing list solely from paid posts. Instead, you grow from free - the content anyone can read. This means anyone writing a paid newsletter needs to do three things:
You should go read and sign up to my newsletter Disturbances :D It 100% does not contain any useful information like the above, merely speculative geographies of dust - but I told you above to cross-promote so I must practice what I preach!
As mentioned, I may write about (i) why you might want to start a personal newsletter, and (ii) if and how to consider monetising it by going subscriber-only. These pieces need your input, though - so if you've done these things, please drop me a line via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) with your reflections and experiences. Stats on conversion rates, growth etc would be especially welcome - i can anonymise in the blog post if you like, and just list your newsletter as a contributor at the end.
Over the last week, a critique of the press has been gaining ground.
“Journalism is missing the mood the country. We don't want blame, we don't want argument as if this were a General Election, we want a contribution to the national effort to get us out of this crisis. We want hope optimism and faith in our country. We need less negativity.”
@effiedeans, 18 April 2020 - 3K retweets, 12K likes.
Effie Deans - a self-described "pro UK Scottish blogger" - wrote this tweet up as a blog post two days later. Her words were widely quoted and remixed, often unattributed, and seem to have inspired the content of a text-image that did the rounds on WhatsApp before being shared by Alan Sugar on 27 April, to 14K retweets and 42K likes.
A poll from Ipsos Mori on 29 April asked people how well various media groups were holding the government to account.
More people think journalists are doing a good job asking questions at the Government's Coronavirus briefings than a bad one (43% vs. 28%) - indicating that the sentiments expressed by Effie Deans, Alan Sugar and their fans aren't a majority position. TV and radio journalists also got net positive feedback - but newspaper journalists in general are more polarising: 30% think they're holding government to account well, and 30% don't.
Why does this matter?
Some hope that coronavirus might have changed everything and brought a Britain sorely divided by Brexit back together. The vociferous disagreement in response to this text, or series of texts - much as they make authoritative claim to "the public mood" singular - indicates that this is not the case. However, its sentiments clearly have a resonance for many - and I think we can use it to read a populist mood, and to explore how that has changed and evolved since the chest-beating retro-nationalism of Brexit.
What is the worldview revealed by this series of texts? What are the underlying beliefs, values and metanarratives they reveal? How might media - and the Labour Party - cross this divide and reach this audience?
1. The coronavirus isn’t "political”
To be fair, it’s a stretch for most outside the most convoluted parts of science & technology studies to see a virus as, itself, political. The coronavirus is instead terrifyingly inhuman, this ‘organism at the edge of life’. It does not choose who does or does not get infected. It acts upon the world, but I would contest that this is 'agency'. It is incredibly flattening to call it “power”.
Yet how the virus spreads, and the impacts it has clearly are political, by any normal definition: these factors are determined by decisions that belong to the realm of government: decisions on NHS funding, school closures, and freedom of movement.
Nonetheless, the fact of populist resistance to calling this "politics" remains. This bears evidence to the hollowed-out state of politics in the UK: people equate "the political” with the party-political, and as such all criticism of the government becomes seen as party-political point scoring. Understood as such, this behaviour is not unreasonably disliked: people are dying here, please can you stop your tribal games.
Have people forgotten that politics might also mean much more than this, too? Or has there never been much public understanding of the political at all?
Of course, "politics" is not easily defined: politics may be that which concerns the state, or it may be the process of conciliating different interests and of non-violent conflict resolution (Bernard Crick). It may be the exercise of power, and influence over the actions of others - or the distribution of resources: politics is about ‘who gets what, when and how' (Harold Lasswell). Hannah Arendt postulates that there is nothing that is ‘essentially’ political, and politics can appear anywhere. It’s vague to the point of meaninglessness to say that everything is consequently political - but everything has the potential for it, nonetheless.
Yet not the coronavirus, in much of the popular imagination. There’s a desire for this time of social distancing not to be associated with the thing that has driven us apart. Instead, populist Britons seem to desire a space outside of politics. If only a wholly ‘natural’ disaster were possible.
2. The battle against coronavirus is a war
War is already a commonly-borrowed metaphor for illness - one is brave, one fights and battles it, as cancer sufferers in particular have objected to for some time.
War turns out to be a particularly potent populist metaphor for coronavirus, however. It (supposedly) creates a space beyond the political, where the crisis isn’t the fault of anyone in the nation but an enemy, outside. And it brings to mind what’s felt to be a glorious past - of the Blitz, remembered as another time of heroic British stoicism while sheltering from an unseen aggressor.
The war metaphor also brings with it calls for “morale”, and “supporting our side” (patriotism gets a little muddled up with team sports, I think), which explains the various populist injunctions on the importance of positive thinking and good news.
In her blog post, Effie Dean writes that:
“A person or a people who believe they will win in the end is much more likely to do so. This is why morale matters so much to armies. It has on numerous occasions seen a smaller force beat a larger force. Morale can cause miracles not merely in battle but in illness. Being brave, optimistic and full of faith does not guarantee that you get better, but it helps. Thinking your case is hopeless and you are bound to die sometimes guarantees that you do. This is what the country gets that journalists don’t.”
The government is equated with the nation, and the press is, by this account, expected to function as a form of state propaganda. Dissent is unpatriotic.
Boris’s continued associations of himself to Churchill really have paid dividends here.
3. A desire for authority
The populist texts being shared are explicit in their instructions to sit down, shut up, and respect the government's authority. "We do not need or want blame. We do not want constant criticism of our Government," says the text-image. "If we had had the modern journalist profession in 1940, we would have lost the war," claims Effie Dean.
Political science research on authoritarian governance has recently resurged. In the UK and the US, elections in 2016 revealed the declining relevance of left/right political alignments in favour of an authoritarian-traditional vs. liberal-progressive schism. Traditional factors like class and income were little better than a guess for predicting voting intent, the British Election Study found, whereas authoritarian positions like 'Do you think criminals should be publicly whipped?' or 'Are you in favour of the death penalty?' had 70%+ predictive power. NatCen reported similarly: 72% of those holding ‘authoritarian’ views voted to leave, compared with 21% of those holding ‘libertarian’ views.
It's perhaps not a surprise that a viral pandemic should encourage authoritarian attitudes - there's really little better.
Another finding from the political science research is that “Authoritarian attitudes have been consistently linked to feelings of disgust, an emotion that is thought to have evolved to protect the organism from contamination.” It’s proper Mary Douglas “Dirt is matter out of place” stuff: viral sickness promotes desires for order and control (Liuzza et al 2018). People more sensitive to disgust perceive greater threat from outside, and are drawn to concentrated power structures that emphasize submission to authority, social conformity, and hostility towards outsiders. There’s even a “parasite stress hypothesis” (Murray et al 2013) which suggests that “societal variability in authoritarian governance may result, in part, from variability in the prevalence of disease-causing parasites.” This sounds far out, and their cognitive causal mechanisms seem questionable - yet other research has found that “democratic transitions in North America and Europe were preceded by dramatic reductions in the prevalence of infectious disease," though, so the correlation is at least interesting.
So much for the country being brought together. With the epidemic threat likely to last for years, this authoritarian / liberal-progressive polarisation seems likely to continue.
4. The desire for Daddy
In the UK, this populist desire for authority meets a centrist desire for "grown-ups" - and produces a kind of paternalism.
As one viral tweet has it: “Journalists continually posing the question "When is lockdown going to be lifted?" are the adult equivalent of children asking "Are we there yet?" on a long car journey.”
Daddy is in the front seat driving, and Daddy knows best, and Daddy will take care of us. The country is cast as his children; and any disagreement or dissent, simply childish.
Of course, Daddy hasn't actually been steering the nation though this crisis: he's been on holiday at Chequers and in hospital and getting engaged and having a baby. But recognising that your parents are fallible is the trauma of maturity. It feels safer to keep on being baby.
Sometimes the desire for paternalism goes further, into flat out submission. "At its very core, this is a nation of subservient bootlickers," sanaa said to me on Twitter. It's a kind of beta-authoritarianism; it's what happens when people internalise class hierarchies into their very souls. I hate to kinkshame but it's repellent.
5. Nobody likes a critic: positivity, politeness, and trying one's best
On Twitter, a doctor challenges Effie: "Over 14000 people are dead. And you want positivity?"
"Positivity is necessary to stop there being still more deaths," Effie preaches back. "You should know this if you are a doctor. To deny that optimism plays a role in getting well is frankly unscientific."
"If people could cure disease with positive thinking, I'd be out of a job," says the doctor. "To suggest otherwise is callous, at best."
Effie doesn't seem to care - much as she criticises the critics for not being nice. The preferred morality is a primary-school one, where the government is to be praised for "trying their best". The daddy/child metanarrative is reversed: now Boris is six, and struggling in the second-from-bottom maths set at school, and we have to praise his efforts and not his mediocre test results.
I might prefer to continue the war metaphor: sometimes “trying one’s best” just isn't good enough, not when thousands of people end up dead.
6. The role of journalism
The text-image continues this demand for positivity: "We want and need a constructive contribution to the national effort to help us out of this crisis. We need hope, optimism and faith, with less negativity and more positive support from these journalists."
There's a lot to unpack, here - starting with a sort of collision between British politeness and conflict-avoidance, and what feels like a rather more American cult of positive thinking. The military-sporting metanarrative resurfaces here: we must support our team against the enemy, and journalism is seen as, essentially, a propaganda function, indistinguishable from state PR.
This both obviously insane - what of the role of journalism to expose the truth? - and gestures at a more serious and difficult question: who and what is journalism for?
Journalism is not to serve those in power, but it is in some way to serve the reader. Journalism has some duty to reflect their values (though I would rather say 'class interests'...); I am uncomfortable with a journalism that's purely didactic and seeks instead only to instruct people on what their values and interests should be. Yet I think it's fair to say that this is where many people feel journalism is failing them. I can't agree with the populist call for a 'nicer' journalism, but I recognise a nugget of truth in the critique nonetheless. The left concurs, pointing to the incredibly narrow demographic writing for major newspapers, and the continued dominance of a 90s New Labour class of columnists.
Who is journalism for? It's a reasonable question - many would say, left and populist-right, that it's written to serve the interests and perspectives of a political-economic an elite, not them.
A related issue is that good news rarely makes a good story: it lacks tension, conflict, narrative drive. Newspapers are including a bit of coverage of heroic charity volunteers and saintly nurses, and opinion columns outline the lessons to be learnt from lockdown and the world that might be built after this. But there's value in recognising that people want more of the hopey-change thing. More solutions journalism. Publications might usefully listen to this.
Why does this matter?
The task for both the media and the Labour Party is to be able to communicate across these metanarratives - these different worlds of perception. “That’s what you get for a decade of Tory cuts” might be true, but it doesn't win anybody over. Politics requires persuasion: how can they assert the value of what they do in a way that’s legible to people with different values?
One strategy could be to borrow some of the populists' language. Questions about testing and PPE are undeniably in the public interest, yet half of the public doesn't recognise this. So what if journalists used their words? The "sit down and shut up" authoritarianism might not translate, but the 'values' stuff does.
There's also a desperate need to assert the value of journalism. This requires three things: education, assertiveness, and listening.
The UK has no civics education, and as we repeatedly see, most people do not really understand the difference between journalism and PR. We need behind-the-scenes TV programmes in newsrooms and on investigative journalism beats, revealing the vast work of sourcing and triangulation and fact-checking that lies beneath the smooth prose of the final reported piece. Where's the reality TV show set in a J-School course? The Instagram Lives from outside the news conference, the Stories taking readers through the process of pitching, reporting, writing, editing and publication. "How is truth made?" is a hell of a story. Why aren't newspapers and the BBC telling it?
Second, there's a need to assert journalism as the machinery by which democracy is made accountable. When journalists challenge the Prime Minister (or Dominic Raab) on the daily briefings, they need to speak in the name of the British people, not their publications. Now Piers Morgan is part of the reality-based community again, perhaps he could write a column on this.
Third, listening. Increasing trust requires real feedback loops between publication and audience. The publications are getting smart on article analytics, but how much audience research do they do beyond that? We need readers' editors at every major paper - and empowered ones, with claws. The Guardian has Elisabeth Ribbans newly in this role. Her reporting on "How readers play a vital role in shaping the Guardian's coronavirus content" includes mention of the creation of a new, 'good news stories' vertical, Hope In A Time of Crisis, in response to demand - which vindicates my assertion above that readers want this! Viewers of Piers Morgan's breakfast TV show are calling for the same - and he too is acknowledging them. The Guardian's Communities team is also providing regular opportunities for readers to share their stories - which means regular places where readers can see people like them in the paper's pages, not just Zone 2-dwelling columnists. This, too, can help.
Ultimately the populism expressed in these texts is of a less hostile variety than we've seen recently. It comes, clearly, from a place of fear and concern - and is calling above all for reassurance. I don't agree with half the solutions it calls for - but I think there's ways of responding productively to this popular mood, nonetheless.
Photo from the GoFundMe, posted by Tom & Daniele's friends
Story first posted on Twitter.
The climbers Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi are lost on Nanga Parbat in Pakistan, the world’s ninth-tallest mountain. They have been out of contact for ten days.
Immense efforts have been made to search the mountain. A team of Spanish & Pakistani mountaineers led by Alex Txikon; two Pakistani military helicopters; drones, to survey places that people can't reach due to avalanche risk. €141,000 raised to fund it. Now we must fear the worst.
Ballard is the son of one of the world's top female mountaineers, Alison Hargreaves. She soloed the six great north faces of the Alps in a single season—a first for any climber. She climbed Everest without the aid of Sherpas or bottled oxygen.
She died in 1995, descending K2.
"The Alisons of this world want to achieve things they find barely possible," said her husband Jim, in memory. "When she decided to climb Everest, she wanted to do it in the best style she could, without oxygen or Sherpas, because she wanted to have as little between her and the mountain as humanly possible."
She dedicated the climb to her children, Tom (then aged six), and Kate, aged four. When she died, she was damned for leaving them. Her husband understood. So does Tom.
"Tom climbs like his mother, and he possibly has even more talent than she did," said his father in 2003, when Tom was 14. A decade later, Tom came to the attention of the world climbing scene in his own right.
"Tom Ballard is a man in his strong-shouldered, rough-handed, sun-tanned prime. He's 26 years old, he's just soloed the 6 great north faces of the Alps in a single winter season, & the eyes of the climbing world are suddenly seemingly where he wants them - fixed directly on him."
Jack Geldard and Nick Brown profiled Tom Ballard in 2015 for UKClimbing.com in an exceptional feature about how he was carrying on his mother's legacy
The feature includes the last known images of Alison alive -- scratched, pink tinted, developed from a roll of film recovered from a body found on the glacier below the mountain. That body was her climbing partner Rob Slater. David Rasmussen found him, and the film, and developed the pictures.
I was in two minds whether to include these pictures on Twitter, and decided not to: it seemed too morbid. Here, though, where it is a little quieter, I would like to. Because Alison is on top of the world.
Photo © Rob Slater via David Rasmussen
In that 2015 article, Jack Geldard and Nick Brown concluded: “There’s no denying that part of Tom’s motivations come directly from his mother’s legacy. He’s chosen the same mountains, the same path, and he too wants to be a professional climber.”
Motivations, though, motivations. Why does anybody climb these 8,000 metre peaks? Even outside of the technical risk, it is unfathomably cold (I've seen temperatures of -40C mentioned; windchill of 60 below). There is not enough oxygen. Your brain swells. Your blood thickens. You hallucinate. Time starts to dilate.
Your body is trying to die.
German climber David Göttler described "life in the death zone" to the Telegraph in 2015:
“I have never climbed with artificial oxygen so my experience of climbing above 8,000m is very pure and intense. The feeling is like you are moving in super-slow-motion. Sometimes you can see the summit about 200m away but it can take you two hours to get there. It just never gets any closer. You have to force yourself to take ten steps, stop, try to get some more air into your body, then take another ten steps.
On a smaller climb like Mont Blanc (4,809m, France/Italy) you know exactly how much altitude gain you can make in an hour. Above 8,000m that is impossible. You have to switch off your brain or you will go mad with frustration.”
High altitude mountaineering is hell. But note the words he used first. Amid the suffering, it is, above all, sublime.
“But it’s also amazing," Sean Smith, one of a handful of Britons to have attempted Nanga Parbat in winter, concurs. "If you have the level of experience you can understand the challenge. It’s as close as you can get to being on another planet – on the very edge of existence."
I write because I am reminded of another young alpinist, Hayden Kennedy, who died in Montana in October 2017. He was, again, astonishingly talented. it was, again, too soon. He was just 27.
The story is another tragedy. Hayden Kennedy just... gets to me. I don't fully understand why, to be honest with you. There are a million tragedies every day: why this one? It asks the hardest questions about what it means to love someone and to set them free; perhaps that's part of it. About what it means to live, amid the inevitability of death.
We're going to have to leave that question open. Let me keep telling this story.
One of the things is, Hayden was a writer. Fuck, could he write. This story, published just two weeks before he died, The Day We Sent Logical Progression. ("Sent" means successfully climbed. "Logical Progression" is the name of a route.)
"Over the last few years, however, as I’ve watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I’ve realized something painful. It’s not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.
This is a story about the day we sent Logical Progression, a big-wall route in Mexico. The route was amazing, but it wasn’t all that hard. The experience was incredible because I was with three good friends: Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, and Justin Griffin.
There’s no easy way to say this, but half that team is now dead."
In 2012 his father, Michael Kennedy - also a noted alpinist - wrote to his son about losing friends in the mountains. Jack Roberts on Bridalveil Falls near Telluride. Bean Bowers, back country skiing in Colorado. Carlyle Norman, who died alone, in Patagonia. Bjørn-Eivind Årtun.
"We knew you were in the mountains, but we hadn't heard anything for several days." He wrote of the fear he & his wife felt in 2012, waiting to hear news from his son's climbing expedition in Patagonia. A silence Tom Ballard and Daniele Nargi's families have known too well this last week.
"Then a post from Colin Haley appeared on Facebook: ,Today we got to watch history being made.... Hayden Kennedy and Jason Kruk made the first fair-means ascent of the SE Ridge of Cerro Torre...[in] about 13 hours to the summit from a bivy at the shoulder.' Someday, you'll understand the intense relief we felt on reading those words."
He was so proud of his son.
"Your ascent of the Southeast Ridge must have been exhilarating: a faultless line with a great partner on that iconic gold and white spire. For me, and for many others, this climb embodies the highest ideals of boldness, difficulty, commitment and self-reliance—the foundations of alpinism. And when you cleaned a third of the 360 bolts on the Compressor Route, you made a courageous first step in restoring Cerro Torre to its rightful place as one of the most demanding and inaccessible summits in the world. I never would have had the guts to take that step myself, even in my best days."
In early October 2017 Hayden & his partner Inge Perkins were skiing in the backcountry of southwestern Montana. Easy stuff, by all accounts. But"on Saturday Inge was killed in an avalanche. Unable to bear the loss of his partner in life, the following day, Sunday, October 8, Hayden Kennedy took his own life."
You can bear it until you can't, I guess.
In Hayden's writing, that story of two weeks before of the Logical Progression climb, you can see a man who was trying to come to terms with "the dual nature of sublime meaning and utter absurdity in climbing mountains".
Why do we do it, he asks? "There is no glory, no real answers, in sending and summits, yet we organize our entire lives around the myth that there are." A myth that many climbers and mountaineers ultimately give their lives for, too.
Hayden was trying to understand that dark, that loss, that is inherent to mountaineering and climbing as endeavours. He was trying to find a way to live through it.
"Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what’s past, lost, or gone.
Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward."
You can see a man who was trying.
Updates about the search on Nanga Parbat are being shared on the Facebook page of Daniele Nardi, the Italian climber who was partnering Tom Ballard on the first winter ascent of the Mummery Rib.
People there, too, are trying to understand the loss. This loss. And that of others they have known. To defend the endeavour, though it extracts such terrible cost.
One comment, from Francesco Migliore, in approximate translation:
"The mountain is neither killer nor accursed nor murderer ... as one often happens to read in many posts these days. The mountain exists and lives... it changes and breathes. We humans want to climb it and give it a value... as Bonatti said, "The mountains have the value of the men who climb them".
The Nanga... like any mountain in the world... is not killer, but living can unfortunately interfere with those who climb on its walls... just this... Daniele and Tom rest in the womb of their alpine dream, but a mountaineer never, ever considers a mountain to be cursed because it is the very reason for his passion."
Tom, Hayden, Alison. They all said the same thing.
“If you are given two options, take the harder one because you’ll regret it if you don’t,” Alison Hargreaves said in her final interview. “At least if you take the harder one and fail, you’ll have tried.”
The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is a small, shaded square in the Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. The Baroque church from which it takes its name stands at one end, the walls deeply pockmarked.
Tour guides tell the story of how, during the Spanish Civil War, General Franco laid siege to the city of Barcelona. Children from the church school and refugees from Madrid had been sheltering in the church, which was functioning as a makeshift orphanage. On 30 January 1938, the Italian air force - fighting in support of the Nationalist faction in the civil war - dropped two bombs on the square, killing 42 people, most of them children, in the city’s second worst bombing raid of the war.
Subsequently the Franco regime spread a myth that the pockmarks in the stone were from the bullets of an anarchist firing squad who had supposedly executed Catholic priests in the church square. Spain took a long time to reckon with its Fascist past, and even in the late 1990s, this was the story visitors might get told. Only in 2007, Barcelona City Council installed a bronze plaque with a simple inscription, putting the story to rights.
That isn’t the only fabrication in this square, however. The entire concept of the Barri Gòtic is a fiction too, first proposed by mayor Ramon Rucabado and architect Jeroni Martorell in 1911, but based on earlier ideas of “medievalizing enhancements to the Barcelona cityscape” by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1879. There was a desire to “give identity” to that part of the city: the 1929 International Exhibition was coming, and they wanted to transform this neighbourhood into a tourist attraction.
As such, “some of what tourists see in the Barri Gòtic is very old - but some of what visitors encounter only looks old, or is a composite of new and old parts," writes Michael A. Palgrave in Constructing Catalan Identity (2018) Dozens of major buildings in this neighbourhood were altered or rebuilt, in a process that continued as late as 1970. Much of the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, too, is a composite of other gothic buildings, moved from elsewhere in the city to make way for new developments.
These walls you see here are a hologram, the octagonal fountain in the centre of the square only fifty years old.
I know it’s been declared gauche this year to count the books you read, but I see no reason to stop. My uncle has recorded every book he’s read since age 15 (he’s now about 75), and estimated back his childhood consumption for a pretty good guess at totality: perhaps 5,000 volumes, a million pages; full knowledge of the library that makes him him. He has kept much of it, and inherited more - I believe he and my aunt hold a chunk of my grandfather’s library, passed from one man of letters (a doctorate in Latin poetry) to another (a professor of law). Given time I will presumably inherit some part of this archive myself, to join the hundred-odd twentieth century classics I purloined from my parents (really, my father) around the time I left home, fifteen years ago, which I have still not read - and the many hundred more I’ve bought.
Celebrity things-fetishist Marie Kondo recently caused a media tremor by suggesting that one might not keep every volume: “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?” she asked. There was outcry — so, being contrarian by orientation, of course I happen to agree. What is unread in it matters as much as what has been consumed: the library is a continual work in progress, a projection forwards as much as a means of looking back. Or rather, it is an archive of past projections forward, hope inseparable from memory. I own many volumes older than I am and will only come to own more. But still: nothing stays unless I believe I shall want to come back to it - a presentiment of a future return.
This one is new - book no.1 of 2019, James Salter’s first novel ‘The Hunters’ (1956) - but it’s also one that’s going to stay.
I’ll file it between the Saint-Exuperys and Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring (2015), and West With The Night by pioneering aviatrix Beryl Markham (1942/84). It’s about a pilot flying in the Korean War.
Books about flying share a core of feeling so achingly crystalline that not even other stories of near-death in the sublime (the Arctic, the desert, the mountains) quite touch. There is a sharp poignancy their writers know, that of cold air and low oxygen at altitude, and watching the sun rise and fall over the curvature of the earth. And there is one they do not, one that comes from the way these stories are about to become marooned in time, relic of a long twentieth century of kerosene and the jet engine, in which the planet seemed for a time a place where humankind might soar, and perilous though the risk we had not yet come crashing down. There will be solar sails, I suppose, but they will not be helmed by men.
Salter was recommended to me by Rishi Dastidar as a writer exceptional at the sentence level and worthy of study. I’m not sure I saw this: his prose is plainer than that led me to expect, though as spare and lean as these books usually are, with only the tiniest, carefully judged flights of lyricism. Instead I loved this book for the opposite reason: the narrative, and its ambivalence. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and nothing - and then it does, and of course by that time the narrator doesn’t want it anyway. But perhaps all books about war are like this, or all the good ones. I don’t know: I haven’t read so many of them. Yet.