Stocks and ’stacks
Scaling the wall, an update on the pub and some thoughts on "community".
One night a few weeks ago, it was storming.
I got a call from a woman in the village. She works up at the school so I assumed it had something to do with my son and answered it with a small degree of alarm.
“No, no.” She assured me, nothing to do with school. “It’s the pub.”
“What about the pub?”
It turned out she had walked past and noticed a window ajar. It must have blown open in the storm.
Upon closer inspection, peering in from the other side, she saw water on the floor. She knew I was involved in the ongoing community pub-buying efforts. Would I be able to contact someone who could get it sorted?
The pub has been empty for six months. This old building can’t be left to fill with storm water and get bashed around in the wind. Someone needs to be taking care of it. Another time the alarm rang all weekend. Clearly, the building’s legal caretakers couldn’t give two hoots.
They’re on a beach in the fucking Caymans.
Five minutes and two phone calls later, Helen, Steve (another pub committee member) and I were standing on the lane at the back of the pub, underneath a window casement that was flapping in the wind six feet above our heads.
“You’re the climber, Jill. Get up there.”
“Um… ok.” There’s nothing I won’t do to save this damn pub or avoid Helen’s displeasure.
Stripping off shoes and socks (do you know how hard it is to climb a wet stone wall in big clunky shoes and slippery socks?), I stung myself immediately on some nettles.
Helen flicked on her phone light. I was knee deep in them.
She held out a hand to take my shoes. I sighed. Right.
Steve bent a leg and offered up his knee as a stepping stone. Helen took my coat. It appeared I was definitely doing this.
I reached up — the handholds in the old stone wall were surprisingly deep and solid — and climbed up to the window, trying not to crunch Steve’s knee too much.
I grabbed the flapping casement and thrust it closed. The hinge was down so the window bounced off the lock with a bang and rebounded towards my face.
“The hinge is in the way,” Helen noted helpfully.
Trying again, this time I lifted the hinge out of the way and, gently-oh-so-gently so as not to knock the hinge down, closed the window. I kept my hand on the outside to stop it springing open again.
“It’s still not locked though,” she called again.
Everyone’s a critic when you’re twelve feet off the deck.
“Well, I can’t lock it from outside,” I pointed out.
“Give it a whack and see if the hinge falls closed.”
Grunting and readjusting a now-numb and nettle-stung toe into the wall, I thumped the outside of the window casement.
Obligingly, on cue, the hinge sunk into place, on the inside. The building was secure. The window was locked.
It was like the old pub was saying thank you for taking care of it.
I descended into the nettles again (ouch, fuck).
Steve called me a hero. Helen called me Spiderwoman.
Without hyperbole, I have seldom felt more valuable.
Now, this is a small (minuscule) part of the epic story in which my community tries to buy its own damn pub from the Cayman-Island-incorporated private-equity-owned *%$@*s who are selling it. I’ve written about what that pub means to some people in my village. I’ve written about the lunacy of something this vital — and fundamentally unpriceable — being just a little node in someone’s ledger, a cipher that twitches up or down according to the vagaries of the market and asset valuation.
This week felt like a good time to offer an update on my community pub because there’s been a lot on the ’stack that made me think about “community”. Buckle up, because what I’m about to say may not be popular. But hey ho, if I cared about that, I’d have stopped writing after my fifteenth post (which I think had a grand total of one like?). Anyway, I digress.
Much is said on Notes about the Substack “community”. People come here and stay here for the “community”. Everyone loves the “community”. Substack is all about “community”.
Now, with the greatest will in the world, I just don’t get this.
It was clear to me, even before the shiny, ‘grammy photos on Notes recently, that this “community” comprises a small, self-referential troop of trope-peddling, subscribe-to-me-to-learn-how-to-do-Substack insiders.
Let’s not get confused: when you’re selling community, that is not community. That’s a clique.
Worse, it’s a commercialised clique: a Ponzi scheme.
And I’m fine with that! Seriously: go clink your champagne and congratulate each other. It’s ok. I don’t come to Substack for your “community”.
The always-brilliant, whose writing I have admired since before I had any subscribers to share his writing with, made the point this week in The Solitary Creator that reading and writing are fundamentally solitary activities.
Now, I would say the reading — or at least, the after-reading — is less solitary, as we each want to externally process and share and discuss what we read.
But the writing? Writing is solitary.said the exact same thing, far more neatly than I can:
Writing is a solitary act. You can join a hundred writing groups and pay some money to sit around in a zoom to write with other writers. But in the end, it’s just you and 26 letters and how you arrange them on a page. We’re only ever as successful as our tolerance for loneliness.
Oh god, Lauren, preach. Who pays to sit around with someone in a Zoom call to write?! Who organises it? I’ll tell you: not writers. One con artist, and a handful of people trying to pay their way to a little scoop of insider Ponzi dust, that’s who. Are we all so addled by our phones and our online lives that today this passes for community?
Substack proclaims itself to be the home of great writing. Whether or not this is true is a debate for another time, but if it’s the home of great writing and writing is solitary — why this fixation on “community”?
Is it to sell us something — anything — in lieu of being able to magically transform every payer into a popular, quality writer? Cloak it in “community” and people will smile as they purchase a nebulous nothing?
The “community” being sold strikes me as nothing more than a clique-y Ponzi get-in-on-the-ground-floor-while-the-getting’s-good insider game. Every time I read about how some ‘gram-fluencer was converted by a ‘stack-vangelist to share their forgettable six things they learned in their first unreadable month on Substack, I’m afraid I have to quell a rising nausea.
I get “community” in the context of the reading and the sharing of what we think about what we read. I really do. But not the writing. I draw a line at the writing.
Now, as it happens, I've been thinking a lot about how reading and writing go together — or, indeed, if they are actually very different activities. This is because Joel — my Joel, this guy — is building a writing app. Just, you know, in his spare time, as you do, if you’re an insanely talented software engineer.
His rationale is that a writer should be able to have a home, an independent home that it completely owns (so far, so Substack) — but which is integrated seamlessly with all the other places online, you know, where the readers live.
He is vehemently opposed to the closed-down walled garden approach of so much of the online experience: all these separate islands in which people speak only to people on their island (the Instagram island, the Substack island, etc). I’m mixing my gardens and my islands but you get the idea.
We all jump from one island to another, feverishly seeking the richest fields of readers and subscribers — but what if they were all available, simultaneously?
It’s a problem that (surprise)pointed out here (because there isn’t a quote of hers I can pull that isn’t super fucking pertinent).
“The billionaires who own the socials make sure no one leaves”.
How about if, instead of closed-down walled gardens where one company gets to control your perception of the internet and what you see and what things get served to you, and where little insider cliques get rich selling you island-garden success kits, what if we … did things differently? What if Substack championed an alternative approach?
What if… you have a home where your writing lives that you control — but you can post it seamlessly to multiple platforms at the same time. People on those other platforms can follow you, email-subscribe, like, comment and interact seamlessly with your work, regardless of platform.
Now, to be very clear, I’m a writer, not a software engineer. Joel loses me when he gets into the details of ActivityPub and common online protocols. Like, loses me so comprehensively I may as well be in the next country. On another island.
But, as a matter of principle, I understand this concept of a common protocol and the online breaking down of walls. I understand what he’s doing and, to me, that sings of community.
Which is why I don’t really jive with the “Substack is about community” crowd.
Did you know that Substack’s Reader used to integrate with RSS and allow me to follow non-Substack publications? A key ingredient, I would say, for fostering online community.
This, it appears, is no longer the case. My RSS feed no longer allows me to add … anything.
Substack is becoming more, not less, walled.
Now, I don’t need or want a community to enable me to write. For the act of writing, I need no one. I want no one.
But the readers? Yeah, I want those. I don’t want a walled smug little self-congratulatory Substack-only community. I want my writing home online to commune seamlessly with an infinite online world of readers — not to close itself to them.
I recognise there are a number of ’stacks that sell Substack “community”. Fine. Do you. Purchase and purvey “community”. It’s big business and there are clearly many out there who don’t feel as I do and will pay handsomely.
But, for the most part, I think it’s a scam, a mirage — and it’s not for me.
With the key exception ofwho I genuinely think is doing important work encouraging people to slow-read the classics, I could not care less about being part of someone’s “community” on Substack. There are some genuine pockets of community like his — but most are just out for what they can get, while the getting’s good. I don’t need to name-check those shysters, they know who they are.
Ultimately, what I care most about is the reading and the writing — not the community. Reading and writing are things I do alone. While I love — like, love-love — when someone appreciates or understands something I write or feels it speaks to them, that is not what I understand “community” to mean.
That’s another thing.(I know, I’ll stop, I just love her though) wrote in this brilliant piece about how she shares things her friends have written — but, and here’s the rub, her friends are people whose writing she likes.
That is exactly what I’m saying. If you share my writing, I assume it’s because you like it.
Not because you owe me some broader social obligation in the “community”.
Not because we’re all in it together.
Not some war effort bollocks about all pulling together, mucking in, being kind and supporting everyone’s efforts with a gold star.
No, I don’t come to Substack for that kind of “community”.
So then: what does “community” mean to me?
I’m glad you asked.
It means my community pub.
It means the people who turn up within five minutes on a stormy evening to help climb a wall and close a window. It’s the people who care about saving our pub, who are working tirelessly to save it.
Let me explain, by providing an update on the pub.
What’s happening with the pub?
Well, we’ve got a website. We’ve got a business plan and a Share Offer document.
We’ve got a CAD mock-up of what the pub could look like, replete with a new kitchen, a volunteer-run cafe in a now-derelict stone outbuilding and a community garden out back where the apple trees are.
We’ve got an active Crowdfunder.1 We’ve raised over a hundred grand so far. It’s still not enough.
At a recent committee meeting, my friend Richard worried that some people don’t know how to use Crowdfunder.
“They can’t figure it out. I’m on the verge of telling them, look, just come round to my house and I’ll do it with you.”
The carpenter on our committee took a sip of beer while he considered this.
“Richard, don’t say that. You might get the wrong crowd, you know. Give people the wrong idea.”
Emails fire constantly with updates of our latest figures on Crowdfunder. Our most far-flung investor so far is in South Carolina, which is a long way from rural Oxfordshire.
We’ve got a letter of support from our local MP.
We’ve got a grant application in for government match-funding.2 Results should be known this side of Christmas — so cross your fingers, toes and eyeballs for us.
We’ve had some (whispers tentatively) positive conversations with the estate agent (for the first time in the history of estate agents).
Helen has even been on BBC radio (for real!!!) talking about how we are rebuilding the medieval village stocks, which used to sit behind the pub. She talked about the pub as the historic seat of local justice where drunks used to be detained in the stocks for their disorderly conduct.
The Beeb (that’s BBC, for the Americans in the room) loved this. The presenter asked Helen where one goes to buy village stocks these days. Like, can you get them off Amazon?
Helen said no, we have a talented carpenter on our pub committee and he’s made us a set out of pine: village stocks for the Scandi furniture age. We’ll eventually make a proper heavy oak set to install at the pub, if/when it’s ours.
The night before her BBC radio interview, I was at her house.
Helen’s daughter is 14. Reminiscing about when we did the first event back in the summer to get people talking about the pub, she mentioned Joel doing the BBQ.
“My friends were like he’s very attractive.”
“Yes. They couldn’t believe it when I told them.”
“When you told them what?”
“That, you know… “
“What? That he lives with an old sack like me?”
“No, I mean, you don’t look that old. Just, like, they thought he was a teenager, you know, in secondary school.”
I gave Helen a helpless look.
“Teenagers fancy my boyfriend.”
“You should take that as a compliment. Or something. It’s a good thing.”
“It doesn’t feel like a good thing.”
“Hmm. Here, have a gin. How’s the script going?”
We’re writing a script for a short TikTok video we are going to film using the Scandi pine stocks.
We’re going to pretend to put local celebrities who haven’t supported the pub in the stocks.
You know. Local cheese-eating slebs who declined in no uncertain terms to support our community pub-buying efforts and so really have it coming.
We’re going to pretend to put them in the stocks, sentence them for their lack of community support — and pelt them with fruit. Not real fruit. Helen bought some soft toy stuffed fruits. Cuddly fruits (don’t worry, neither real fruit nor real celebrity was harmed in the making of this video).
The next day, Helen’s radio interview is a triumph and, in the evening, we convene in front of the pub to make the film.
There they are. The stocks, I mean. There is a hatch you raise and adjust with pins. There are four leg holes.
Corporal punishment, in the pleasing pine-hued tones of a Scandi dining set.
Our mate, the carpenter, is banging away at them, fine-tuning some adjustment.
“Ah we forgot a hessian sack.” Helen is muttering distractedly to me.
“What? A hessian sack? What for?”
“To put over the head of the person in the stocks so we can pretend it’s the sleb.”
Helen turns to the carpenter.
“Do you have a hessian sack?”
I look at her like, come on mate. Who’s got a fucking hessian sack?
His face barely moves.
He cycles off and returns, not three minutes later, with a hessian sack.
Now, that’s fucking community.
Anyway, the filming goes off without a hitch. Fake celebrities are sentenced and duly pelted with stuffed toy fruit for lack of community spirit.
As for the pub purchase, that will be a true Christmas miracle if we pull it off.
The raucous shindig will be one for the ages.
[ INSERT YOUR NAME HERE ] is invited — anytime, no strings, for free — because fuck cliques, that is how you do community.
Watch this space.
If the spirit moves you and you want to donate to help buy the pub, please email me at email@example.com and I’ll share a link to our Crowdfunder. Once you’ve donated, I might also, as a seasonal treat, share some other pub-related content (maybe even the short video we made of fake celebrities in the stocks.. ).
Speaking of pub-related content, here she is, looking unloved (which she most certainly is not):
and here are the village stocks: