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23 April 2020

Why intimate first-person newsletters are my saving grace during lockdown

My favourite newsletters, most of which use the platform TinyLetter, are an easy delight during this time of unease.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Things that were once ordinary feel difficult at the moment. Scrolling through Twitter weighs me down. To find the culture writing I’m after on a newspaper’s website, I first have to stumble over the headlines I’m trying to avoid. Reading novels has been a balm, but only once I’ve found something of the right tone and waded through the first chapters to feel settled in a new world.

Newsletters are, by comparison, an easy delight. I receive a notification, I open it, I read. The letter in question might have been sent to thousands of other readers, but I don’t need to know that. It appears right before me, straight into my inbox, and feels like a lifeline: a short amount of text, strung with care, available for purposes of soothing. It’s a matter of affection.

I’m not talking about any flashy sort of newsletter – I don’t want anything which pushes me off in different directions via links and impersonal blurbs. I’m after an intimacy of language, and bright stories, the kind friends used to tell when there was more going on in their lives than what they cooked for tea, and appropriately timed facial reactions weren’t dependent on a reliable Zoom connection. My favourite newsletter writers tend to use TinyLetter, the free service which caps users at 5,000 subscribers and whose limited formatting options offers a straightforward cosiness to proceedings.

What I realise has now become a dependence first hit me early on in all this, before the lockdown came into play. I was on a train, taking what I knew would be my last journey for quite a while, trying to get home as quickly as possible, touching as little as possible. I was reading “Treats”, a newsletter by the film critic Simran Hans which is about everything and nothing.

Each instalment includes musings on a theme – “Gratitude”, “Energy”, “Dirty Things” – ever thoughtful and thought-provoking. In that early edition, when we were still working out how to work with our bodies in public spaces, Hans had it in one: “Social distancing is a necessary next step but it is disorienting when ‘non-essential’ spaces – spaces of leisure and culture – are your lifeline. Humans are smart, we adapt. We’ll be fine. A system reboot can take a while, though.” It was the first thing I read during this crisis which properly put into words what I was about to experience. Now, of course, that feels an age ago.

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Other trinkets that slip into my inbox look back to life before the lockdown, offering glimpses of the world we once lived in, and the one that, we hope, waits for us on the other side. A recent edition of Ana Kinsella’s sporadic but beloved “London Review of Looks”, which chronicles clothes and styles more so than fashion, looked back to one of her last days before she started working from home. It had her peering into jewellers’ shops in Burlington Arcade, and through the window and up onto roofs during a boring meeting.

In the latest edition, she can hardly imagine what sorts of clothes people wear, or at least used to – besides the DPD driver who serves her estate – and misses a sensation I’ve also been dreaming of, “that feeling of moving like a pinball through the city streets, even when you’re not going anywhere interesting”. The regular “Look Forecast” has, Kinsella writes, “been suspended at this remarkable time”. Almost exactly a year ago, she recommended “keeping it simple. Big dress, bare legs, white sneakers, red socks. A paperback in your handbag for the bus.” I long for those days, and burrow for other past editions of her slick writing to keep me dreaming about the world which exists beyond my four walls.

I am praying, too, that the photographer Sophie Davidson, who is behind the delightful “Women Cook For Me”, has a never-ending archive of meals with which to serve us. Her newsletter consists of her beautiful soft-focus shots of occasions when she has dined with a writer. The writer cooks for the pair of them and then writes an accompanying piece, which makes up the body of the newsletter. I can’t invite friends over, but I browse the dishes – grilled aubergine with garlic yoghurt, Chinese steamed buns, frozen pizzas, banana fruit loaf cake ­– and the enviable decorations. Those I can do.

Last month Bryony White and Ellie Jones, editors of “close”, a monthly exploration of intimacy, put out a call for contributions on experiences of the pandemic from writers between the ages of 15 and 19. In asking young writers to reflect on their current situation, they invited down-to-earth stories of friendships feeling uncertain and educational futures being made murky. Sarah Mulgrew, 18, writes: “Before isolation, my mam worked full time and I would be at school till all hours. We were ‘like two ships in the night’, she used to say. I picture us now as two little rubber dinghies tied together and bobbing along.”

In publishing these stories from voices we would not usually hear, the editors point to a different kind of future. It’s not always as simple as hope, but it’s a much-needed reconfiguring of our world that young, willing, observant writers are the most likely to champion. And thanks to “close”, I hold this display of promise in the palm of my hand.

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