All Aboard the Argosy
We did it. We made a substack.
It’s late September, 1512. A well-set caravel, not too large, its square-rigged foresail and most of the lateen-rigged sails of the after masts furled, makes its way along the fuosa, the constantly-shifting channel leading from the open Adriatic into the Lagoon of Venice and thence towards the city. It’s being tugged by eight or ten hired rowing boats, its course directed by the pedoto pizzolo, one of the port’s expert pilots; he too has been hired for the task.
The vessel moves, slowly, heavy and low in the water, past the lighthouses on either side, one on the northwesternmost tip of the Lido and the other on the Punta Sabbioni, and into the port proper. She will, soon, need to be towed again to the Arsenale for refitting; she needs it, apparently; her sails and line and paintwork all show signs of a long voyage. But before that, she will dock at one of the slips in the lee of the Lido. And the port’s itinerant stevedores will have a good day’s work unloading her cargo.
Already word is going out throughout the town, in the courtyards of the case vecchie and along the innumerable little bridges and alleys, and the stubbornly anachronistic caffes on the Piazza San Marco, which shouldn’t even exist for another two hundred and fifty years, that she has returned…
But what does she carry in her holds?
Welcome! It’s very good to have you here!
Where are you?
We’ll get to that.
Who are we?
We’re Alastair and Susannah Roberts, a theologian and a journalist, an Englishman and a New Yorker.
If you’re reading this, though, you probably know that.
We’ve been married for just under four months, and out of the perpetually simmering stewpot of projects and ideas that’s been going since – well, before that – this has emerged.
What are we about?
Briefly, the Kingdom of God.
But it’s complicated. We’ve got an outpost of that to build, and we have quite a lot of ideas for that too; that outpost is, for the moment, located on both sides of the Atlantic, in Staffordshire and New York City. More to come.
What are we up to?
Alastair is Adjunct Senior Fellow of the Theopolis Institute, a teaching fellow with the Davenant Institute, and an independent scholar. He is one of the hosts of the Mere Fidelity podcast and co-wrote Echoes of Exodus: Tracing Themes of Redemption Through Scripture (Crossway, 2018). He produces his own videos and podcasts and is currently finishing a chapter-by-chapter commentary on the whole Bible.
Susannah is senior editor at Plough Quarterly, at Mere Orthodoxy, and at New Polity; she writes in various other places and is co-host of The PloughCast, along with Peter Mommsen. She runs salons and plans various events, public and private, sub and super rosa.
None of our institutions, of course, are in any way responsible for what we’ve begun cooking up here. Only us.
What is this?
We have thought of this newsletter in different ways.
If we were the king and queen of a small principality - a city-state of some kind - this would be, perhaps, the biweekly dispatch from that place, circulated to those expats, friends, interested observers, and others, who manage somehow to finagle a complimentary subscription (and all subscriptions are complimentary).
That’s part of it. But not exactly. It is a miscellany. A hodgepodge. A report from the trenches.
A zibaldone, which is (we have found out) commonplace book, as kept by (apparently) Venetian merchants starting in the fourteenth century.
That’s part of it, too. But not exactly.
We have a theory about sea stories. The Patrick O’Brien novels, say. Or the Odyssey.
It’s not totally original. It’s a spinoff of a piece by Venkatesh Rao, explained to Susannah by Alastair; Susannah then misremembered it in a helpful way. It goes like this.
There are quest stories, like The Lord of the Rings, or Kipling’s Kim. The action comes from passing through forests and cities and wastes and garrison towns, encountering people, making your bed beside the road, or upstairs at an inn, occasionally, in some hospitable comrade’s guest room.
And then there are place stories. Think Jane Austen. The action comes through the events and people that pass through a great house, a cottage, a city, a village; the drama is focused on relationships disrupted and restored.
The sea story, the story that takes place largely aboard ship (or rocket ship)1 is a blend of the two. It is an adventure in a portable home.
This is a marriage, too. Or at least it is our marriage, for now, as we are living between New York and England. But every marriage, every household, must take at least some part in this sense of home-and-away, this sense of coziness and campaign at once.
There are two other endeavors that, notably, have traditionally drawn on the shipboard story as a metaphor. Plato’s picture of the true shipmaster who “must give his attention to the time of the year, the seasons, the sky, the winds, the stars, and all that pertains to his art if he is to be a true ruler of a ship” has given us the Ship of State as a picture. St. Peter, in his first Epistle, implicitly draws the comparison between Noah’s Ark and the Church itself, which Tertullian reinforced in 196 AD: “Amid these reefs and inlets, amid these shallows and straits… Faith, her sails filled by the Spirit of God navigates; safe if cautious, secure if intently watchful… Let nothing be in the Church that was not in the Ark.” Fifty years after that, St. Cyprian was at it again, with the Church-as-Ship metaphor. It was an inevitable picture: St. Peter’s fishing boat was, after all, the site of the cozy adventure of the sea of Galilee, as our Lord napped amidst the storm.
The state. The Church. Our lives themselves. They are, all of them, playing out this kind of story: the sea story, the shipboard saga.
And this newsletter is above all the contents of our holds, what we have discovered over the past little while on our journeys physical and metaphysical, intellectual and practical; what we have brought back to offer to you, as gifts. (Perhaps we haven’t quite got the hang of this Renaissance merchant princes thing; you’re supposed to charge.)
And this is the first number, the opening salvo. We’re going to aim to send these out fortnightly: they’ll be a roundup of what we’re currently working on, thinking about, reading, doing. What’s been published, what will be, what may never be.
What can you expect?
Links to pieces and podcasts, both our own and those of others
Paragraphs that may become essays eventually
The darlings we have killed in editing & other items from the cutting room floor
Snippets from books we’re reading; reviews
Links to music and to videos
Bolts of silk
Packets of papers, wrapped in oilcloth and tied with waxed cord in knots that it would be impossible for one not trained in these arts to replicate.
And the occasional actual essay
There are privateering missions to go on, distant ports of call to visit, research in natural philosophy to conduct. We’re going to be busy. And we’ll keep you up to date.
Who are you?
You are our friends, our enemies, our expats, our co-conspirators, our crew, our fellow-travelers, our sometime supercargo, and the inhabitants of friendly ports: our people. We know many of you in person; the others, we would like to. This is not a newsletter that aspires to enormous circulation, and we will not permit you to pay for it (if you wanted to, you could subscribe to Plough or join Alastair’s Patreon.)
This is a gift and we love giving gifts, and receiving them. We love giving and accepting invitations (well, Susannah does.) We love book recommendations and disagreements and long, erudite emails, and letters written on typewriters with distinctively worn keys so if one of you commits a murder and one of the clues is a typewritten document, we will be able to solve the crime, and postcards.
With our love,
Alastair and Susannah
[Please note: this newsletter was originally structured as a chiasm, but Susannah’s chaotic redaction ruined that.]
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