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S-Town: the mystery at the heart of this cult podcast is not the one you think

The story of John B. McLemore and a small town in Alabama is wonderfully strange - and totally unnerving. 

In the pre-credits sequence of the first instalment of S-Town, producer and presenter Brian Reed tells us about the difficulty of fixing an antique clock – one so old that no plans exist for it, leaving its repairer dependent on the dents or scratches left by previous work or lost machinery.

“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed tells us:

You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that’ll likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got is these vague witness marks that might not even mean what you think they mean. At every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time. Or not.

Anyway. I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me, John B. McLemore, and asked me to help him solve a murder...

It’s an incredibly clever introduction. Because the new podcast, all seven chapters of which were released simultaneously last week, comes from the same people as 2014’s runaway hit, Serial – and at first hearing, Reed’s opening lines suggest we’re in for another true crime drama.

But that’s not what S-Town is at all. Those witness marks don’t mean what you think they mean.

******

It’s impossible to talk about what S-Town is actually doing without spoiling its two big twists, both of which come in episode two – so in a moment, I’m going to do just that. If you don’t want to know what they are, close the window now, and come back when you’ve finished listening.

Just so you don’t see them accidentally, here’s a map of Bibb County Alabama, home to Woodstock, the S-Town – a R-rated abbreviation of “Shit Town” – that John B. McLemore loved and hates so much:

Okay, so those twists. The smaller is that there was no murder: Reed spends the first chapter and a half of the podcast investigating a crime that never, in fact, took place. By that point, though, the murder already feels pretty incidental, and it’s clear that the real story is about other things.

One of them is Shit Town itself. Woodstock is a rural southern community of the sort that rarely gets more than the most cursory attention. It’s a place where a local business goes by the name K3 Lumber, and its owner laughingly declines the opportunity to deny that it’s a reference to the Klan; the sort of place where a young guy is happy to talk on the record to a New York radio producer about the time he thought he’d beaten some guy to death, but, luckily, it turned out he hadn’t. I don’t know where you are as you’re reading these words, but the odds are it’s not somewhere like Woodstock.

The other point of the story is John B. McLemore himself: a gay, intellectual horologist who doesn’t quite seem to fit in Alabama, a 48-year-old man who hates his town and everything it stands for yet has always refused to move out.

We’re just getting used to him being our guide to this alien world – he may be convinced that civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but he is, ostensibly, a liberal – when the second twist comes. At the close of chapter 2, Reed receives a call telling him that McLemore has killed himself. There are five episodes left, there’s no crime to solve, and we’re now immersed in this alien world without a guide.

The episodes following McLemore’s death are packed with incident: his funeral, and the feud over his property which follows, which makes it as far as the courts; an exploration of his past and his sexuality; some discussion of the various, terrifyingly real apocalyptic events which he saw coming down the track towards humanity.

But the podcast isn’t exactly about any of those things, and none of them really get resolved. The argument about McLemore’s legacy is still ongoing; the stuff about the past still speculative. The apocalypse, while looming, has yet to take place.

Yet despite this almost complete lack of denouement, the whole thing feels like a more compelling and satisfying story than I’ve encountered, in any medium, in a long time.

***

It’s several days since I finished listening to S-Town and I’m still not exactly sure how to explain or describe it. It’s not just that it isn’t like Serial: it doesn’t really conform to any of the conventions of serial storytelling that I’m used to.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain to anyone what it’s about and why someone should give it a go, I’ve struggled, and fallen back on, “Oh just listen. Trust me.” That’s obviously not enough here, though, so I’m going to try to distil its appeal.

Part of it, I think, is the world it explores. Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. Last year Donald Trump won Bibb County by 77  per cent to 21.4, and I’m genuinely surprised to find that Hillary did that well. This place is exactly what you think it is.

Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. John’s friend Tyler is the kind of redneck who genuinely sees locking someone in a shed and threatening to cut their fingers off as a legitimate way of settling a dispute. He’s also one of the most kind and loving and sympathetic characters in the whole thing, and once the feud about John’s legacy kicks off we find ourselves desperately rooting for the guy.

The other half of that feud is a money-grabbing McLemore cousins, who swoops in from Florida the moment she scents a legacy. Except it turns out she’s not really like that either, and suddenly we don’t know how we want this thing to turn out. S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels or, more recently, J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.

The other part of S-Town’s appeal is a literary one, too: the various conceits it uses to illuminate character and theme. The idea of horology, that’s there at the start, runs throughout. So do ideas of place, and family, and legacy, and the sheer fragility of human existence. The result is like a novel – not a thriller, like Serial was, but something altogether deeper, more literary and more haunting. It may be significant that it comes in “chapters”, rather than “episodes”.

There’s been some debate about whether S-Town should ever have been made at all. The murder it begins with may not have been real; but the suicide at its heart was, and many of its central characters are still walking around. Some have argued that repackaging real lives as entertainment may be crossing some line.

But the media does that all the time: as news, as reality TV, as other podcasts. At least S-Town turns those lives into something truly new and original. John B. McLemore is still dead; but now, he gets to be art, too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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