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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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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