Spoiler alert – I suggest you read the following only if you have listened to the S-Town podcast or if you have no intention of doing so, though it will make less sense.
Days after I binged on the podcast ‘Shittown’ the story of John B McLemore still haunts me. Journalist Brian Reed did a fine job piecing together the story of this extraordinary man from a wide range of sources and interviews with those who knew him, but there is a wider historical resonance to this story.
John lived with is aged mother in the countryside, on a large farm – apparently his grandfather had been a judge, so from the outset this seems to be a family on the brink of extinction following a grand start, so the sort of situation where strange things are likely. Many places which have declined became sites where religious visions were experienced, and this may also explain the Salem and other witch trials – communities that began with grand ideas but faded as reality and isolation took their tolls.
I don’t recall any mention of his father, so seems to have grown up without him, so no close male model. Perhaps crucially, seems to have been largely left to his own devices, which seems to have been turned to chemistry and clockmaking, as by the time he went to university, aged 17 was already ahead of his chemistry lecturer, and was probably the only person in the country who gilded clocks using the dangerous method of dissolving gold in mercury then heating it to release toxic gas.
But it seems to have made him a solitary eccentric, as the country boy did not fit in with his middle class peers so at times dressed in strange clothes and wigs so they could laugh at his appearance, as he claimed it was better than laughing at him as they would anyway. So he was self aware, probably bullied at school or at least marginalised. He dropped out of college as he worked hard at his own interests, but not at the course work.
The apparent loner surprised Reed with his list of friends, some of whom had been close – a community of horologists who claimed John was a genius – he could look at a clock and make a new piece for it out of his head. He utterly lived horology and some of his friends spoke of the many hours they spent on the phone talking and laughing with him. But some noted the change that happened some years ago, when John became interested, obsessed with climate change and the end of the world. He lost friends over that and seems to have withdrawn further into his solitary world.
He called his home town shit town, and admitted he should have moved away long before, to find success and a better life, but he claimed he had to look after his mother. If he’d really wanted to go he would have found a way. He was clever, after all, a brilliant problem solver. Again, there are historical precedents. He built a huge maze in his garden. Mazes were common in mediaeval churches as a form of meditation, as a mental challenge, a pilgrimage for those unable to travel far. It also echoed the monks’ love of nature, and he knew the latin names and uses for so many plants on his property. I kept feeling that he was born centuries too late. He would have been at home in a monastery, free to think his own thoughts, pursue his lines of research in peace.
His passion for horology is also significant.He showed immense patience and focus. The clockwork universe was a metaphor for God’s creation, a perfect mechanism opposed to the flawed, Post-Fall humans. Clockmaking mimiced god and was seen as an act of piety.
Great thinkers have often sought perfection. Technology was popular in the Christian church, especially in times of crisis such as during plagues, and in 17th century England. The order they represent act as a counterbalance to the chaos around us, it helps restore faith in our fellow humans, that there is some grand design, that our world will survive.
But John had not always been isolated.When his local town was founded, he incorporated his home into it and was active in civic matters. But when the town clerk, who he went into business with, got married, they fell out and he sued her. This pattern seems to have been repeated, he seemed to see friends only as single people, leading to suggestions he was possessive or jealous. But there is a certain mindset that goes with clever people who work alone. They are disconnected from others, free to work without intrusion, sometimes keeping long, strange hours, which is ok when friends do the same, but with relationships, such demands on time become intrusive. This is not jealousy, the friend ceases to become part of his bubble.
John seems to have been a child prodigy, a creature that appears in many histories, especially 18th century England. They were seen as signs from God, as the ultimate prodigy was Christ. They were encouraged and fostered, their skills were put to good use. There was no such support or productive outlet for John’s skills, or rather, he had developed them but then turned against his friends and supporters. He isolated them with his ideas of climate change and of humans destroying the planet, so at odds with the clockwork universe, and of Paradise. Man the creator has become the destroyer, which has a special resonance for Americans as so much of their history is based on Europeans going there in search of paradise. Spain was bankrupted by its reconquest so sailed west to find gold. Puritans sought religious practices free of the corruption of Anglicans, to read the word of God rather than be corrupted by Roman idolatry and corruption. Yet when Europeans saw Paradise they saw it as ‘waste’, as at home, to be plundered and destroyed.
The very notion of Christian Paradise, of floating round on clouds with angelic music is not one many of us would choose; we would be bored out of our wits. This suggests it appealed to people worn out by hard work who needed and deserved, rest and peace. If you ask anyone what their idea of paradise is, you will get different views, so it seems there are as many paradises as there are people. In Tarkovsky’s film’The Zone’ one man claimed paradise did not exist, another one wanted to destroy it as nobody deserved it. Another had gone in search of his deepest desire to save his brother from cancer, but won the lottery, so killed himself. Paradise is a very complex notion and may change for the same person in response to circumstances. A person dying of thirst wants only water.
At the heart of the story of Genesis is the desire to become perfected, to undo the sins of The Fall, to return to The Garden. The Tudors were great fans of idyllic gardens. Philip Sydney wrote the poem ‘Arcadia’ which influenced generations of poets and garden designers.
Another strand that ran though the story was that of tattoos, which John claimed to hate and associated with rednecks, yet he had lots of them, hidden on chest and especially his back, by his friend who also spoke of his nipple piercing. All very odd. It was thought he got the tattoos to support his friend without handouts, but they were part of private ceremonies they called church, which John had repeated tattoos over the same place, to the point where his back is a real mess. He did both for the pain, he even had some on his last night. Again, we have echoes of mediaeval monks, in particular the flagellants who punished themselves to mimic the sufferings of Christ and to absolve the sins of the world. Did John know this? It seems physical pain was also a means of dealing with his emotional pain. Though at the end of course it failed him.
John was brilliant yet flawed; he spoke of huge wealth, and horologist friends spoke of huge amounts he must have earned in the 1990s when there was a lot of old clocks to be repaired. But he also spent a lot of money on his property and helped out friends. He refused to have a bank account so tales abounded of him having hidden stash of gold. He promised to leave money to people, yet he never wrote a will so it all went to cousins he claimed to hate.
On the night he took his own life he phoned the local town clerk to tell her what he intended. It was late, and she urged him to reconsider, but he drank poison while on the phone. This seems bizarre and incredibly cruel, but suggests to me he did not really want to die, but wanted out of his life. They are different. He wanted her to know, to bear witness of his end. In Mediaeval times, communities supported the dead, they prayed for their souls to help their journey. It might also have been so his body would be dealt with properly, not eaten by his many dogs.
He had been depressed for years, early on, Reed had read his suicide note and John brushed it off as if everyone wrote such an epic document. JOhn’s idea of normal was abnormal. It included a huge amount on climate change, and Reed tried to cheer him up and talk him out of it whenever the subject came up. Reed considered his depression to have perhaps been caused by inhaling mercury fumes which were alleged to send hatters mad, but he seems to have done small amounts, so probably ducked that bullet.
I think he’d spent much of his life seeking perfection, whilst watching the world go to hell around him. He knew more than most what humans are capable of, in terms of achievements, but it seemed to him all this was being wasted. This wasn’t depression or suicide in any normal sense. This was an extraordinary man who recognised there was no place for him in the modern world so chose his own departure. I cannot see how his life could have ended otherwise. As a final twist, the name of John’s town was Woodstock, in CSN’s song, they talk of going back to the garden. I hope John has found peace he never found here.
Ever since I heard the story of John I’ve had this Eagles song as my earworm. Somehow it seems to be a eulogy to John. Glen Frey describes it as a history of European civilisation in 6 minutes. “You call some place paradise, you kiss it goodbye.”