Farnham, Surrey – with love from Woodstock, Alabama


Well, I’ve finished listening to the absorbing and egregiously brilliant podcast ‘Shit Town’. I’m told that it’s been an enormous success in the USA; it’s received very good reviews in the UK too. I’m not surprised. It’s one of the most intelligent forms of social-psychological inquiry I’ve heard.

The podcast tells an extended story about people and personality in the small town of Woodstock (i.e. Shit Town), Alabama. Except it does much more than that: it presents a meditation on time, meaning, sexuality and values. We learn something about the power of a particular social milieu. We hear the deeply personal stories that people come to disclose – if ever they have the chance so to do. (Most of us don’t get that chance.) The characters are fascinating – and they have wonderful names – like Boozer and Shyler and Olin. It’s also an insight into local Alabamian culture as well as suggesting major themes in the national culture of the USA. Central to Shit Town is the art of horology – and the account makes use of the horologist’s understanding and craft in two ways: first, just as a clock can be marked, over time, for good or ill, so might a person be left scarred or might flourish over the course of their lives; one moral of the story is simply to highlight the damage that we can do to people through carelessness or downright abuse. A second reading takes the broken clock as a symbol of America. The once great achievement of the USA is now, in a sense, broken. And the question is how to fix it rather than ruin it completely.

Shit Town is a delight to hear: often the dialogues are just plain hilarious. Sometimes the accounts are poignant or tragic or heart-rending. Many of the people who are interviewed in the podcast speak eloquently and with charming clarity. I have the feeling that American english is beginning to outstrip all other forms of english …

However, It got me thinking about the town in which I live. That town is Farnham in Surrey, England. It’s supposed to be one of the better towns in the south of England.

BUT I came to the conclusion that Farnham is a ‘Semi-shit town’.

Why is that? Well, it’s something to do with the old hop fields at the back of where I live. They’re adjacent to me – and run up against my garden. (The original hops still grow on the margins and even creep into and over my hedge. I like to collect the ripening hops at the end of the summer. The hops want to keep on growing. They are important moments of history.) The town could have decided to do something worthwhile with these ancient fields. But no. The fields are going to be built on; there will be a high-density housing development. On paper it all looks very nice. BUT they certainly do not need to stuff more houses into a town that is already well on the way to becoming a well-heeled version of Shit Town, Alabama. The demise of the hop fields is perfectly emblematic of everything that is going wrong with Farnham, Surrey.

This is just one example. There are many many more. But one will do.

Farnham is becoming visibly degraded despite it’s image of being a ‘craft town’ or an ‘historic market town.’ It’s becoming over-developed, clogged with traffic, polluted and crude. It’s shabby and incoherent. What a pitiful piece of town management it represents. What a complete lack of imagination …

Farnham, Surrey nicely sums up the prevailing south-of-England culture: It’s a culture dominated by ROI – by return on investment – of setting upon things as if they were mines or resources ready to yield something – anything – that is profitable. (Just as Heidegger foresaw.) It’s a culture dominated by the pleasure principle. Consume or die.

There are practical models of sustainable development – but it’s hard to see any evidence of their realisation in Farnham, Surrey. There must be ways of developing towns that are fit to house the human spirit; I wish Farnham could be one of them.

P.S. John B. McLemore, the central figure in Shit Town Alabama, around which the whole series constellated, was despairing because he saw that the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and that very few people were ready to do anything about it. Impossible as he may have been, he remains an inspirational figure.

At the conclusion of Shit Town its producers publish some of the details contained in a final text left by John B. McLemore. He writes:

I’ve spent time in idle palaver, with violets, lyer leaf sage, heliopsis, and monkshood, and marveled at the mystery of monotropa uniflora. I have audited the discourse of the hickories, oaks, and pines, even when no wind was present. I have peregrinated the woods in winter under the watchful guard of vigilant dogs, and spent hours entranced by the exquisiteness and delicacy of tiny mosses and molds, entire forests, within a few square inches. I have also run thrashing and flailing from yellow jackets.

Before I could commence this discourse [i.e. the final note], I spent a few hours out under the night sky, re-acquainting myself with the constellations like old friends. Sometimes I just spent hours playing my records. Sometimes I took my record players and CD players apart just to peek inside and admire the engineering of their incongruous entrails. Sometimes I watched Laverne & Shirley or old movies or Star Trek. Sometimes I sat in the dark and listened to the creaking of the old house.

I have lived on this blue orb now for about 17,600 days, and when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelops so many persons, both young and old, I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots. Additionally, my absence makes room and leaves some resources for others who deserve no less than I have enjoyed.

Footnote: The reason that I think American english is beginning to outstrip the forms of english spoken in the UK is because of the richness of its new metaphors and similes – as well as its sheer inventiveness and evocative power.

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