what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Portraits of cities in despair

Last week I acquired some new toys – access to wi-fi here in Sofia and the software to download films……For someone who has been able these past 25 years to evade television, this is a dangerous temptation. Oscar Wilde put it nicely for us Presbyterians when he noted, laconically, that “the best way to resist temptation is to yield to it”…..
So I have been binge viewing The Wire which started in 2002; ran for ten years and is rated as the best (and most realistic) of television serials. 
It is a savage portrait of a decaying American city – Baltimore to be precise – and focuses on drug wars; teamster corruption; police and education bureaucracies as they try to deal with the new management techniques; and on the politics of the local newspaper. So far I’ve viewed some 20 episodes of the first two series – each of the 5 series is briefly summarised in this article

I find the focus on a city – and its various layers – much more gripping than the conventional one of a murder. The 2 writers are David Simon (who had written a couple of sociological studies of the situation) and a journalist – so the series has attracted a lot of attention from academics and been the subject of glowing reviews here and here
The dialogue is rich – but really does need sub-titles to help the viewer make sense of what the police and politicians – let alone the drug addicts and dealers – are actually saying.

I was briefly in Baltimore in 1987 – while a German Marshall Fellow based in Washington, Pittsburgh and Chicago (I just missed meeting Obama then working the South Shore as a community activist!) but remember being appalled by the Baltimore slums which are at the heart of The Wire’s drama. 

Such binge-viewing brings diminishing returns – and I don’t find it easy to relate to the American and black context. 
By way of comparison, I therefore turned to the first couple of episodes of the 1996 UK television series – Our Friends in the North - which gives a portrait not just of a city (UK's Newcastle; in the news today for the savage cuts the city faces) but one painted in nine studies over a 32 year period. with an emphasis on the various routes for those wanting to escape from or challenge these urban wastelands and their power systems. This paper offers a good analysis of the series
So far – by virtue of the historical depth - I would rate it even higher than The Wire – and it also gives us an early sighting of Daniel Craig!

ps David Simon first came to my attention a year ago - when he wrote this withering diatribe 


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