Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A grey day

GreenwichThis afternoon I was in drizzly, grey Greenwich to discuss a potential project. I lived in Greenwich 2002-04 and got married in the Queen's House. For a couple of years I used to pass through the royal park pretty much every day. There were birthday picnics (and lightsabre fights) on the grass, and a good few parties and nights in the pubs... Happy days - but so long ago.

Nosed around a bit feeling wistful, fell in to Halcyon Books on Greenwich South Street (which the Dr and I fell into on our very first date) and - sighing - lugged myself home.

On the way back I finished David Simon's Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. It's a massive, meticulous and extraordinary story, packed with lucidity and detail. Baltimore Sun reporter Simon follows a homicide department all through 1988. A small band of put-upon, grumpy and very smart guys fight a tide of stupid, stupid violence.

Simon explains the context, the pressures, the morbid dark humour that helps the cops through it, the toll it takes... There are pages on what takes place in an autopsy or in a court room, the personalities as well as the procedures. It's grueling and sometimes appalling to read, yet utterly compelling.

In a 2006 afterword, Simon lets us know what became of the men involved - and of him, as the book got turned into a TV show ("Homicide: Life on the Streets"), and Simon started writing for the telly (his next book, The Corner, then led to The Wire). Over 600 pages he's made all kinds of clever connections, and here on why he stopped being a journalist in the 1990s, is also the inspiration for much of the dour tone of The Wire:
"Some of the best reporters the Baltimore Sun had were marginalized, then bought out, shipped out and replaced with twenty-four-year-old acolytes, who, if they did nothing else, would never make the mistake of having an honest argument with newsroom management. In a time of growth, when the chance to truly enhance the institution was at hand, the new regime of the Sun hired about as much talent as they dispatched ... I came to realize that there was something emblematic here: that in postmodern America, whatever institution you serve or are served by - a police department or a newspaper, a political party or a church, Enron or Worldcom - you will eventually be betrayed.

It seemed very Greek the more I thought about it. The stuff of Aeschylus and Sophocles, except the gods were not Olympian but corporate and institutional. In every sense, ours seems a world in which individual human beings - be they trained detectives or knowledgeable reporters, hardened corner boys or third-generation longshoreman or smuggled eastern European sex workers - are destined to matter less and less."

David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, pp. 634-5.

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