Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Wire and Wales

Despite being labeled the hand-wringing Guardianista's favourite TV show, I don't think there's ever been a grittier depiction of post-industrial decay than HBO's The Wire. Created by former journalist David Simon - with assistance from past members of the Baltimore Police Department - what starts out as a bog-standard police procedural, ends up becoming a wider examination of a society that's lost its way.

It's a society that's lost its sense of purpose, but not its soul. It's also lost confidence in the systems and institutions that are supposed to bind that society together. Whether it's through corruption, nepotism, sheer incompetence or the seemingly insurmountable crises affecting Baltimore : gang culture, crime, drugs, a burgeoning underclass who can only see a future in the black market, deindustrialisation and the effects of globalisation.

The two seasons with relevance to Wales are the second and fourth. The second season is set in the Port of Baltimore. It deals with the fallout of post-industrialisation and globalisation and the decline of the traditional unionised working class.

Warehouses are turned into swanky apartments, work becomes scarcer due to competition at home and abroad and expensive technology is required to maintain a competitive edge – whether it's with other ports or even to keep politicians and investors onside. It also introduced viewers to one of the shows most tragic and sympathetic characters – docker's union leader Frank Sobotka. His desperation to keep his workplace going, when the writing is on the wall, as he's being taken for a ride by the powers that be – both official and unofficial - is something I'm sure many people in Wales can relate to. Albeit not having the same outcomes.

In the fourth season – by far the best – the focus is on the school system and the fate of a group of boys, each of whom end up following different paths. Not only is there a lack of discipline and focus in the city's schools, there's also a crushing bureaucracy which focuses on box ticking over learning (sound familiar?). In the absence of real learning and engagement the kids end up making their own curriculum, as one character put it, they're "learning for the street". It also shows that an inspired, motivated teacher can really make a difference and that teaching is more a vocation you're "called to" than just another job you can plonk whoever you like into.

From a Welsh perspective, it's also interesting that the Mayor of Baltimore – a single US city - seemingly wields more political and economic power than our First Minister. Despite possessing an arsenal of powers that - in a few respects - would make Alex Salmond jealous, even the Mayors of Baltimore can't make water go uphill.

When Bunny Colvin - a police commander - tries a radical solution to the War on Drugs – the system, the society, the institutions, crush it despite it largely achieving a positive outcome. It was an autonomous local solution to a local problem, but because the "federal" government leaned on Baltimore it was abandoned forcefully.

In The Wire though, nothing is ever as simple as black and white. Even with this solution there were shades of grey. It was a perfect example of "the road to hell being paved with good intentions". For want of comparison, Baltimore is about the same distance from Washington DC as Cardiff is from Swansea. You get the impression they may as well be a thousand miles apart.

Yet there remains hope in parts, and the people of Baltimore keep on going somehow. The city keeps on ticking. I think that's what Wales has effectively been doing for the past century. Coasting along, accepting whatever fate, federal governments, Tommy Carcetti's and the forces of a changing global economy throw at us. Too many Clay Davis's, not enough Bunny Colvin's.

What The Wire is, is an eye-opener. It's stimulated debated about the "War on Drugs". It highlighted how political, economic and institutional systems that are broken can have a massive negative impact on people.

This doesn't mean that many of the experiences of the people of Baltimore in The Wire reflect directly on any experience in Wales. Wales doesn't have much in the way of gang culture, crime is low and there's an obvious difference between a single urban setting and a whole nation.

Although drugs are certainly prevalent in parts of Wales it's more a case of it being just as much a public health concern as a criminal one. However, the economic issues raised are as relevant to Dai Phillips in Merthyr Tydfil as they are Frank Sobotka in Baltimore. The political issues are as relevant to Carwyn Jones as they are Tommy Carcetti . With the coming of elected Police Commissioners, those institutional elements could be as relevant to Alun Michael or Elfyn Llwyd as they are to Ervin Burrell or Bill Rawls.

And of course Wales has its own Bubbles. Its own Bodies. Its own Naymond Brices, Dukie Weems' and Randy Wagstaffs.

Wales needs its own "Wire". But, unlike the HBO version, it doesn't need to open anyones eyes but our own.

We need something so provocative, so real, that we'll all take a good look around at ourselves, our communities, our public institutions and public servants and ask the question "how long are we going to put up with this?"


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