Meeting David Simon.
Last Sunday I attended a book signing and a Q and A by David Simon, Journalist, writer, filmmaker, AKA the creator of the Wire and Generation Kill.
The event was held at Ulster hall Belfast, sponsored by the Guardian. It was part of the 2009 Hay festival. I thought my friend was pulling my leg when he sent me a text saying that David Simon was coming to Belfast. Though, sure enough, when I checked online, it did indeed say he was going to be in the City of yours truly, a great opportunity to meet the man himself.
The Wire is, the best Television show I have seen, belonging to the same elite rank of shows that came out of HBO in its hayday. Simon is no one trick pony, though, his book-Homicide a year on the killing streets, is a masterpiece of crime reporting, subsequently made into the long running TV show of the same name. Working as a Baltimore city crime reporter, especially spending a year observing the homicide unit, give Simon the necessary experience and material that would form his future career. Fans of the Wire will instantly recognise many characters, jokes and situations, from the book that made it into the HBO show.
It was not just experience and material from working in the homicide unit that helped Simon, it was where he forged the partnership with ED Burns (former police detective and teacher) the Co -creator of both The Wire, The Corner, and Generation Kill. Simon was clear on this point, Ed Burns along with three or four of the top key writers were crucial to the brilliance of the show. In this sense, the Wire is a fascinating case study in so called authorship, or auteurship. What is especially brilliant about the Wire (the same could be said for “his” other shows) is that it really is a team effort. Not only that, the majority of the writers, and this is especially true of the two main creators, have worked, lived and breathed in the environments they portrayed. This is a stark difference to what is the norm of the film/TV industry. This difference is especially apt when compared to David Chase--the creator of the Sopranos.
I was not able to ask how important this aspect was to the success of the Wire and The Corner, but I think that it cannot be overstated. In many ways this makes the Wire one of a kind: a brilliant multi layered narrative, that contains a tremendous amount of anger and social criticism. I do not expect a show like the Wire to come along again anytime soon.
My friends and I arrived towards the end of the book signing, I was not expecting much of a crowd, to my surprise though, the cue for signing was end to end (I just about got my original copy of Homicide signed) Even more surprising, was when I looked around at a packed Ulster hall to see a more or less full house of several hundred people.
My Homicide book now reads “To Michael, its all in the game, David Simon”. I got a laugh from both Simon and his PA, “that’s good, original”. I made some small talk with Simon, telling him how much me and my friends appreciated his show. I mentioned that his book was probably my favourite book in the field of journalism, comparing it to Michael Herr’s Dispatches ( Herr’s account of being embedded among the US armed forces during the Vietnam War.) he agreed saying he had a lot of time for that book. And that was that.
During the Q and A, Simon came across self deprecating, funny and articulate. He knows what he’s talking about without an air of intellectualism or elitism, the kinda guy who pollsters like to say “you could have a drink with”. We were sitting near the back of the hall and, at times, his soft, rolling, Baltimorean accent was hard to pick up at.
A taste of some of his opinions.
He thinks Obama has a good handle on what he is doing, though he doubts that any real progress will be made, ie drug reform, inner city schools etc.
It was revealed that in Season 3, where they were shooting a scene in a gay bar, a previously considered heterosexual character was to be shown - the writers quickly settled on Rawls-the “anal” stats obsessed Deputy Director. This got huge laughs from the audience, especially, as Simon noted, Rawls had been spouting homoerotic references and sexually suggestive remarks throughout the seasons. The funniest was his reply to Daniels in season two, Daniels - “I need McNulty” Rawls - “I need an extra 3 inches of meat-aint going happen”.
He responded to the question of why he killed of the likes of Stringer, Omar and Prop Joe by referencing the Greeks, Greek tragedy and Antigone. “ these characters aren’t going to change, they aren’t going to go into therapy or get a real job”.
He revealed how surprising it was for him to see how successful the show became. He quipped that he did not expect the show to be understood in Philadelphia never mind London, Belfast, Amsterdam etc. He was also, once again, full of praise for HBO. He confirmed an idea I had while reacting to the end of Season 3. Season 3 was meant to be the end of the show. By this time, everyone knew that the Wire was not going to become a commercial success. Simon went to HBO, told them his ideas for season four and five, and, they agreed. He quoted a huge number, maybe four million that HBO could have used creating two new shows, which could have been money makers, but they decided to stick with the Wire. This display of gratitude on the part of Simon was sincere, he has been know to harbour grudges and has been publicly vocal in his criticism of people (the editors of the Baltimore Sun for example), so it was a suprise to hear him giving his due.
Simon explained that when he and Ed Burns were working on the Corner, they wanted to detail all the socio-political factors that created the malaise and arguments they had realized living and working in Baltimore, they could not show this in the personal and microscopic Corner. The Wire then, was conceived as a panoramic response to this.
I asked Simon an out and out political question. I wanted to get him on record over his views of drug criminalization. “ I have a simple question, do you support drug decriminalization and if so how should it be implemented, and what consequences good and bad are likely to flow from this?”.
Simon was surprisingly candid and forceful (as usual) in his response. He believes it should be legalised, his reasons are that the war has failed, it has created failed societies and has essentially became a war on the American underclass. He cites that US prisons lock up legions of non-violent criminals and carry out early release for violent criminals to make way for drug convicts. He makes an interesting point concerning the image, perception and terminology of the use of the term war “War on Drugs”. He says that when fighting a war, you create an enemy, in order to perpetuate that idea of an enemy you essentially have to stir up hatred, you have to demonise them and stereotype them. Simon asserts, that this is what has happed to the underclass of which the black underclass make up a large proportion.
In terms of consequences, he envisions that the violence and gang culture would drop off, police would go back to real policing, communities would not be torn apart. He says the risks would be that slightly more middle class children are likely to become addicts. I, myself, support drug decimalization, believing it to be the only sensible policy we can do to fix the mess that The Wire documents. However, its highly unlikely we will see any progress on this issue.
One final observation, this time on the audience. I cannot help but notice that the overwhelming amount of people who attend the event were from the upper middle class. Indeed, the Guardian: darling of liberal left middle class did much to promote The Wire in the UK. How many people from the kinds of backgrounds that the Wire portrays are aware of the show? Did any of the people in attendance intend to take a greater political interest: in political reform and social justice? There is a kind of irony here, The Wire is down and dirty, dealing with many characters and situations that mainstream society does not want to look at, yet it is predominantly watched by people, in comfortable homes and jobs, from the kinds of places that Bubbles gazes vacantly at when he is accompanying McNulty to his kids soccer game.