The Guardian 5/10/1996
Courage and convictions
The oral historian Tony Parker, who has died aged 73, was an atheist “If it turns out I’m wrong and I find myself in front of God, I shan’t half have a lot to say on the subject.’ One reason Tony will have so much to say in heaven is because he spent so much of his time on earth being totally silent. I don’t just mean quiet, I mean silent. I once sat with Tony gleaning information from lawyers for a television series. He sat like a Buddha while the lawyer chatted away. The power of his silence created a vacuum which invited others to fill it. But he had not switched off; the quality of his attention made clear he was taking in every word.
His own claim to hapless interviewers that he “had no personality” was a polite fiction that convinced no one who spent more than a few minutes in his presence.
His professional silence itself was a strong statement about his determination to listen without judgment – a rare quality in itself. He regarded himself as ‘a blackboard for people to write on’. It was all the more exceptional in that he was so often listening to people who had been harshly judged by the rest of the world – murderers, terrorists, sex offenders among them. To bring limitless empathy into encounters with such violent people requires a degree of tolerance and understanding that made Tony Parker a unique observer of human behaviour.
His death comes just as he delivered a book on his only rival to that position, the American Studs Terkel. But Terkel, for all his humanity, makes his own views clear. Throughout his books on soldiers, Russians, women prisoners, residents of tower blocks, and lighthouses, Protestants and Catholics in Belfast, Tony Parker steadfastly refused to do more than introduce us to the people he captured live on his pages – and then leave us alone with them.
Many readers and critics found that experience deeply unsettling, forcing us to face the normality of people we would prefer not to recognise as fellow human beings.
In his book about Americans on Death Row, The Violence of Our Lives, he concluded his introduction with a quote from William Penn about God being in everyone. “People took that ‘God’ to mean good. But I meant that if there is a God, he is in the murderousness as well as in the goodness.”
The universality of his tolerance and the stillness of his presence as a listener – “Tony Parker’s ears are a national treasure” said one critic – belied a set of passionately held views about the world and what was wrong with it. He was born in Stockport to a middle class family – his father was a bookseller, the only family literary connection. His mother died when he was four, a loss which left him bereft even of her memory in later years. But as the only boy, he was raised almost too comfortably by his doting father and two sisters and had to ‘fight his way through’ their indulgence.
In his late teens and early twenties, his budding career as a poet-playwright led to several Sunday night staged readings in London which attracted favourable correspondence from Edith Sitwell. But his writing career was interrupted by the war: a determined pacifist, he persuaded a hostile panel to accept him as a conscientious objector, and went to work in the mines for 18 months.
After his comfortable upbringing, the experience of working eight hours a day deep in the heat and primitive conditions of the mines showed him another side of life that confirmed his socialist politics. He was also moved by the tolerance of the miners towards his pacifism. But his wartime marriage and the birth of a daughter kept him from going back to writing. To support his family, he took a job as a publisher’s representative for Oldhams Press.
In the evenings, he became a prison visitor. A chance encounter with Paul Stephenson, a BBC Radio producer, led to Tony interviewing one of his most difficult prisoners for the radio. It was a measure of Tony’s success in encouraging frank disclosures that the programme was broadcast just before midnight, in case the prisoner’s words would be a bad influence on the audience. Interviews like these won him the approval of prison officers, prison governors and the Home Office alike. The text was printed in The Listener and spotted by Hutchinson as the basis of a book which became The Courage of His Convictions.
Thus began a stream of work mining the richness of forgotten lives, amplifying unheard voices, and always remembering that the truth is in the details. His skill lay in his sense of the drama of everyday lives, no matter how unusual the settings.
At a time when most feature-length interviews are based on nothing more than the clipping files and a long lunch, Tony would spend up to 15 hours with his subjects – spread over weeks and months. He made great efforts to reassure them about the process and their future anonymity, and formed friendships which continued long after publication.
His laborious technique also involved longhand transcriptions of these many tapes – only in the past four books was this task undertaken by his doughty and loyal wife Margery – herself a former social worker. Then Tony would go through the tapes again, this time making notes under each line, and starting to feed a structure into the typewriter. The final version was the result of many more passes through the original encounters with his beloved Beethoven or Brahms symphonies blasting away in their Suffolk cottage.
Using this material Tony also wrote a number of powerful television plays, many in the neo-realist heyday of the BBC’s Play for Today; among them Five Women, about women prisoners describing their lives, and A Chariot of Fire about a child molester, based on his book A Twisting Lane.
His legacy lives on in the work of all of us who try to be what is laughably called in television “a fly on the wall”, keeping the impact of our presence to a minimum. Any such claims should be laid modestly for fear Tony’s dry wit would puncture any hint of pomposity. After all, among his favorite lines of poetry were those by his beloved Auden, to whom he turned whenever his life became interesting or difficult:
Was he free, was he happy
The question is absurd –
Had anything been wrong
We should certainly have heard
(W H Auden, The Unknown Citizen)
Tony Parker, oral historian, born June 25, 1923, died October 3, 1996.