Friday October 11, 1996, p23
Tony Parker, oral historian, died on October 3 aged 73. He was born on June 25, 1923.
TONY PARKER'S ears were once described as “a national treasure”. As an interviewer he saw it as his task to be quietly attentive, to record without comment or judgment. He was simply a blackboard for people to write on, he said. The impact of his interviews rested on the immediacy of recorded speech and it was this which made Parker the greatest oral historian of our day.
In the published transcripts of his interviews, Parker exposed readers to the lives of people they might otherwise have shunned. He penetrated the often violent and hostile worlds of convicted murderers and IRA terrorists, of striking miners and sex offenders. He portrayed the richness of marginalised lives, exploring the worlds of lighthouse keepers and the inhabitants of a small Kansas town, of the residents of a South London housing estate and Americans on Death Row.
Tony Parker's own upbringing was in an environment remote from those he was later to portray. He was born in Manchester into a comfortable, middle-class background. Though his mother died when he was only four years old, he was so doted upon by his father and elder sisters that he at times felt suffocated, and he would later recall his childhood with a certain unease.
Having completed his secondary education at Stockport Grammar School, he escaped to London, beginning a career as a poet and playwright with staged readings of his work on Sunday nights. He read voraciously too, including the works of Huxley and Wilfred Owen. It was probably under the influence of these writers that, when at the age of 18 he was called up, he declared himself a conscientious objector and, persuading a hostile tribunal of his convictions, was exempted from military service.
Parker was sent to work in the coalmines instead. The long hours spent down stifling shafts were a sharp contrast to his cosseted earlier life, but in his 18 months there he learnt to respect the views of those whom he worked alongside and was confirmed in his socialist beliefs.
An injury put an end to this work but Parker, with a wife and child to support, could not return to his life as a writer immediately and instead took a post as a publisher's representative. It was to be his first and last conventional job. Reading about the Craig and Bentley case in which a mentally subnormal adolescent was hanged for a murder he did not commit, Parker became a campaigner against capital punishment and a prison visitor.
After a chance encounter with a BBC radio producer, he was invited to make a programme based on an interview with one of the most difficult convicts whom he visited. It was powerfully direct, the subject encouraged to state his case with a frankness unencumbered by intervention or outside commentary.
This style was to form the basis for Parker's ensuing work as a writer. After the text of this first interview was reproduced in The Listener , a flood of work followed. His first book, The Courage of His Convictions (1962), was based on tape-recorded interviews with a recidivist criminal with multiple convictions for robbery and violence. It painted a remarkable picture of an intelligent and well-read man who had no intention of ever “going straight” and no wish to reform. It was typical of Parker that he insisted the subject should be included as a joint author.
Parker would - somewhat misleadingly - claim that he had “no personality”. But beneath his controlled exterior, a passionate resentment of the inequality and unfairness of modern society flared. His interests and sympathies lay chiefly with the underdog or the outsider. But his range was wide. Soldier, Soldier (1985) is a portrait of military life including, even, an interview with a general. Parker also aimed to give a balanced view. In May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast (1993), he included interviews with terrorists on both sides of the divide, as well as contributions from priests, housewives, teachers and the Army.
Alert to the drama and interest of everyday life, Parker would spend up to 15 hours - spread over several weeks - with his subjects, listening with patience and sympathy, allowing characters gradually to unfold through repetitions, evasions and hesitation. Several of his interviewees became friends. He rarely found anyone’s company tedious, but enjoyed the ‘perpetual surprises” of what they had to say.
Parker shied away from passing judgment and formulating theories on what he heard. “There are so many theories,” he used to say. “Childhood deprivation, alcohol, the double-Y chromosome”. He was sure that in 400 years people would look back on our current maps of human behaviour and find them as ludicrous as the old 15th-century maps of navigators who thought Africa was where America is.
Yet though Parker was perceived as having a basically “Christian” approach to his subjects, he himself was not altogether gratified by this perception. Though brought up in a fairly traditionally religious way, with weekly visits to Sunday school, he described himself later as an agnostic and ultimately as an atheist. He was content, he said, to be in a state of “invincible ignorance”. He even - as, for example, when he was writing about Northern Ireland - found this condition to be an advantage.Parker wrote several television plays based on material gathered in interviews. Many were broadcast on the BBC's pithily realistic Play for Today series, among them Five Women , about female prisoners, and A Chariot of Fire, about a child molester.