Obituaries: Tony Parker
Friday, 11 October 1996
Thanks to the tape-recorder the post-war decades have witnessed a boom in oral history, gathering the experiences of people whose voices seldom reach the written record.
Most of us are not neutral observers and arrange the evidence to support a point of view. In America Studs Terkel assembled several vast collections of humble people's opinions, and has never left us in any doubt as to where his sympathies lie. It is intriguing to learn that his English equivalent, Tony Parker, had, shortly before his death, completed a book quite different from his 22 earlier ones, since it was about Terkel, as seen by his colleagues, friends and family in Chicago. It will appear in February.
Tony Parker had equally strong opinions. He was a convinced socialist, pacifist and atheist, but sought to be a silent witness making no comments and no interpolations in the stories he was told. One result of his quiet empathy was that people talked to him and his recorder with immense openness and trust, and plenty of them became friends for years after they met.
He was born in 1923 in Stockport, the son of a bookseller. In the 1940s he was a conscientious objector to military service and was sent to work in a coal-mine, developing an intense sympathy for the isolated colliery villages of the North-East. Forty years later this early background served him well when he compiled his book Red Hill: a mining community (1986) about the experience of the 1984-85 miners' strike.
His discovery of his unique vocation came almost by chance. After the war he had a job with Odhams Press, publishers of the Daily Herald, and in the evenings became a prison visitor, a task which stretched his capacity as a good listener and a non-judgemental observer. A chance meeting with a BBC radio producer, and an inevitable battle with the Home Office, led to a broadcast interview with one particular hard case, which was subsequently printed in The Listener. This resulted in a publisher's commissioning the book by Tony Parker and Robert Allerton: The Courage of His Convictions (1962), which was followed by The Unknown Citizen (1963), Five Women (1965) and The Twisting Lane: some sex offenders (1969).
The last two of these provided powerful material for television drama documentaries, and led to two further books, for one of which he lived in Grendon Underwood Prison for three months patiently gathering 200 hours of taped conversations. In all these books he carefully kept his own opinions out of the story, while being ever-willing to express them in the alternative press, from Anarchy to Peace News.
By this time, Parker had developed his techniques of transcribing and editing tapes, meticulously preparing a text without comment or interpretation, and talked to street people in People of the Streets (1968), to unmarried mothers with In No Man's Land (1972). Lighthouse (1975) was the result of six months of recording the recollections of lighthouse keepers from all over Britain.
Recognition of his devotion and integrity brought increasing demands for his approach to particular communities like the residents of a London council estate, Catholic and Protestant households in Belfast, and even the Army. Who but a lifelong anti-militarist could be trusted to report faithfully on the experiences of soldiers and their wives?
By this time, Margery Parker, his wife of 43 years, was accompanying him in his travels and laborious transcriptions. In Russia, the rooms were carefully arranged. He was sitting slightly below the level of the people he was questioning, with an interpreter behind his shoulder. At the beginning of the interviews people's gaze would be fixed on the interpreter, but before long they were addressing Parker, eye to eye.
It was inevitable that his publisher should invite him for lunch and ask him to spend three months talking to people somewhere in the middle of the United States. It turned out to be A Place Called Bird (1989), a town of 2,000 inhabitants at the crossing of two state highways in Kansas, surrounded by a sea of endless prairie under a vast blue sky. The Parkers listened and recorded everyone as they talked about their hopes and fears and hidden assumptions, from the incomer, groping for the word "circumscribed" to describe the place, to the 16- year-old high-school student who blamed herself for thinking that "sometimes in Bird you feel you can't breathe".
In the same year Studs Terkel was gathering material for his book The Great Divide, recounting people's second thoughts on the American dream. It will be fascinating to read the self-effacing Parker's examination of the approach of the committed and ebullient Terkel. His own triumphs were the result of his gentleness and modesty, which led the most taciturn or suspicious of people to open up with confidences they would not dream of revealing to more self-assertive questioners.
Tony Parker, writer and interviewer: born Stockport, Cheshire 25 June 1923; married twice (two sons, one daughter); died Westleton, Suffolk 3 October 1996.