Tony Parker: the interviewer

In his obituary for Tony Parker, Roger Graef noted: “More than one elegist cited the famous words of Parker’s close friend the psychologist Anthony Storr: ‘Tony Parker’s ears are a national treasure.’… As an interviewer [Parker] saw it as his task to be quietly attentive, to record without comment or judgment” (Graef 1996, p. 18; The Guardian, 24 Jan 2012).

Tony Parker died on 3 October 1996, aged 73. He was survived by his wife, Marjorie Parker, and their three children. As criminologist Keith Soothill makes clear in his article “Opening Doors and Windows for Tony Parker,” October 2001, the tributes poured in, Parker was a man who was highly regarded:

Tony Parker […] is buried in the cemetery of St. Peter’s Church in Westleton, Suffolk. His simple but dignified tombstone gives no clue to his calling and reads ‘TONY PARKER 25th June 1923 – 3rd October 1996 Peace hath her victories.’ Lengthy obituaries in the broadsheets are comparatively unusual but Parker had secured a sufficient reputation to have considerable coverage in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Telegraph. Roger Graef described Tony Parker as ‘a unique observer of human behaviour’, Colin Ward [The Independent obituary, 11 October 1996] talks of ‘his unique vocation’, the anonymous obituarist in the Telegraph stressed that ‘his real gift was for creating sympathetic silences into which murderers, thugs, child molesters, rapists and baby-batterers could pour their confidences without inhibition,’[…]. (Soothill “Opening Doors …” 2001).

In the preface to his work The Man Inside, Parker wrote: “I am indebted most of all to my friend the late Douglas Gibson, and continually realise it. It was he who said to me ‘Shut up and listen to what prisoners say: when it comes to trying to understand, you won’t – but do the best you can’ ” (Parker, The Man Inside 1973).
It is well documented by those who interviewed him (for example, to name but a few, Lyn Smith 1999, p. 248; Thompson 1994, p.p. 64-71; Graef 1997, p. 38) that as an interviewer Parker was always considerate and empathetic of all his informants, regardless of whether or not they were criminals. Lyn Smith points out that, even so, “Parker was not an indulgent interviewer who let people ramble on. He had a good idea of what he was looking for and, without obviously directing the interview, he was usually able to get it [….] He was looking for the essence of each person” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 247). In an interview with Lyn Smith, Parker’s wife Margery explained:

Tony had this extraordinary ability to tune in very quickly to somebody and strike up an affinity. I think he made tremendous eye-contact—he had a very direct look—and was able to convince people he was seriously interested in them and what they were going to talk about to him was of value. He convinced them that they could trust him absolutely if the revelation was going to be in any way intimate, and that he would not be shocked whatever they said. (Margery Parker qtd. in Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 248)

After writing his first ten works, all of which dealt with criminals, and many of which  had a single informant (a different informant and case for each book), Parker broadened his scope to include a wide range of subjects and interviewed numbers of  people from various communities and groups for his books—to name but a few examples, a council housing estate in England, a small village in America, the Catholic and Protestant households and streets of Belfast in Ireland, a mining community, the lighthouse community, and even the Army (i.e., the husbands and wives whose lives are tied up with the Service telling what life is like for them in the Army community) —to show the reader others’ lives, and show readers what life was like for people whose experiences and communities were possibly very different from their own. Admittedly, a couple of these later works were about offenders but most were not, though in all these various works that were not ostensibly about offenders Parker did invariably include interviews with at least one or two characters who had been in prison or in reform school at some time or other in their past. In an article published in the British Journal of Criminology, Mike Nellis states, “This was always Parker’s point: no society’s picture of itself is ever honest if it leaves out the voices of its criminals” (Nellis 2000, p. 524).

Lyn Smith reveals that Parker’s aims in interviewing were “always directed at producing books forged from the interview material,” and he never interviewed people for any other reason (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …”1999, p. 244). In relation to his informants, in all his various works, Parker saw his writing as a way to give people and communities on the margins of society a voice: all Parker’s informants were people who “were never heard, social pariahs often who seldom had the chance to express what they felt inside” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 247). In relation to his readers, Parker’s stated purpose in writing was to show the ordinary man in the street to the ordinary man in the street. Margery Parker once said about her husband, “His dream was […] that if people listened to these [others] and saw them as real human beings and not stereotypes, it would somehow help a more liberal and understanding attitude develop towards them” (Marjorie Parker, qtd. in Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 253).

Works cited

Graef, Roger. “Courage and convictions” in The Guardian, Tuesday, 25 January, 1996, p.18. “Obituaries for Tony Parker, 1996. The Guardian, Roger Graef.” 24 January 2012. Homage to Tony Parker: Obituaries for Tony Paker, October … Web. 10 Nov. 2014.…

—.   “Tony Parker: 1923-1996.” Oral History Vol. 25 No. 1 Sporting Lives. (Spring, 1997)): 38-39  Web. 3 Aug. 2010

Nellis, Mike. “Criminal Conversations: An Anthology of the Works of Tony Parker. Edited by Keith Soothill (London: Routledge, 1999 )”. Rev. of Criminal Conversations: An Anthology of the Work of Tony Parker. Ed. Keith Soothill. Intro. by Terence Morris.  British Journal of Criminology Vol. 40. No. 3,  2000. p.p. 542-44. Web. 10 Sept. 2000.

Parker, Tony. Preface. The Man Inside: An Anthology of prisoners’ Writings. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1973. Print.

Smith, Lyn. “Only Listen … Some reflections on Tony Parker’s methodology.” In Criminal Conversations: An anthology of the work of Tony Parker. Ed. Keith Soothill. Introduction by Terence Morris. London: Routledge, 1999. 243-254. Print.

Soothill, Keith. “Opening Doors and Windows for Tony Parker” The British Society of Criminologists. In The British Criminology Conference: Selected Proceedings. Papers from the British Society of Criminology Conference, Leicester, Vol. 4, July, 2000. Article. Opening Doors and Windows for Tony Parker Ed. Roger Tarling. Oct. 2001. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.

Thompson, Paul.”Tony Parker: Writer and Historian interviewed by Paul Thompson.” Oral History Vol. 22: No. 2. 25th Anniversary Issue (Autumn, 1994)). 64-73. Web. 3 Aug. 2010.

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