Tony Parker: glimpses of the man and the writer

At the beginning of every interview, Tony Parker, a man of strong personal principles and self-imposed ethics, informed his subjects on tape that their privacy would be respected. Other than for a couple of his works on offenders that use a single informant—such as The Courage of His Convictions, for example—Parker masked his subjects’ identities, and at the start of the interviews he also guaranteed on tape that “on completion of the book that the [interview] tapes would be wiped clean” (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 291-93; Lyn Smith “Only Listen …”, p. 245). Parker’s wife, Margery, once said that with Parker, it was “an absolute condition” of all his books: “It wasn’t imposed by anyone else, it was his condition when he started interviewing. ‘If I’m going to ask you to tell me about yourself, I can assure you that no-one else will … you won’t be identifiable in any way.’ And this was very important” (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 291).

From the outset, Parker made it clear to his informants that no money would exchange hands, they would not be paid for their interviews. Parker felt that if money came into it, the informants might feel “tempted to exaggerate or invent”: “He needed to convince” every one of his interviewees that he was meeting them “on absolutely equal terms, in a spirit of openness with no pre-conceived ideas,” and “he would also make it clear that until he had gathered all his material, he could not guarantee that they would feature in the book at all” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 245). Margery Parker explained: “His main concern was to put them fully into the picture and not take advantage of them” (Margery Parker qtd. in Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 245).

Parker was, in his own way, a perfectionist. When dealing with books on community and groups that contained several voices (with a range of people), Parker “juxtaposed” people, “grouping them into a shape and structure,” and he said that if he “got this right,” the reader would find the work enjoyable and “be kept fully engaged”: “He always maintained that the shape would grow out of the material itself,” but it was sometimes a struggle to “to get his ‘pattern’ as he called it, worked out,” and “often a few voices would have to be discarded because they did not fit the pattern which had emerged” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 250). When crafting, Parker would choose selections from the transcripts of the interview material, edit, and then move these edited selections around to make the work readable, and to highlight the essence of his informants and their situation for the reader, but without altering what his informants had actually said in their interviews and transcripts. Lyn Smith writes that with Parker, “Getting the voice right was crucial” and he always “strove always to be faithful to the language of the informant”: he was very aware “of the distortion which can occur when the spoken word is constrained in forms of written prose,” and “was always concerned to keep the original integrity of the voice, never overshaping or inventing things that had not been said foe the sake of flow” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 249). Parker called this process “composing.” Lyn Smith discusses Parker’s methods: “He would speak as he wrote, using italics to indicate unexpected emphasis. Punctuation was almost sacred to him [he would not allow his editors to] alter one comma: a comma, after all, meant just that—a pause. He was particularly concerned with getting accents correct, resorting sometimes to phonetic spellings” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 250).

Parker was a humble man. In an interview conducted on 11-12 June 1998, Margery Parker told Lyn Smith that her husband “would say that his greatest asset [as an interviewer] was his ordinariness: he wasn’t very tall, he wasn’t all that strikingly good-looking, he hadn’t got a posh accent [or] an academic education—which he always felt a tremendous asset […]” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 248).

He was also a hard-worker. Lyn Smith notes that “the sheer amount of interviews for any one book meant a huge cost” not only in “terms of travel, time and money,” but also in personal effort: “He would spend fifteen hours, spread over several weeks, with some of his informants [….] Yet this, he maintained, was the easy part. The really hard work was ahead [….] The first stage in writing the books was transcribing the interviews” (Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 249). In the interview of 11-12 June 1998 with Lyn Smith, Margery Parker said, “Tony always used to say, ‘It’s bloody hard work, actually, the transcribing [of the interview tapes for a book]. It’s not easy—you just don’t copy out what’s there.’ It takes […] a lot of concentration [.…] The first interview is so rambling […] muddled in places, and people switch and change” as happens in an interview, and “he used to give talks to people on writing and list the essentials for writing, and the first one was the waste-paper basket” (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p.p. 291-92)

Margery Parker showed the interviewer (Lyn Smith) a final draft of one of Parker’s books, rare because it was Parker’s practise to destroy the drafts once the book was published:

It is the version which would have gone to the publishers, and—though typed—it looks like a Dickens manuscript, crossed and recrossed with lines, revisions, brackets, additions, asterisk, footnotes and reminders to the editor. Not one word of any original interview has been altered, but immense care and work has gone into ensuring that the speaker’s words flow perfectly without compromising the way that they speak. ‘They all looked like by the time they went into the publisher,’ explains Margery […]. (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p.p. 291-92)

Margery Parker also gave the interviewer access to one of Parker’s few extant notebooks, a true example of all his notebooks (and which also gives a fair indication of Parker’s observance to detail and his quest for exactness), “containing page after page of little scribbled phrases, set out line by line almost like poetry”: Margery Parker explained, “‘He’s trying to get the rhythm in his mind and get it right. People don’t talk in a straight line with punctuation or anything like that. And he marks pauses,” hesitations, how many times a speaker hesitated, and repetitions of speech and which he called characterisations: “The little things were very important” (Bathurst, Afterword 2006, p. 292).

Below, are excerpts from Roger Graef’s Obituary for Tony Parker, titled “Courage and Conviction,” written in 1996, which, my apologies to Roger Graef (to date, my attempts to contact him have been unsuccessful), I lifted from the web, from The Guardian (Web. 10 Nov. 2014), and which allow one a glimpse of Tony Parker, the man behind the scenes, and what he was like as a person:

Tony Parker […] 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 [….] 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. (The Guardian, 5 Oct. 1996, p. 18, and 24 Jan. 2012)

Lyn Smith reports that in an interview, Margery Parker said:

I always thought he [Tony] had a lot of the Quaker concept of ‘concern’. There was no doubt that some of the appalling things [some of his informants had done or told him about] left him feeling very sad and upset, and he would feel concern for the victims, but beyond that he felt profound compassion for the offenders. Somehow by sheer force of personality, this [compassion] was conveyed to those he interviewed [….] He would always say that the important thing is simply being able to convey to people that you are genuinely interested, and he was interested, and I think this was the key. He wasn’t just another interviewer coming up—of course men in prison would have been interviewed hundreds of times—and he was a man who really wanted to listen to them; and he could listen. (Margery Parker qtd. in Lyn Smith “Only Listen …” 1999, p. 248).

Works cited

Bathurst, Bella. Afterword. In Lighthouse. By Tony Parker. London: Eland, 2006. p.p. 289-296. 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. p.p. 243-254. Print.

The Guardian. “Obituaries for Tony Parker, October 1996. The Guardian, Roger Graef: The Guardian 5/10/1996, Obituary, p18. Roger Graef: Courage and Convictions.” Tuesday, 24 January 2012. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Homage to Tony Parker: Obituaries for Tony Parker, October …
http://homagetotonyparker.blogspot.com/2012/01/obituaries-for-tony-parker…

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