The Tape-recorder Man

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In the mid-twentieth century a new device came into common use, enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to record and play back sounds stored on magnetic tape. Arriving some 500 years after Gutenberg, the tape-recorder nevertheless had a small part to play in the preparation of text for print. A handful of enterprising writers began using it to record interviews with people whose opinions were (they judged) of interest to the reading public. The recordings were then edited, arranged in a palatable order, and published in book form. These interviews were more detailed and accurate than anything previously thought possible, except by the most tempestuous exponents of shorthand. However, critics of the new approach soon emerged. Were the books worth having? they asked. Was this ‘art’? Was it indeed proper authorship? And if so, who were the authors: those who spoke into the tape-recorders, or those who switched them on?

Early examples of the genre soon reassured readers as to quality. In Children of Sanchez (1961), Oscar Lewis recorded the thoughts of a single poor Mexican family. Eight years later Ronald Blythe performed a similar service for the residents of an English village in Akenfield (see Slightly Foxed, No. 11). From America, one of the most celebrated instances was Studs Terkel’s Working (1972), with its explanatory sub-title, ‘People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do’.

The most seductive of all the recorder-to-print operators was a shy Mancunian called Tony Parker, who was born in 1923 and died in 1996. Over several decades Parker made a reputation for penetrating interviews with members of difficult or closed communities – prisoners, sex offenders, lighthouse keepers, soldiers, people from Northern Ireland whose lives had

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About the contributor

Is this thing working? Oh right . . . here we go. I’m David Spiller. I used to do books work for the British Council, living in places like Iraq, Egypt, India and Brazil, and wrote a standard text, Providing Materials for Library Users. In retirement I did another book about cricket, Buns, Bails and Banter. That’s all – you can switch it off now.

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