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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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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 been affected by the Troubles. Among his many books, one in particular stands out. In The People of Providence (1983), Parker took his ‘infernal machine’ (as one interviewee dubbed it) to the residents of an unnamed south London housing estate, and the resulting work has stayed in print for most of the twenty-odd years since. The People of Providence is an antidote for anyone – and that means all of us – who has ever been tempted to generalize about the human condition. In fifty interviews Parker met residents who loathed the estate as well as those who absolutely loved it (‘It’s the nearest to heaven I’ll ever get’). He talked to a self-satisfied local councillor, a 12-year-old from a dodgy street gang, a gay man living with his partner, a heavy-drinking single mother, a middle-aged woman acting as a fence for stolen goods, a couple from Antigua who were ‘deep down happy’ with the estate, a lonely night cleaner contemplating ‘an end 16 floors below’, a teacher with an illegitimate child, a widow whose young son had a terminal illness . . . And a part-time prostitute who beat up her kids:
Men are bastards, all of them; I’ve never met one who wasn’t. I hate them all; they think you must like men to do what I do, but I don’t and that’s God’s truth . . . Now you know about me. I’m not crying, I never cry, and I don’t feel sorry for myself . . .
And a disabled 70-year-old who despised the social services and was confined to her flat:
Last night I had a dream, I dreamed I was out shopping. I was along the precinct there at Robins Walk, I was walking about and people were coming up and speaking to me and chatting, it was lovely. Then I woke up and found it was all a dream, I started to cry . . .
And a resourceful pensioner who, after his wife’s death, found comfort in the arms of other ladies on the estate:
I usually say something like ‘Well shall we try it and see how it goes, and if you don’t like it we’ll not go on with it’. But there’s not many that don’t . . . I suppose there must be about twelve or so ladies that we’re on that kind of terms together. Most of them like myself belong to the church . . .
One of the interviews involved a shy 78-year-old man who had recently been in and out of hospital. Unwittingly, the man painted a bleak picture of his past:
I have had a very long life and if you were to ask me, I’d say it had been rather a poor one. I mean poor financially . . . but poor in other ways too. My life has not been a very interesting one . . . I never had a trade, which means I never had good jobs . . . And an equally bleak picture of his present: I find different things to do each day . . . Tuesdays is my shopping day . . . I go to the Co-op in Tullbrook Road because things are cheaper there. They are good for people on their own like myself. You can buy say one chop if you want to. They have cheese in small pieces that big, and you can buy two eggs at a time.
So far, so unexceptional. But in Parker-land, surprises come up out of the ground to smack you on the forehead. Out of the blue, the old man says:
If I could go back and start again and have an education, with my education that I had I’d like to have been a ballet dancer . . . once on a Sunday afternoon last year I saw a film on television, it was about a man who is a world-famous ballet dancer, he’s got a name like Newrack. It was wonderful to watch him, the way he danced was beautiful. Of course I never could have done it the way he did, but that’s what I would have liked to have done . . . whenever there’s music from the ballet on the radio I make sure I listen to it. The one I like best is called Sylvia Deeds or some name like that. I asked them at the shop once where I get my tapes if they had a tape with that music on it but they didn’t, the girl said she’d never heard of it . . .
At their first meeting, the man had told Parker ‘I’ve never been married, I’m single.’ During their last, he said:
It was just after the First World War . . . I was married for two years, then one day I came home and there was a note on the table to say she had left me and wasn’t coming back. She had taken her clothes and shoes . . . it was a big shock, it was like getting a slap in the face. It’s such a long time ago now, but I believe her name was either Cora or Connie, one of those. I hadn’t thought about her for years and years . . .
My wife and I once held a dinner party during which guests read out sections from The People of Providence. At the end of this particular item, several people in the room found themselves unable to speak. I feel like that even now, every time I read it. Later, I saw a series of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads on television, and dispatched the same extract to him, in what was only the second letter I had ever written to an author. I asked if he knew the book, which held up a real-life mirror to his own, written monologues. He took the trouble to reply, with a message written on a postcard in (a Bennett touch) real ink. As luck would have it heavy rain was falling when the postman delivered, and Bennett’s card arrived with the writing weeping down it, as in the goodbye letter from Ingrid Bergman received by Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Bennett wrote that he’d bought The People of Providence but not read it, though he would now do so. He said the extract I’d sent was ‘so full of yearning that it seemed almost far-fetched’. What about those questions from the critics? Is the tape-recording malarkey to be regarded as proper authorship? Is it ‘art’? Parker’s contribution to his many books is so self-effacing as to be almost invisible. (Come to that, try finding any personal details about the man on the Internet.) The influence of the ‘author’ can only be assumed, from the quality of the texts themselves. I suppose it is exercised in two ways. First, he wins the confidence of interviewees by his sympathy and understanding, and his persistence over what is often a large number of visits. Second, he selects the most interesting and relevant sections from the recordings, and orders them to achieve maximum impact. We are often told: ‘Everyone has a book in them.’ In Parker’s hands, this unlikely aspiration actually comes to pass. He quarries the thoughts of the common man, the society outcasts, the so-called ‘inarticulate masses’, and alchemizes them into a coherent, almost poetic form of expression. Not bad going for a man who is best known for switching on a tape-recorder.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © David Spiller 2008


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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