Tony Parker, antithesis of the celebrity journalist

Picture: PA
Picture: PA
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TONY Parker was the best interviewer because he left his ego at the door. David Robinson hails his republication

Mention Tony Parker to anyone, and the chances are they won’t know who you are talking about. In Britain, people might get him mixed up with the film director Alan Parker, in America with a couple of basketball stars who share his name. But in his day, on this side of the Atlantic, there was no other writer like him. There still isn’t.

Criminologists might have heard of him, along with some sociologists and the occasional psychiatrist, because these days they are the only people writing at length about the lives of the marginalised. But Parker – who died in 1996 aged 73 – never went to university and wouldn’t have have thought of himself as an academic.

A journalist then? Perhaps. Certainly, he interviewed people about their lives: ordinary people, as a rule, even though they were usually pushed to the edges of society – unmarried mothers (No Man’s Land, 1972), the homeless (People of the Streets, 1968), or residents of a now-demolished south London housing estate (The People of Providence, 1983).

The last of these – Craig Brown called it “the best book I have ever read in 20 years of reviewing” – is still in print, but most of Parker’s 21 others are not. Which is why we should be grateful to Faber, who have just added 11 of them to their Faber Finds imprint dedicated to bringing back neglected classics.

Parker’s kind of journalism is the antithesis of the celebrity journalism that now overruns the media. With Parker, words alone matter: there are no photos of his interviewees, indeed most of them only talked to him on condition of anonymity. He is meticulously non-judgmental: whether talking to a murderer (Life After Life, 1990) or a paedophile (The Twisting Lane, 1969), he always keeps his own opinions out of the story. In most of the books – especially the later ones – he doesn’t even include his own questions, much less any comment or interpretation. If this is journalism, it is the most self-effacing variety ever.

Yet here’s the irony. In an age when the internet theoretically allows us to know everything about everything, there are whole swathes of our society that the media doesn’t even bother looking at and that remain dark pools of ignorance. Our most popular news website might show us pictures of celebrities showing off their beach bods or failing to hide their cellulite, but how many journalists are there out there sitting down with the desperately poor, the mentally ill, or the habitually criminal, listening hard as they talk about their lives, and then writing it all up without the faintest hint of condescension or worthiness?

That’s what Parker does in all of his books, and because today’s media has changed so radically since the time he was writing, his books have a strange freshness. In both style and content, they’re not what we’d think of as “true crime” – all those endless books about godfathers and other high-profile gangsters – indeed many of them aren’t even about crime at all. When they are, though, he tends to focus on inveterate petty criminals and habitual small-scale swindlers and the kind of murderers who never attract the headlines, precisely because these are kind of cases that we can learn the most from, because they are endemic rather than spectacular. Even more important, though, is his approach: whoever he is interviewing, Parker takes them seriously, giving them time and space to explain how they see the world, never sermonises, and always leaves it to the reader to work out whether or not rehabilitation is either possible or likely.

In that regard, Life After Life, a series of interviews with 12 murderers who have been released after serving life sentences, seems to me the quintessential Parker book: a fascinating topic, and one which any general reader should surely be interested in – have these murderers ever even tempted to reoffend and how are they rebuilding their lives? – but one which, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has ever written about in the same way. Why not?

But then I could say the same about The Unknown Citizen, Parker’s 1963 book about “Charlie Smith”, a habitual (and not very bright) small-time thief who is released after serving six years. It starts with him leaving jail at five to seven one morning with £1 2s 3d and a railcard to London in his pocket and a radio and a change of clothing in an airline bag.

For once, Parker breaks with his normal style and, based on what Smith has told him, recreates the day in the minutest detail: the adverts he saw on the station, the people he met, the telegram he sent, reply paid, from a London post office, to his sister up north asking for £3 for lodgings, the men he met in the pub while he killed time waiting for her to reply (he was told to come back at 4pm). He gets drunk, sells his clothes, gets drunker still, returns to the post office and is told there’s no reply. At seven o’clock, the transport police catch him at the far end of a platform at King’s Cross. He’s broken into a carriage, hauled out a postbag, and is rifling through its contents. He is arrested 12 hours after he was released.

A stupid, stupid, stupid crime, of course it is. But Parker has taken you so completely inside Smith’s head that you can see its inevitability, and imagine perfectly what it is like to be him. You can, if you’re the Daily Mail, say that the Charlie Smiths of this world are just low-lifes whom we should take no notice of, that the world has moved on, and that all readers want is celebrity culture. But there are Charlie Smiths all around us every day, and so far I have never knowingly met a Kardashian.

• The 11 Tony Parker books newly available from Faber Finds can be bought via their website, Prices range from £8 to £11.20