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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008
    On Terkel and Parker's Providence
     
    Maybe Studs Terkel started it for me - without me realising what 'it' was, for a very long time. In the late twentieth century United States Terkel was a great master of reportage. What made his work great, for me, was that he reported from grassroots on the issues of the day, his mission was to capture the voice of the ordinary person and his books read as transcripts of what everyday Americans told him about the things which mattered to them.

    Hence titles such as Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (1974), Race: What Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (1992), and - the one which sits on my bookshelf, paperback spine cracked through repeated reading over twenty years - The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream (1988). Terkel knew how to draw fascinating stories from all sorts of very different people, and to compile them into works of great analysis and insight. And he was most interested in giving voice to those usually most unheard.

    Terkel's work proved as powerful to me as the prose of James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an unforgettable exploration of the daily lives of sharecroppers in the American South. But in that classic it's Agee's voice you hear, mostly. The genius of Terkel is in letting the people speak.

    Closer to home I've found other writers with this great gift of letting the ordinary person speak. Edward Platt's Leadville which showcases the voices of people living on the murderous A40 Western Avenue, stood out for me recently. And then yesterday I opened The People of Providence, in which Tony Parker limits his own voice to short descriptions of the people he interviews, on a South London housing estate in 1983. The rest is them: most of the time describing what some folks might dismiss as mundane. But it's thoroughly engaging, unputdownable. And it reminds me that if I do go ahead and start six years of research into life in Liverpool 11, I've got some great role models to follow.