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Books: Talking Terkel

Paul Barker hails the man who gave America its voice
Studs Terkel: a life in words by Tony Parker, HarperCollins, pounds 18

Studs Terkel is the great chronicler of the underdog. In books such as Division Street: America, The Great Divide and Hard Times, he demonstrates what the art of the interview can achieve in a master's hands, "giving voice to the voices of those we never hear".

His nearest British equivalent was Tony Parker, who died last October as this book was going to press. Another magician of the tape-recorder, Parker chronicled not only underdogs (in The People of Providence, for example, about a South London housing estate), but also those most people would write off as mad dogs: murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

Here, he reflexively turns Terkel's technique back on himself as he tries to capture, through interviews, the essence of an interviewer. It is like a barber holding up one mirror behind you, so you see more of yourself in the mirror in front.

A photograph of Parker with Terkel shows better than any words that no two masters of this art are alike. Parker is quiet, reserved, smiling apprehensively, very English. Terkel is joking, hardly holding back his laughter, gesticulating with the hand that till recently always held a stubby cigar, every inch the Chicagoan. When Terkel is not interviewing, he never stops talking - "a cascade of words," one man tells Parker. Going down the corridor at his Chicago radio station, WFNT (a halfway house between Classic FM and Radio Three), Terkel holds forth to the empty air. His colleagues even overhear him arguing with himself on the lavatory. But, like Parker, he has the interviewer's great talent: knowing when to shut up.

Both want to bring the other person out, not to demonstrate their own cleverness. Encouragingly for all technophobes, Terkel is not even very clever with a tape-recorder. He praises "the benefits of ineptitude." This "little old guy," he says, wants to interview you, "and he can't even work his tape-recorder", so why be frightened of him?

Terkel's cascade of words away from the microphone implies that a brilliant interviewer exploits, and controls, a kind of schizophrenia. Even Parker finds it hard to get below the public surface to the private man.

Terkel says that, in his radio interviews and books, he prefers to avoid people who have grown a protective "carapace" - notably politicians and actors. But Terkel began as an actor, and still sees himself as one. His first part was in the classic 1930s fellow-traveller play, Clifford Odets's Waiting for Lefty.

John Kenneth Galbraith, interviewed here, says rightly that Terkel "is one of the great figures of our time." But his enemies on the right say he just replays old "left-wing Popular Front melodies." Terkel was 17 when Wall Street crashed in 1929; his parents were struggling immigrant Jews. Later, his name was given to the Un-American Activities Committee by someone in Hollywood. (Was it Odets himself, who did name names?)

The Chicago Tribune wouldn't even put his radio programme in its listings. Work faded away. His FBI file, reprinted here, shows nothing except the comment from a former teacher that "he was not the best type of boy." Terkel named no names. He made a joke of blackballing, according to a journalist friend, and just "played the clown."

None of this can have been easy. Hints of darkness ring the apparently happy life, like an inverted aureole. Parker observes how Terkel twists rubber bands around his wrist as he talks. When his beloved wife is ill in hospital, he weeps; but he tells Parker he could never say "that simple thing, `I love you'", even to her.

Terkel's mother seems to have been a frightening figure, as she struggled to run a cheap hotel and keep the family's head above water. His life as an observer began when he was handing out keys in the lobby to salesmen and petty hoodlums. Terkel's only son, Paul, has changed his name to avoid any link with his father. He lives a life as isolated as his father's is gregarious.

"In a city with a population of three million people," another friend says, "Studs must know 2,999,999, and the only reason he doesn't know the other one is they've never happened to ride the same bus together." (Terkel doesn't drive.) If you were from out of town, in the old days, they took you to see the Chicago stockyards, but now "they take you to introduce you to Studs Terkel."

At 84, Terkel still loves words, and lives by them. This book is as close to the man as we are ever likely to get. Tony Parker describes it as "a profound salute" to one who has made living history out of American memories. It is a salute, also, to Parker's deeply humane sympathies.