Friday Book: A vital tale of good and evil

The Good Listener: Helen Bamber, A Life Against Cruelty By Neil Belton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
WE ASK only why bad things happen, not why good ones do. Volumes are written about the causes of war, disease and despair; no one asks about the causes of peace, health and happiness. Yet surely these are much more elusive.

The same is true of moral good and evil. In times of disaster, people are not prepared for the redness in tooth and claw of human nature. Some of the greatest books of our century, such as those by Primo Levi, are anguished meditations on how its evils were possible. Brave writers such as Gitta Sereny take up that bafflement, and ask how an ordinary man like Franz Stangl, or a child like Mary Bell, could have committed such horrifying crimes.

Yet extreme good is as rare as extreme evil, although this, too, is rarely noticed. I cannot think of another book that asks the obverse of the Sereny question. What makes someone want to do extreme good? That is what Neil Belton's book does, which makes it most unusual and most valuable.

The Good Listener not only asks the question but also answers it, very convincingly, about Helen Bamber. She was born in London in 1925. Her paternal grandparents, who may have been illegal immigrants, had come to England 30 years before, after wanderings from Poland to America and back. Her father, Louis, recalled pogroms in an east European childhood, which may or may not have been real. However it happened, Louis was infected with a fearfulness, a sense of menace that destroyed his life and nearly destroyed his daughter's.

From the moment that he read Mein Kampf he believed every word of Hitler's threats to the Jews. He became obsessed with the horrors of war and extermination even before they happened. He was a visionary overwhelmed by his vision. He wrote about it endlessly, but privately; and talked about it endlessly to his only child. From the time she was nine or ten, Helen was afraid of a Nazi invasion.

Her mother, a conventional, fun-loving woman, was driven to extremes of frivolity by his depression. Louis's parents and brothers never mentioned the past, but suffered from it equally. Helen was a child without a childhood: peacemaker, negotiator, listener. And so she would remain. She took on her father's burden - but was determined not to let it crush her. He wanted to change everything, could change nothing, and succumbed to despair. She resolved "to work with some, instead of despairing about them all".

In 1945 she went to Belsen with the Jewish Relief Fund. For several years she worked with children from the camps - the "Boys" of Martin Gilbert's recent book, about whom we get a grimmer but more touching picture here. She married and had two sons.

She became involved with a campaigner against cruelty in medicine, Maurice Pappworth - the greatest influence on her after her father. Soon after its founding in 1961, she joined Amnesty International. In the Seventies, in particular because of Chile, she began to concentrate on cases of torture. In 1985, she and her co-workers set up the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, a splendid organisation about whose daily work it is almost impossible to read.

This is an essential story, well and sensitively told. There are difficulties: Belton is honest about the cost to Bamber's own marriage and children - a vital part of the question about doing extreme good. But the Bambers are all still alive; it is not possible, therefore, to be as open as we need. To me, at least, the fascination and importance of this book lie in its question - in effect, its first half.

Perhaps all biography suffers from this problem: that the journey, not the arrival, matters. Belton tells us some of Bamber's worst cases instead, and the problems multiply. We lose sight of Bamber altogether, so that the second half is suddenly like a different book. The writing sometimes strains for effect - which is natural in such an incommunicable subject as torture but, like so much that comes naturally in unnatural situations, wrong. Worst of all, in reading about torture there is no appropriate response. Your emotion is useless, like Helen's father's. So put it to use instead.

When you have read about James Mubiru or "Mehmet", both of whom had been grossly tortured yet had to fight for years to have their asylum applications accepted, you will surely agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury that we should be more humane to the stranger at our door. Even so-called "economic migrants" are not criminals but the poor of the earth, who merely wish to work.

To them, too, we should be more humane. At the very least, we should not lock them up in detention centres or prisons. The new bill on asylum seekers, "Fairer, Faster, Firmer", goes before Parliament soon. Write to your MP and ask him to make sure that it really will be fairer.

Carole Angier