This time, it's Gitta Sereny who gets grilled

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The Independent Culture
The best programme for years went out last Sunday morning. Gitta Sereny was In the Psychiatrist's Chair (R4) and her conversation with Dr Anthony Clare was instructive and challenging.

Sereny has long been considered an expert on the Third Reich. Her books on Stangl (of Treblinka), and on Hitler's architect and protege Albert Speer established her as capable of investigating the motivation of Nazis, and bold enough to try. Not only was she meticulous in her research: she had herself lived in Austria throughout those years, in horribly close proximity to their victims. She heard - and admits to having been alarmingly excited by - Hitler's rhetoric; she worked with displaced children at the beginning of the war and, later, with the child survivors of Dachau. Her credentials are formidable.

Then she wrote a book about Mary Bell, the child of 11 who murdered two little boys she hardly knew. Fame, for Sereny, became notoriety as the tabloids zoomed in to condemn. How dared she condone a murderess? What about the victims' parents? Mary Bell's own daughter? What terrible damage had she done?

Clare approached his subject, as always, politely, with traditional questions about her own childhood. She was dismissive: it was not interesting. Her Hungarian father died when she was two, her Viennese mother was a beautiful actress who did her no harm: "Nobody beat me; I was surrounded by prettiness." Soon she was voicing her strong belief that all children are born good: it is not a Freudian view, and it puzzled Clare.

Sereny insists that it is lack of interest, guidance and love that causes disaster. "Something is happening in society which leaves children very much on their own." A guiding hand is missing, she maintains; there is a loneliness which forces children ever more rapidly to the breaking-point. Suddenly, she volunteered the information that only at school in Kent did she herself receive the close attention, from a teacher, which allowed her to love someone worth loving - and so redeemed her.

She believes in redemption. Mary Bell is redeemed, she says, by the love she bears for her remarkable daughter: it undid some of the damage, though Bell is still full of guilt and self- hatred. And Sereny, though clearly shaken by her vilification, is standing by her. Asked about the pain inflicted on the mother of one of the boys, she said, "What could I have done more for Mrs Richardson than to show her the unhappiness of this girl who killed her child? Maybe, one day, she will read the book. She will learn that nobody - apart from herself - suffers more than Mary Bell."

This was a sophisticated conversation between two people in the same business, each determined to investigate and discuss the sources of human frailty. The listener - the eavesdropper - learned that to understand is, indeed, to forgive. Or to redeem: "If we don't believe in redemption", said this wise and weary woman, "we are lost."

Not everyone's laundry bag

You could argue that John Peel is the poor man's Anthony Clare. Of all James Boyle's innovations, few divide R4's listeners as much as his Home Truths. It is, according to its presenter, the programme that says "Yes! to insensitive probing into areas of your life that would be better left unprobed". According to his correspondent, one Andrew Mason, "It shines out like a burning fart in the dark dormitory that is radio today." According to several of my correspondents, it is intolerable.

It's a laundry-bag. Any old listener can toss dirty clothes in and watch them being mangled. Peel's own family provide the regular components in the wash - the dirty socks, if you like. Last week, his wife's sister was in there, for making swede wine - "the most disgusting substance I have ever voluntarily introduced into my body" - and his graduate son Matthew, who has returned home hoping to live cheaply, and his dog Bridget, who peed on the floor. He himself has lost weight so that he can drop his trousers without undoing them. Gosh.

With such an example, no wonder the punters hurl in their undies. They confess to all kinds of aberrations, from a passion for slugs to living on bread and apples. Sometimes a fine, witty contributor like Anne Enright adds a little classy Irish linen; sometimes the whole thing is doused in apple-blossom scented conditioner, with tales of long-lost relatives, newly-reunited.

For my money, the resurgent acerbity of Peel's own spin generally saves it, just as you begin to despair. But it's his show, and everything depends on whether or not you like him. I do, and that's my tragedy. I also do the washing in our house.

Power conductor

A new R3 series started defiantly yesterday afternoon. It concerns a tyrannical conductor but, "whatever you think of him", says his biographer Richard Osborne, "he was certainly interesting". The Other Karajan was a small child, holidaying on an Adriatic island, when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in neighbouring Sarajevo. As he watched the Archduke's funeral convoy cross the horizon, the adults spoke of war, and he noticed that they were afraid.

Osborne maintains that a horror of war and a determination to resist it remained with Herbert von Karajan all his life. He illustrates the ways in which this attitude informed both the music he performed and his view of the world. The series is not strictly chronological - but it's worth catching.

Music chosen from Karajan's recordings:

Holst: "Mars", The Planets

Telke: Alte Kamaraden

Sontag: Niebelungen-Marsch

Wagner-Regeny: The Burghers of Calais

Bruckner: Eighth Symphony

Bizet: Carmen

Shostakovitch: Tenth Symphony

Honegger: Third Symphony.