Joe Duffy defends the airwaves from the threat of Nazi stamp collectors

Seamus Heaney

John Byrne

The week in radio with John Byrne - Liveline (Radio 1, weekdays) and Professor Heaney (RTE Radio 1, Saturday)

You can’t kill someone with a stamp, Ian.” Or so an exasperated Joe Duffy said, on Monday’s Liveline. Of course, he said other things too. I’m not, let’s be clear, trying to imply that he barricaded himself into the studio and dementedly repeated the words “You can’t kill someone with a stamp, Ian,” over and over again for 75 minutes (as desperate RTE staff tried to kick in the door).

As a piece of absurdist performance art, that would, obviously, have been awesome. As a conventionally professional edition of Liveline, however, it would, most likely, have been deemed unsatisfactory.

Anyway, can we really be sure that you “can’t kill someone with a stamp”? What if that stamp were coated in anthrax? Or what if that stamp were actually a stamp-shaped bomb that would detonate upon coming into contact with human saliva? What then, Joe? Eh? What then?!

If Duffy had answers to such questions, he wasn’t sharing them. Opting, instead, to focus on medals, bayonets and other pointy items of militaria. The ‘Ian’ in question — the one with whom Duffy was sharing his views on the lethal capability of stamps — was Ian Whyte of Whyte’s Auctioneers.

On the show to defend a forthcoming Whyte’s auction — called The Eclectic Collector — at which pieces of Nazi/Third Reich memorabilia will be sold.

Duffy seemed particularly interested in, and concerned about, the sale of “Nazi daggers”. Was it ethical to sell such items at auction? Were such items not both physically and politically dangerous?

Whyte countered with some pretty watery points. Arguing that private collections of such material help to preserve the historical memory of an era’s atrocities, while also suggesting that the relevant collectors are merely (and dispassionately) “interested in the historical aspect”.

He also pointed out that Whyte’s had previously — and without adverse reaction — auctioned off Hitler-related stamps (the observation that provoked Duffy’s aforementioned comment).

Most shows would have rattled through the controversy (such as it was) in short-ish order, but Liveline is — in terms of its commitment to drag the arse out of things — a show like few others. And so we had the bones of an hour devoted to the story on Monday, with a further 17 minutes the following day.

Not that this wasn’t a potentially fascinating topic. There’s much that could be said about the undiminished potency of Nazi iconography and design, and the disturbingly fetishistic attraction some enthusiasts seem to have for it. But this two-day Liveline discussion didn’t offer all that much beyond the superficial.

We heard from Peter, in Switzerland, who considered the “selling [of] this memorabilia” to be an “insult” to the memory of victims of Nazism.

We heard from Paul Gilroy, who spoke of the “rise of neo-Nazi parties throughout Europe” and warned of “the evil symbolic value of these items”. And we heard (from another Paul) about local World War II reenactors who would have “no problem” spending “€15,000 on an SS jacket.”

The most meaningful contributions came, unsurprisingly, from Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental — the subject of Gerry Gregg’s recent documentary Close to Evil (which aired, last week, on RTE 2).

“To me this is quite repulsive that these things are on the market,” Reichental said, suggesting that those who “actually buy this stuff... probably are still kind of sympathisers” (something Whyte strongly denied).

“They should be for museums, not for private houses,” Reichental added, arguing that proper context and sensitive display were crucial to ensure such objects didn’t become ghoulish collectibles or curiosities.

RTE continued its celebration of the life and career of Seamus Heaney (a year on from his death) with part one of Professor Heaney. “We know so much of the poet Heaney,” said presenter John Kelly, “but what do we know of Seamus Heaney the scholar, the mentor, the teacher?” The answer, in my case at least, was “Next to nothing,” so the opportunity to partially redress that ignorance was welcome.

In this first part, Kelly travelled, with Seamus’s son Mick, to Harvard — a University the Heaneys first visited in the late 1970s. Mick recalled being struck by “the cars, the burger joints, the many television channels,” and we heard delightful archival audio (from 1979) of Seamus speaking of the “childish pleasure” he was getting from “the gadgetry and the computerised things”.

“You play wee tunes with the buttons,” said Seamus, “you obey all that the computer tells you and... a mouth opens and hands you out nice crisp notes.” The best, most enchanting description of an ATM machine there is, was, or ever will be.