There can't be anyone on radio better qualified to slope around Hackney in the wake of the August riots than the oral historian Alan Dein.
His terrific Lives in a Landscape has been dedicated to exploring some of the hidden stories of contemporary Britain – a rich vein of exploration, from folks living in Sellafield's shadow to rural communities up in arms over the Village in Bloom competition, through to middle-aged skateboarders and a writing group for former RUC officers. But he kicked off the ninth series with a story that was flashed all round the world.
Dein walked down Hackney's Mare Street in the immediate aftermath of the riots, conveying the lingering tension: "It could be a normal day, but there's a sense of apprehension and disturbance," he said. "Most people are looking down at the pavement."
He talked to Mike, assistant manager of a big clothes shop, who was contemptuous of the rioters – as you might think, but not for the reasons you might think. "They didn't know what to go for," he said dismissively. Mostly male, "they picked up a whole table of women's jeans – women's flared jeans at that – which we couldn't sell". Flared jeans? That's rioters for you.
Mike had a follow-up story all to himself, stopped by out-of-town police on his way to work, "because I was black and I was riding a bike".
It wasn't all grim and gritty, and the story of Siva and his famously looted convenience store helped restore one's faith, if not in human nature as a whole, at least in the simple decency of ordinary people. Within days of the riots – during which Siva had the galling experience of watching his shop being invaded on live TV, only to be stopped by police on his way to try to save it – thousands had been raised by the Save Siva's Shop campaign, and it was soon open again.
"One man came with his wages and gave me £120," he said with an air of wonder. "One old lady came and gave me her pension, £150, and said: "I'm not going nowhere." What kept coming through was how nice everyone was, and the thought occurred a few times that proceedings were hardly complete without talking to a looter or two. Tricky to pull off, of course.
The work of the Dipterists Forum is exactly the kind of subject Dein might seize on, and Monday's first Bitten by the Bug, an all-week series looking at Britain's natural history societies, was charming. Dipterists, as I'm sure you're all aware, study flies – of which, it transpires, there's an astonishing variety on these shores: moth flies, for example, got a mention, and fungus gnats, and the rather splendid sounding flat-footed fly, which is bright orange, first appeared here 10 years ago and is gradually spreading up the country from the South-east towards Oxford.
The trouble with the Forum is that its members are mostly of a certain age, and there's a big push to get younger enthusiasts involved. One, the delightful Erica McAllister of the Natural History Museum, is running the Fungus Gnat Project, which the programme dropped in on. "I've actually progressed with flies," she laughed. "I started off with dung – this is a step up that my mother's no longer embarrassed about."Reuse content