For years - it seemed like centuries - Down Your Way pottered around the country inspecting towns and villages and subjecting locals to benign, if bemused, enquiry. When it finally fell over its zimmer-frame, copy- cats pounced, often hosted by mildly fatuous, slightly famous people. Michael Portillo, God help us, had a go a week or two back, when he returned to the linoleum factory of his youth and recalled the major traumatic event of his childhood: meeting a jellyfish (there is no record of the effect of this encounter on the fish). These things are radio tapioca - a taste once tentatively acquired, now generally eschewed.
Yet Snobs etc was different. Perhaps because Coles interviewed his own father, a cheerful cove who knew his stuff; perhaps because the decline of the Northampton shoe-trade suited the nostalgic spirit of such features - or maybe just because the vocabulary is so pleasing. A lot of rough- rounding, breast-scouring and bottom-filling went on in the days when machines were called the Upper Skiver or the Two-Row Slugger. Despite bursts of excitement accompanying desert boots, Hush Puppies and Doc Martens, Northampton now employs more people making Levis and Barclaycards than footwear, but the Coleses were philosophical; the new industries are cleaner andhealthier, and the town prospers.
All the same, local shoemakers might have done better if they'd kept up the mediaeval tradition mentioned by Coles, that of honouring St Crispin, their patron saint. The French still do, and at least one highly prestigious London shoemaker makes an annual pilgrimage to join the carousing. Wonder if he reminds them about Agincourt while he's there.
Margaret Visser, ambitiously, has chosen to tell A Tale of Six Cities (R4). The first instalment, Space, mentioned only four and made one point: in hot countries it is easier to live out of doors. Visser extolled the Ramblas in Barcelona, where citizens stroll about inspecting each other in the cool of the evening. But that is true of every southern European city, and so what? In Helsinki, people spend more time in their homes, obviously, because it's colder. Somehow, that was regarded as commendable, whereas in London it was seen as evidence of an excessive reverence for privacy. Extrovert Spaniards do not, we were told, invite people into their homes. And so these large generalisations went on crashing about, like china in a Greek restaurant: as a grateful recipient of much domestic Spanish hospitality, I found them less than helpful.
And downright irritating was a nameless, overbearing individual who condemned the English because they don't grow anything useful in their gardens. He thought we should cultivate turnips. Has this man ever tasted a turnip? They are the most disgusting and unforgiving tubers, only edible when seasoned beyond recognition and, even then, relentlessly repetitive. Whoever he was, he should be made to eat his words.
When the Scottish talk of neeps, they mean what the English call swedes, and they eat them "bashed", with haggis. Katherine Hodgson is doing one better than Margaret Visser, visiting seven countries for Just a Taste (WS) of their cooking. Her Burns Night start was challenging. In her innocence, she had thought a haggis was a little lop-sided mountain creature: the truth is that reconstituted onions and tons of spice are stirred into - brace yourself - great steaming vats of "beef trimmings" and lambs' lungs ("if it's nae got lung in it, it's nae haggis"). Oatmeal is added and the mix stuffed into a part of the large intestine of an ox, near the creature's appendix. Hodgson actually watched all this, apparently without flinching: it felt pretty heroic just to listen. By the way, if the neeps and the tatties are bashed together, it's called clapshot: just thought you should know.
Two more World Service programmes this week illustrate the buoyancy of this invaluable network. Roger Fenby makes superb, evocative and poetic documentaries and he began his series, Braving the Deeps, in Malta, at the centre of the Mediterranean. Across this much-travelled sea, the Egyptians brought cedar from the Lebanon and the Phoenicians ferried tin from Cornwall, long before farmers or shepherds worked the land. An old salt described the eyes painted on the prow of his and every Maltese fishing boat: they may once have belonged to a Greek or even a Carthaginian goddess. Nobody knows, but it's a tradition that was old when St Paul was shipwrecked off his island. Like Richard Coles, Fenby knows how to communicate a sense of place so acutely, you can almost smell it.
The best play for months was Chapter 2 (WS). It told of a divorcee and a widower, thrown together by well-meaning friends, who fall in love, marry, fall apart, and make it up. All right, that's a pretty thin story, but the combination of Neil Simon's writing, Gordon House's direction and Sharon Gless's acting was so witty, intelligent and convincing that it made for the kind of compelling listening that roots you to the spot and prevents you doing the shopping, answering the phone or even bashing your clapshot. Gless and House collaborated a couple of years ago, in the award-winning, tragic 'Night, Mother, her first radio drama. Her voice, like Judi Dench's, has a husky touch and a lovely warm colour: she's wasted on television.Reuse content