When I first became a councillor it seemed the big issue – everywhere – was controlled parking. I found myself put onto the Regeneration and Transport Committee, where every meeting was dominated by parking issues.
As a non-driver I won’t pretend I found it anything but dull. Of course, there was a degree of being the callow youth – I’d got on the council to do things, not talk about parking. But perhaps most importantly I’d not fully understood Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum: “all politics is local.” I’d failed to appreciate that, for many many people, this was the most important issue they faced. I was lacking empathy.
Now you could argue they should have had bigger issues, and that might be a perfectly valid argument, but my youthful zeal didn’t even get there – it didn’t interest me and that was that.
I happen to think that my empathy skills are fairly good, and that I just wasn’t employing them. You would certainly think that being older and wiser I’d be much more attuned to them. But my stint of being a new man has made me realise I’m not.
For a start I’ve realised that life as a responsible parent is much much harder and more tiring than I ever expected. Having to give all your attention to a little one who isn’t quite as keen as you are on not making a mess and staying out of danger is, frankly, draining – especially as there is no break. No chat at the water cooler or 10 minutes outside for a cigarette.
And you see the world outside in a totally different light. Crossing a heavily parked street becomes a challenge as you have to navigate not only yourself but a pram safely not only across the road, but between narrow gaps between cars. Even the pavement becomes a potential mine-field when you spot dog-fouling ahead. Any trip must be planned meticulously and contingencies prepared.
And even where buildings are suitable they aren’t necessarily thought through; yesterday I realised it was going to be much easier to drag a pram down the steps of the Post Office than fight my way through the huge queue to get to the step-free exit. Given that there is always a huge queue there I suspect this is a decision that has to be taken regularly.
I would hasten to add that this isn’t just about seeing the bad that people face. I was surprised to get multiple hellos from other pram-pushers I passed, something I would never have got if I had been walking past as a single man. There’s clearly a camaraderie – if not a community – between Battersea’s stay-at-home parents. Sadly I know that my gender and lack of enthusiasm for NCT classes precludes me from full participation in lunchtime gatherings at baby friendly cafés.
And this brings me to cycling. A few weeks ago I was invited to attend some cycle training by the Wandsworth Cycling Campaign. The idea being that if they can educate ‘Movers and Shakers’ (links to a PDF file) about the needs and concerns of cyclists then those needs and concerns are more likely to be addressed in policy-making.
My initial reaction wasn’t eagerness. I know little of cycling but I do know some key facts: I know traffic lights don’t seem to apply to bikes in the same way they do to cars and pedestrians; I know that no man looks good in a cycling helmet; I know that the one time I rode a bike in the last 20 years it left a part of my body (of which I know the medical name but modesty forbids me repeating here) hurting for two days afterwards.
But after the revelation that my empathy needs brushing up, perhaps I should put my ignorance, vanity and perineum (there, I said it, happy?) to the test – if only to remind myself that putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t always as easy, natural or straightforward as you might think.