I’ve had the mixed blessing of having to go into work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. I am obviously luckier than some to have a job but that offered me no protection against the envy I felt towards those working from home. As reduced timetables pushed my daily commute to nearly two-and-a-half hours combined with my pre-existing belief that I am more productive working from home I would trek into work, grumbling about work-life balance, as I passed other people taking advantage of their reclaimed travel travel time by going for a run or a stroll.

It was almost inevitable I would start cycling in. First of all with a borrowed Brompton which I’d use to miss a few stations at the beginning and end of the commute as I built up to using my hefty old bike that would creak and groan as I finessed my form and route to get the daily travel time well under two hours. And I enjoyed it.

Even during this summer’s heatwave I would cycle to and from work, taking it a little easier in the morning to try not to get too sweaty but making it a little more challenging on the way home. I would set little goals. Try to stay in higher gears a bit longer uphill, have secret races with cars that could clearly beat me on the straight but had to slow right down for traffic calming. I’d obsess over segments on Strava, usually wondering why it was so slow when I’d felt so quick. It all added to the enjoyment.

When it wasn’t a fair-weather thing, and I found myself opting for the bike knowing I’d have a headwind the whole way or that I’d get soaked in the rain, I felt I had become a proper cyclist. I was just enjoying it.

And then I stopped enjoying it. I don’t know exactly when. But at some stage I realised I’d not had a moment’s pleasure while cycling for a while. It had changed. No longer free and fun, it had become more stressful. The secret races with cars morphed into constant threat assessment. Do they know I’m here? Are they really going to try to turn left just in front of me? Did they really need to pass so aggressively? And the journey got slower as cars blocked cycle-lanes using them to peek out so they could turn, or drove close to the curb preventing cyclists getting to the head of the line at lights. While I optimistically assume that most of this was unintentional, rather than anti-cyclist, behaviour there isn’t much room for nuance when competing against one-and-a-half tonnes of car.

Looking for an upside I only had one incident of abuse, but that’s probably because that’s mainly reserved for women.

It was also quite notable that it felt distinctly worse cycling in Wandsworth (my commute would take in four boroughs). I don’t know if this was something to do with the nature of Wandsworth drivers or the transport policy in Wandsworth Council. My previous experience suggests the latter, although the recent entitled outcries by drivers aggrieved at cyclist-friendly policies might suggest the former has a part to play as well. It was both sad and sadly predictable that Wandsworth, in so many ways a like a discount version of the current government, would u-turn on its attempts at rebalancing streets in favour of pedestrians and cyclists.

I do, of course, get why people would want to drive. Public transport is filling up and might not feel safe. Time tables are still restricted. Buses a split between schools and everyone else. But the pressures on people to get back to work to save Pret A Manger are there. I get that there are a mix of motivations and that while there are undoubtedly some who fervently believe in their God-given right to drive an over-sized 4×4 on narrow urban stress most are probably just doing what they think is right. And perhaps they are, it’s quite hard to know what is right when the current rules are that you should work from home except that you should go to work but never be with more than six people unless there’s money involved because it’s a shop or a pub when you should wear a face covering apart from when you shouldn’t.

It is just another example of mismanagement, both nationally and locally, the pandemic and its consequences. It just feels a shame that having seen so many benefits of a city with fewer cars bring air and noise pollution we are so desperate lose them all. It does, I suppose, just add one more reason why I rather like home-working.

Shamefully not something I’ll be doing. But the Wandsworth Cycling Campaign will be beating the bounds of Wandsworth this Saturday.

Beating the bounds is an old tradition of, literally, walking around the border of a parish. A few years ago Jim Maddan, while serving as Mayor of Wandsworth, revived the tradition by walking the 25 or so miles around the borough.

It is, for the most part, a lovely route, taking in a good stretch of the river and passing through or by several parks and commons. The ride starts from St Mary’s Church, Putney, at 10.00am for more details, download the PDF leafet or visit Bryony Evens’ blog, Living Adventurously where she’s detailing her trips around all 33 London boroughs.

And if you’re wondering why I’m not doing it, it because despite a great start my cycling experience was ended by the shed, where the bike now lives – an object lesson for me, because the actual cycling wasn’t a problem, it’s the hassle of unlocking and relocking doors and sheds for those short, bike-able, journeys. Like so many things in life the best way to encourage good behaviour is to simply remove all the barriers.

Fairy cake and a cup of teaIt seems to have been an oddly quiet week.

Regeneration and Community Safety OSC (well, cycling)
I posted about the meeting the following day, so will not repeat the points. Except, rather smugly, to point out that I cycled to the meeting. I’m rather pleased that I’ve been managing to keep the cycling up – and am finding it an interesting experiment.

Last Monday was the first time I saw some really bad driving. Hitherto I’ve found other road users considerate, much to my surprise. There had been a few annoyances, but nothing major. However on Monday I found myself braking as a car turned left right in front of me and being nudged into the back of the bus by someone who didn’t want to give me any room. Perhaps worst was the driver who ostentatiously pulled into the oncoming lane to pass while pointedly accelerating then swerving rapidly to avoid a head-on collision with cars coming the other way.

My other cycling experiences have all been positive, and I’m going to carry on, but a salutary lesson that it isn’t all good!

Oxford Circus and Balham
It’s mischief and a little childish. But I really enjoyed the whole Oxford Circus and Balham episode. I think what made it sweeter, however, was that Westminster responded. As far as I’m aware the conversation was a few people with Balham connections tweeting about the crossings there. I don’t think anyone was really seriously suggesting Balham and Oxford Circus were the same.

The episode got picked up in a few places. I know the Municipal Journal ran it. The Guardian’s Dave Hill mentioned it and I understand the Local Government Chronicle have also featured my apology blogpost.

Alertbox in Northcote Road
This morning saw a formal launch for AlertBox in Northcote Road. AlertBox is a remarkably simple system that connects retailers and allows them to alert each other to potential problems – for example if they spotted a shoplifter – and to call for help if needed.

The system already runs in Southfields and Tooting where many shopkeepers rave about it.

The installation in Northcote Road was funded by the council and Battersea Crime Prevention Panel, with the technical support coming from the Community Safety Division.

Weekend events
This weekend see two major events. The first is the Battersea Park fireworks on Saturday. The display has always been one of London’s best and I hope the weather holds out to make it another successful year.

The second are the Remembrance Day services on Sunday. The two ‘civic’ services are at St Mary’s in Battersea and St Mary’s Putney. But there are other services taking place across the borough.

Battersea Park treeSo, for this week’s collection of odds and ends. This week’s photo doesn’t really have any artistic merit – composition and exposure could be better – but it is from Battersea Park where autumn is making itself known. The park really is beautiful at this time of year, and almost magical if you see the early morning mist, and that attracts me to the photo.

I’ve become an unlikely cycling enthusiast this week, surprising even myself by my desire to use the bike following last week’s training. It has, so far, been an interesting experience and one that really validates the purpose of the scheme – empathy is all well and good, but putting yourself in the position is much better. I intend to write a little about it as time progresses. But it also makes me think I need to look out for more opportunities to try new things for myself.

Keeping to the cycling theme I managed to cycle to two of my three trips to the Town Hall this week! The first was:

Local Strategic Partnership
The Local Strategic Partnership (LSP) is the partnership of partnerships in Wandsworth. It has members from the council, police, health service, business and voluntary sectors and it responsible for the high level direction Wandsworth takes.

I was first made a member in 2006 (after a short period as a deputy member) and will not deny that it was not my favourite meeting. However, shortly after I joined the membership was changed and the meetings became far more productive and far more harmonious. I hope that will show in the Corporate Area Assessment report when published.

Full council
The second cycling meeting. And not a terribly interesting one. Most of the evening was consensual. The only real debate was over aircraft noise and Heathrow expansion (something the council has long campaigned against). Even there the Labour Party agreed with us, but then somehow voted against. So they support campaigns against airport expansion, but don’t. I confess I don’t understand the logic, but as long as they can justify it to the electorate I suppose that’s what matters.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
Tuesday saw the first meeting of the Nine Elms Opportunity Board (with the great acronym NEOB). Actually the body has existed for a long time under the name Power Station Opportunity Board but has recently been expanded to include more of the major developers from the Nine Elms area. NEOB’s role is to make sure we get all we can out of the area, not only in terms of development, but also in opportunities for local residents.

It is an incredibly exciting time for the area, which is central London’s largest opportunity zone and things are, hopefully, finally starting to move. The US Embassy’s decision may have been a major coup, but New Covent Garden Market are starting consulting on their redevelopment and the Power Station put in their planning application (which fill two large chests) last week. I can’t wait to see how things develop.

Maurice Heaster
And finally last night saw a celebration of Maurice Heaster’s forty years on Wandsworth Council. Although being a councillor, and especially a Cabinet Member, is increasingly becoming a ‘paid job’, for over thirty of those forty years Maurice was effectively a volunteer so it really is no mean achievement to have dedicated so much of one’s life to the council and community.

It was a really good celebration of everything he has done, both on the council and outside and a pleasure to attend. It was particularly pleasing to see both parties there (even if Tony Belton was, for many people, far too pointedly political in some of his comments) recognising that, despite differences, public service is still something to celebrate.

My trainer, Rob, and me on the training session
My trainer, Rob, and me on the training session

I’m now a cyclist. The Wandsworth one-way my time trial. Lavender Hill my mountain stage.

What surprised me was the transition and how easy it was. I have referred to why I have found myself making it before.

I spent a couple of hours last Saturday being trained by Cycle Training UK courtesy of the Wandsworth Cycling Campaign (WCC). It was certainly an eye-opener. Having avoided cycling for the best part of 20 years I had no real confidence on a bike (especially in London traffic) and little understanding of the needs of cycling.

But, of course, part of the point of WCC’s ‘Movers and Shakers’ (opens a PDF) campaign is to increase awareness of cycling issues. So while before I thought it was all about cycle lanes I would personally say that facilities (like places to secure a bike) at destinations are far more important in encouraging people to cycle.

It’s obviously early days: since my training session I’ve only managed one cycling commute (to and from the Town Hall for last night’s Local Strategic Partnership meeting) but I’m intending to keep it up – at least until my savings in bus fares cover the cost of lights and helmet for my borrowed bike!

I will post on my experiences from time to time, but it seems to me that the hardest bit is over, and was remarkably easy. What should the next challenge be, the London Marathon?

My education had its highs and lows. Since I take credit for the highs (and there were a few) I should also take credit for many of the lows. But that’s not to say I didn’t see my share of bad teaching practice on my journey through the state eduction sector, from the teacher who often just didn’t show up to take a lesson, to the teacher who felt that merely reading a text book to us over the course of the academic year added value.

But it occurred to me that my first experience of bad teaching was my cycling proficiency test. I took it, like everyone else, when I was 10. Navigating myself around the various lines of my school playground, indicating to imaginary cars and swerving around fictitious obstacles. And when I was done I was told: “Now, you’ve passed – but only just. I’ll let you think about that.”

I did think about it, but never worked out what he meant. Did it mean I’d shown only just enough competence at each stage? Or did it mean I was proficient, but had shown one fatal lapse of concentration that would have had me under the wheels of a juggernaut that happened to be passing through the playground? As feedback it was useless, since it gave me no indication of what I needed to improve.

But now fate has landed me with the opportunity to learn why I was such a bad cyclist I “only just” managed to avoid killing myself in the following 8 or so years I was regularly on a bike.

I referred to the ‘Movers and Shakers’ programme a while ago. And have finally plucked up the courage to have a go. I picked up a bike I’m borrowing from a friend last night, and am feeling the pain from riding it this morning. Part of the deal is that I blog about it, hence this post and others that surely follow. My humble request is that, if you see an unsteady cyclist in Battersea Park this weekend remember it’s rude to point. Even ruder to laugh.

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.