On Friday I met my MP, Bim Afolami, at one of his regular constituency surgeries in the village where I live. It was a meeting that came about after I’d emailed him a couple of months ago in response to a Tweet by the Conservative Party which said: ‘We’re cracking down on dangerous cycling.’
As I said at the time, my issue with this Tweet was that it was dogwhistling to the element of society who already feel dangerously entitled when they get in their cars and take to the roads. To certain people it’s an easy win to label cyclists as red-light-jumping Lycra louts but to anyone who is serious about improving safety for all it is obvious that the Goverment should tackle things in the order of the scale and severity of the danger they pose.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting but it was a much more open and constructive experience than I had anticipated. Dare I say it was even enjoyable. It was certainly disarming to learn that Mr Afolami is well aware of the benefits of cycling. It turns out his brother-in-law is Oli Broom, who cycled to Brisbane to watch the cricket and wrote an entertaining book about it called Cycling to the Ashes.
So I didn’t need to fall back on my prepared arguments about the benefits of the cycling industry to the economy, the impact of cycling (and walking) on people’s health and tackling obesity, or the fact that our air quality is slowly suffocating us. It seems pretty obvious to me that the more people who can be persuaded to ditch their cars, particularly for short journeys, the better for everyone.
I did, though, make my case based on my experience of riding on the roads – the terrible surfaces and poor repairs, the level of aggression from some drivers, the fact that I find it grimly ironic that my attempts to avoid main roads feels futile when so many drivers duck into the lanes and use them as cut-throughs, veering from verge to verge and seeming to be surprised when they encounter cyclists, or horse riders for that matter. If I’m supposed to get off the main roads for my own safety and the lanes resemble a round of the world rally driving championship (particularly in the morning and late afternoon), where am I supposed to ride?
Anyway, Bim – I can call him Bim now, I think – said that he was not particularly enamoured with that Tweet either and he was not surprised that it was deleted shortly afterwards. I am paraphrasing here, but he explained that after the General Election the Tories realised their use of social media had been lacking so they hired a lot more people and as a result there was perhaps less supervision or sign-off on social media messages than might be ideal. I reiterated that the use of words is important and the governing political party should be prepared to be held to account for lazy stuff like this, especially if the consequence is to justify attitudes that risk the safety of others. He didn’t really disagree with that point.
It was a very constructive conversation and we agreed that we would go for a bike ride at some point – probably in the spring – to talk a bit more. He also expressed an interest in attending the next Fête du Velo, the annual festival of cycling organised in Redbourn by Simon Barnes, the former owner of the Plowman Craven cycling team and now owner of The Hub cafe and Bike Loft shop in the village.
The conversation took a more tense, and intense, turn when I talked about my recent experience with the NHS. I will write about that another time because I want to make sure I’m not misinterpreted or misunderstood. I would like to clarify, though, that my issue was not with the staff but with the conditions they have to work in, conditions that have been created by a series of political choices that we all have to take our share of responsibility for.
After the meeting, I headed to Wimbledon to meet Richard and Orla before The Cycling Podcast’s slot at the Wimbledon Book Festival. It was a beautiful event and a real privilege to be a part of it. In the other, larger tent were Sebastian Faulks, the author of the brilliant Birdsong, followed by Graham Norton. I joked with Orla about Ireland’s two biggest broadcasters being on the same bill and she laughed (little did she know I was referring to Graham and me), then suggested we should have had a tipping chair to propel us out of tent if any of our anecdotes got too boring.
Despite feeling a little out of practice beforehand – it’s been a while since we spoke before a live audience – it went well. My fuzzy, cotton-headed brain, addled by sleep deprivation and the sensory overload of becoming a parent, cleared just enough to be more or less coherent.
The Cycling Podcast will be live in Cardiff on November 27. Tickets are still available here