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A Magazine for Sheffield

Left of the Middle: Walking with Political Podcasts

Occupying street space and listening to Ed Miliband are saving me from nihilistic rage.

Andrew wood walking in the street 2

I’ve started walking in the middle of the road.

Not on busy main roads – that would be dangerous – but most side streets have a lot less traffic than you think, and it’s just convention and habit that confine us to the pavement. You can see this in action on the recently-pedestrianised stretch of Division Street, where everyone still walks on the pavement.

If you’re tempted to give it a try, here’s what to do.

Concentrate. If a car comes, don’t get in its way, but linger long enough to know the driver has seen you and has registered that the road space is not theirs to monopolise. When there are no cars – you’ll find that’s about 70% of the time – walk down the middle of the road. Notice how different the street looks when you’re not squashed over to one side of it. And how powerful you feel. It’s a revelation.

Perhaps you’re thinking I’ve lost the plot and you’re already crowdfunding to buy me a hi-vis suit. But it’s OK, I think I’m fine. I just figured, if we want the streets to be safe for our kids to play in, why don’t we start using them as if they are safe? I stride along, grinning, ‘Why the hell didn’t I think of this sooner?’

This is one of the dozens of moments of clarity that have been hunting me in packs since I started listening to Ed Miliband and Geoff Lloyd’s Reasons to be Cheerful podcast. Cycling god Chris Boardman was explaining that rescuing our street space from cars is not just a pipe dream, but is already happening. I thought about the surge of initiatives for low-traffic neighbourhoods and I thought, why wait for the bollards?

Reasons to be Cheerful picks addictively at the scars in my wounded optimism. Each episode brings me people who seem to share one attribute: hope. The more weird and out of kilter the world seems to get, the more we need the fuel of hope to make us tick. Guest after guest, the show is a pure source of that fuel.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar gives me hope for an America where a Muslim woman can hold high office, where climate and welfare are tackled with seriousness and compassion. Philosopher Michael Sandel offers me a vision of a society that doesn’t write people off if they flunk their GCSEs, that doesn’t point the finger of blame at the homeless or destitute for their own misfortune.

In a way, the most affecting conversations are with politicians, like former Australian PM Julia Gillard and ex-mayor of New York Janette Sadik-Khan. They show that good people can climb to the top. You don’t have to be a shameless, narcissistic charlatan to win elections – even if it seems to help.

But you hear their pause for breath, the quiver in their voice, when they acknowledge how quickly their work can be undone. It helps that Miliband came within sniffing distance of power and could do so again. He knows, and they know he knows. Occasionally there is the sound of a tear being shed.

Politically, it’s left of the middle. But instead of the nihilistic rage that often befalls us when we try to keep left on this ship that seems to be listing dangerously to starboard, Reasons to be Cheerful is resolutely positive. It’s a portal to a world that I really want to live in. It has sustainable farming, citizens’ assemblies, parental leave and thriving theatres. Foodbanks are shutting down because they’re no longer needed and rough sleepers have been given safe harbour. It’s the antidote to the bleak, hostile, chaotic dystopia that dominates the headlines and bombards my Twitter feed.

This year I’ve been searching for survival strategies. I’m putting together the pieces of this hopeful world like a jigsaw and I’m living life as if that world is real. I’ve stopped writing endless to-do lists that I can’t scratch the surface of, and started writing ‘done’ lists where every task is already achieved. I’m using podcasts and headphones to drill other optimistic people’s ideas into my internal monologue. And I’m walking in the road.

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