Monday, 2 October 2017

Reducing the ravages of old age?

Mitochondrion - 'powerhouse of my cells'
Though 5 years past my ‘sell by’ date, at 75, I am perfectly healthy. I think. The various researchers – contacting me (via my blood donating) for the UK Biobank and the 1000 Elders project, associated with Birmingham Queen Elizabeth Hospital, want that in subjects of their research into healthy ageing - specifying a need for 'healthy non-smokers in their 60s, 70s and 80s showing in the healthy range of Body Mass Index'.
Earlier this year I was part of a continuing study by Simon Franklin from the School of Sports, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences, exploring whether extended use of minimalist shoes can increase intrinsic foot muscle strength. I'd not even heard of minimalist shoes! I was in a control group, wearing ordinary shoes, with a pedometer on my belt, for two periods separated by 4 months, measured before and after for balance, weight, height, foot muscle strength and style of walking – using an elaborate cricket-wicket length walk, with sensors attached to reproduce an image of me walking in the manner of the movement analyses of the genius Eadweard Muybridge, but of course all appearing instantly with me as a 'stickman' on Simon’s flat screen. He’s sending me his paper on this research later in the year.
Dr Yasir Elhassan at the University of Birmingham
A more arduous participation for me has entailed 5 visits, as the subject of a double blind test of a vitamin supplement, much touted on the web, that reduces the ‘ravages of old age’ by doing something to enhance the 'battery-life' of my ageing cells
Something complicated happening in my cells

“It’s called oxidative phosphorylation” says Dr Yasir Elhassan, the researching doctor. The vitamin or dietary supplement aimed at affecting this subtle and uncertain process in a positive way is called Nicotinamide Riboside, easier known as NR or NAD
One of many advertisements for NR on the web

Companies selling NR claim that it reduces the effects of ageing. In the UK it's on sale with fairly modest claims, but in the USA its retailers make bolder claims, for instance, of an over-the-counter product called Niagen, one retailer says:
N(r) NIAGEN is the ONLY PROVEN Natural supplement for boosting NAD+ Levels in the Human Body. This leads to boosting the metabolism, enhancing mental focus, improving memory, and increasing muscle endurance. N(r) NIAGEN is the greatest breakthrough in natural supplementation since Creatine. In an industry ripe with BS, N(r) NIAGEN is an absolute blue chip, a product built on real science and university clinical data. N(r) NIAGEN only contains one ingredient, NIAGEN. This ingredient, scientifically known as Nicotinamide Riboside, is structurally a member of the B-Vitamin family. NIAGEN has a host of benefits including brain health, muscle endurance, and metabolism; but they all come back to one simple fact; NIAGEN increases the level of NAD+ coenzyme in our cells.
I'd really like to see this tested - on me and others - by reliable research. Through June and August to 1st September 1 this year, with 11 fellow subjects, I’ve been used to explore such propositions, making five visits to the NIHR/Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Facility, Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Edgbaston, cycling there from Handsworth, about 5 miles, mainly along canal towpaths, but on a couple of occasions taking bus and one of the frequent trains to University station.
On my first visit to Dr Yasir Elhassan he sat with me to explain his research. I signed the usual consent papers. After that there were four more visits to carry out a double blind test of the effects on me of NR; neither I, nor Dr Elhassan, knowing whether I’m taking a placebo or the dietary supplement. For three weeks I took a daily dose of what might have been NR or might have been a placebo. There was a break of three weeks, after which I spent another three weeks taking further daily doses of NR or placebo. I remain unsure during which testing period I was on one or the other. Yasir had told me the effects would probably not be obvious. This is why the research, and indeed I too, paid relatively little attention to subjective impressions, though I'll get a questionnaire some time soon asking me about those.
The testing involved, on each of four visits, a variety of procedures; weighing and measuring me, and taking a 24 hour urine sample, and then, as I lay for five hours on a bed... a dedicated experiment room, full of specialist equipment, taking samples of tissue, 'aspiration via a fine-needle biopsy' from my upper thigh...
After biopsy - a tight bandage to stop any possible bruising
– and regular samples of arterial and venous blood from wrist and forearm -

...doing a grip test, testing my oxygen consumption and CO2 production via a sort of space helmet, placed at 20 minutes intervals, over my head, a procedure called -  indirect calorimetry; and taking an oral glucose tolerance test.
The procedures were painless, preceded in the case of the arterial blood extraction and biopsy, by local anaesthetics. Yasir jokes that these procedures are ‘torture’. He's an interesting man; utterly professional, very precise, and yet human; kind in his ministrations, and unpatronising, though he must be well aware of how low is my understanding of what goes on inside my body. If I were ill he'd be the doctor I'd like at my bedside. The same goes for the nurses who helped with his research - especially Nasreen, whose second name I didn't catch.
This is certainly the most intrusive research in which I’ve been involved, yet a million miles from 'torture', or even the surgery that might be needed for a real problem; far less uncomfortable than having Lin, concerned with my aesthetics, tweak small hairs from my nose - septum in particular - with tweezers. That makes me yell!
I'll await the results of this research with interest - not least because I have no interest in averting the so-called 'ravages of age' - unless they start to take my mind. The cost of this dietary thingy, NAD, is high. In my mid-70s my duty isn't to try to pay to live for ever, but to seek to live as well as I can until I go back where I came from and become part of everything again; not to offset mortality but to prepare, as well as courage allows, for death - whose presence  flavours every moment of my happiness.
Walking on Vido (photo: Lin Baddeley)

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

' between the gardener and the cook...'

The top of Soho Hill, three miles north west of Birmingham city centre, is concealed by the terraced streets that run north-south across Handsworth to Soho Road, where the gentle topography of the old rural landscape is blurred, depicted in old pictures, difficult to match with present observation.
The topography of Handsworth. Plot 14 on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments is 420 feet above sea level

I didn’t notice the hill’s slow ascent from the Hockley flyover, two miles to Junction 2 M5 and Smethwick, until, 15 years ago, I took to cycling, sensing the artery’s steady north-westward incline in my pedaling. In places, green spaces remain, once pastures, or heathland, the area’s boulder clay unsuitable for cultivating crops.
Where buildings and streets stop, there lie, near us, precious green spaces, landscaped to oblige the town – St Mary’s Churchyard where the dead lie in their classes from family vaults to paupers' unmarked indentations, Handsworth Park, whose history I’ve written, and the Victoria Jubilee Allotments on the north side of Soho Hill, on a gentle slope that continues, beyond sturdy iron palings, to the Handsworth Park pond and St Mary’s Church, whose bells, hushed by trees, ring familiar changes.
In June 2010, when the new Victoria Jubilee allotments were at last opened, Lin and I chose a plot at the far end of a site for which I and others had campaigned over 10 years, helping the city to negotiate a S106 agreement that delivered eighty municipal allotments, gravel paths, drains and a portakabin club house. The allotment is 200 square metres. Plot 14. A new part of my life.
“I shall not join the site committee. I’ve done enough paper work and talking to win conditional rights to this ground. £30 annual rent for over 60s. I shall concentrate on cultivating my allotment!”
I began to break up the surface tufts of well rooted couch grass the day I signed the lease. So I started to learn just what we'd squeezed from a developer who’d planned to build over the whole site, but been allowed a third of what had once been private allotments.
Plot 14 June 2010 (photo: Linda Baddeley)
The ground the developer left, after all the grading and digging they’d done to build houses, was not what it had been. The precious old tilth, product of a century's gardening, had disappeared, skimmed and dispersed all over the site, the ground graded and compressed over several years of construction by heavy machinery. The area’s unforgiving boulder clay, pushed into the Midlands by ancient glaciers, never arable, had resurfaced. The developer, pressured by the city, and Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG), had hastily strewn a miserly carpet of second rate topsoil, before handing over the site under the terms of their 2004 S106 Agreement with the Council.

In the first phase, Lin and I got a shed via freecycle. We levelled the plot’s slope, edging a square with tanalised timber on which, under a bed of sand and pummelled earth, we laid levelled slabs recovered from a Handsworth front-garden. I re-roofed the shed, adding a veranda.
January 2011. '...It makes a nice comforting sound when the rain is beating down it and one is dry and warm inside'

For the next three years of phase one, I learned about soil. There came a stage where I was close to giving up, not looking forward to the short journey - walking (12 minutes), cycling or driving - to our plot. The spur was a formal letter.
A wake-up call! I react well to notices like this

I also learned that, but for the darkest months, you cannot leave an allotment alone; that couch grass can only be reduced by persevering work that never ceases; that more or less all that's edible is food for slugs and snails, with different vegetables prone to the attention of specialist insects – onion fly, potato worms, carrot fly - as well as being prone to infestation by disease, and ailments arising from missing elements in the soil. Then there are the birds, pigeons especially, who focus on fruit. That another pest is people, who break into allotments to steal; that my plot needed investment in manure...

...topsoil and compost, delivered by tipping trucks and in builder's bags...
Black gold arrives

...that I could make my own compost, use mulch and weed suppressant fabric and netting; that I could grow from seed in a green house – bought second hand...

...and, with a fruit cage, grow strawberries and raspberries and more, and working with our neighbour Gill, an apiarist, and with site committee permission, have Buckfast bees on site, giving honey and pollination; that cultivable soil should be laid out in beds that can be reached from a network of paths to ensure not having to walk on them; that earth is rich, sensitive, structured - an environment for billions of micro-organisms; that when growing things you should be more inclined to feed the soil than the plants that you grow in it.
Published in 1945, no book on gardening has taught me so much
The second phase – from the start of 2015 - has to do with rejoicing. It would have been impossible without my discovery of, and friendship with Winnie Hall,  who’s growing skill and confidence have made Plot 14 work. ‘Our’ plot now yields crops – potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, runner beans, broad beans, onions, garlic, marrow, butternut squash, pumpkin, courgette, aubergine, peas, cucumber, apples, cherries, plums, strawberries, raspberries, pears, gooseberries, tayberries, artichoke, Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip, rhubarb, grapes, rosemary, chives.

Some things planted have not thrived; cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts have more or less failed. But my feeling is of triumph made sweeter by seeing so many others who’ve fallen by the wayside as they’ve grasped the work, time and cost involved in growing food on the Victoria Jubilee’s testing ground. Almost shameless triumph is made joy by the visits of my grandson Oliver and now his sister Hannah, learning like me, ...
Winnie harvesting with Ollie and Hannah
...starting to grow things in the sunrise of their lives.

I’ve commissioned a painting from Jan Bowman to capture this delight – a portrait of Hannah, Oliver, Lin and I on the plot in July, celebrating our grand-daughter’s third birthday.
Winnie Hall, Jan Bowman, Oliver, Hannah and her mum, Amy on the rocking horse for Hannah's birthday

The third and present phase has to do with illusions; with something I’d not anticipated when focused on preparing the ground and getting it to yield harvests – a problem of bounty becoming glut.
Over a year ago I was talking to a friend, who has an allotment in London, about growing vegetables. Supper in a restaurant near Russell Square.
“…human beings’ relationship with the earth. How it’s broken. Severed over generations by the transition from rural to urban…estrangement from the land. Loss of craft in cultivation…How can I, whose ancestors abandoned the land with Industrial Revolution, getting rich as iron-masters, mill-owners, bourgeois progeny, urban aspirants earning wealth from the surpluses of mechanisation…Leas of Oldham whose business profited from the sweat of mill girls. Jacksons of Rochdale, a mansion home burned down by mill workers?”
I spoke of first generation immigrants, from lands where farming is still in the blood – as in Greece, in the Caribbean, Gujarat, Africa.
“How can I hope to acquire that feel for growing stuff?”
I glimpse a glaze, my friend, with all her grace, cannot quite withhold.
I struggle on “My paternal great grandmother, born in Oldham, married in London, left the city to live in a cottage by the Itchen. She cultivated, with help from Mr New, her gardener. My sister and I had the run of surrounding water meadows. My maternal grandmother abandoned a metropolitan social life to start the dairy farm where I was born…my stepfather, born in London, made a career in broadcasting…in his last thirty years making a successful TV programme called ‘Out of Town’ about disappearing country life, the fall-out from mechanized agriculture. He once called my grandmother’s adventure a ‘hobby farm’ … she was devastated…anyway…what I’m saying is, on my allotment, I’m getting back some of that long lost…”
My friend - at last – intervened; agreed that the relationship between humans and the land was "perhaps broken"
“Yes, yes” I said “accelerating distortions in relations between the city and the countryside…”
“But, Simon, what also matters, perhaps even more is the relationship between the grower and the cook.”

By email she referred me to a paragraph in The Vegetable Grower's Handbook (1948) by Arthur J. Simons:
Time and again I have seen kitchen gardens and allotments which have been assiduously sown and planted by the head of the family without any regard of the actual requirements of the kitchen...The golden rule is to grow what you most like to eat in sufficient quantities to ensure that you have enough of it but not on such a scale as to involve wastage. This demands close co-operation between the gardener and the cook or housewife.
“The real problem is whether you and Lin like cooking and eating what you’re growing on your plot”
'So proud' (photo: Winnie Hall)

I hadn’t thought of this. I had just assumed that cooking and eating would follow the successful harvesting of which I was so proud.
"So what am I supposed to do with this lot?"

So... now I..we have to learn  and far more important, agree, about succession planting, about storing, about deep freezing, about preservation, about bottling, making jam, jelly, chutney, about dehydrating, - every craft and trick from the ancient books about how to even out harvests; cooking and eating what's grown at home. There's the satisfying option too, of giving stuff to neighbours, and on occasion bringing a basket of surplus from the plot to offer for collection, when we do street work with Handsworth Helping Hands.
Denise and her niece Winnie preparing harvests from Plot 14 for freezing

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Black Patch Park at the end of summer 2017

The Friends in Black Patch Park - 7th Sept

In the last 18 months things have changed for the Black Patch – not only for the park but for its surrounding streets and small edging areas of land. In mid-2016 the Leader of Sandwell Council said that previous bets – few and far between - on the future of the Black Patch were off. Something serious needed doing for this area at the eastern end of the borough - neglected 30 years; blighted by the dispersal of all but a few of its surrounding residents; by a pragmatic council decision to decommission the park and rezone it for light industry, and by its spreading repute as an expedient place for flytipping. Councillor Darren Cooper declared to us, in his office on 16th March 2016, that things were going to change.
His sudden death, within days of our meeting, did not interrupt that aspiration. Rather, a decision to restore Black Patch Park became part of Darren Cooper’s eulogy, repeated, with detail, at a meeting, on 23rd February 2017, with Sandwell’s new leader, Cllr Steve Eling. “The whole area” he declared from his predecessor’s chair “has been blighted by decades of piecemeal decisions”. Council strategies, having nothing to do with this area of the borough, have nudged the ‘Patch’ into an urban limbo – reminiscent of its status 150 years earlier, when none but the Romany would make a home on 10 feet of industrial embers threaded by two oily brooks beside barren rail embankments.

Cllr Eling spoke of the need to solve the 'Black Patch conundrum’, acknowledging an analysis written and illustrated by the FoBPP, in which we’d made a detailed case for bringing housing and people back to live beside the park. There had, he said, to be, not just disjointed decisions about the park, but, a ‘strategy for the whole area’. He observed, of our report, that its call to rezone the park’s edges for housing, returning people to the area, had at last defined a ‘sustainable community for the Black Patch - one that breaks out of its enclosing rail and metro embankment to spread new residents along, not only Boulton Road, Perrott Street, Kitchener Street, Foundry Lane, Wellington Road, but also along a wedge of land overlooking the Merry Hill allotments, marching 200 yards by walkway, to the Birmingham boundary and Winson Green Outer Circle Metro Stop, reuniting the park with other users along Nineveh, Tew Park and Reynolds Roads, terraces east of Handsworth New Road and more Birmingham residents living on Queens Head Road.

Following that first meeting with Steve Eling, we and many others, witnessed a crescendo of dumping and ground trashing on Black Patch Park; so unscrupulous in scale and variety it reached the national press; a possessive trespass on public space so contrary, that one of several men dismantling a caravan in the centre of the Black Patch asked one of our members, strolling across the park, what he was doing there when ‘they were working’.  Adverse publicity prompted a response from Sandwell typical of the ‘piece-meal’ decisions Steve Eling had blamed for blighting the area. Determined to stop the ‘invasion’ by ‘urban vandals’ of its green spaces, Sandwell MBC, under direction from Cllr Richard Marshall, Cabinet Member for Leisure, allocated £200K to layout a temporary transit site for travellers next to Black Patch Park, a move which, under national legislation, gave a local council powers to enlist police support to evict trespassers from borough parks inside 24 hours. The residents of Avery and Murdock Roads, the only homes in sight of the park suffered the most desultory of consultation before two acres of land between Wellington and Boulton Roads were cleared, hard surfaced and fenced, driving a stake through the sustainable housing area promised a few months earlier by Steve Eling. The latter wrote a long letter to the FoBPP emphasizing that any new policy to bring housing to the area would take time and that the site was there, unless its temporary status was changed, for just three years - the only means in his and his colleagues’ judgment of ensuring a genuine future for the area, preventing further trashing of the park, and reducing an ever-increasing clean-up budget.
The Friends, through these months, while balancing concern over the trashing of the park by travellers, were always mindful that the park was created in the 1900s through the violent eviction by council bailiffs of the only people willing to stay there - the Black Patch Gypsies. A positive to come out of Sandwell’s temporary transit site off Boulton Road, was that the park’s few remaining residents along Avery and Murdock Roads, led by the formidable Jules Manneh, joined up with the Friends. Juls, by common approval, was voted our Vice-Chair at FoBPP’s AGM on 15th August. At almost the same time we gained the support of Ash Barker, who by joining the Friends brings the resources of the Newbigin House ministry in Winson Green and the Newbigin School for Urban Leadership, to the campaign for Black Patch.
The temporary transit site, with the curfew placed on the Cassidy family, has, for the time being, sent travellers to green spaces in adjoining boroughs, giving the Black Patch a breathing space not known for several years. So far two traveller vans are using the site, paying rent for secure space, power and hot and cold water supply. Through late August and early September 2017, Max Cookson, senior operations Manager at Sandwell, has been carrying out a slew of basic maintenance and clearing activities of a kind we’ve not seen in the park; dead and dying trees made safe, litter and major rubble removed, grounds mown -  all in regular conversation with local parties led by Juls, and including local landlords, Midland Heart. For over four months there’s been no trespassing on the Black Patch. An earlier proposal, pressed by council officers and opposed by the Friends, to site an autoclaving factory on a part of the park have been abandoned.
Steve Eling drops in to the stranger's gallery to chat with the FoBPP before Sandwell's Cabinet on 30 Aug

Sandwell’s Cabinet, led by Steve Eling, who we met again on 7th September, will, at their next meeting on 18th October, be putting out for consultation, a ‘schematic’ for the regeneration of the Black Patch area, along the lines we’ve been promoting ever since we succeeded, ten years ago, in persuading the previous leader but one, Cllr Bob Badham, to put a stop to plans to use the Black Patch as a site for light industry.
Leader's office, Sandwell Council House - 7th Sept 2017

Through this extended period one of our key aims has been to restore sport, especially football, to the Black Patch. Steve Eling and Richard Marshall have approved a suggestion that the Friends draw up a ‘master-plan’ for the laying out of Black Patch Park. This will be our continuing work over the next year. The full time scale is, of course, much longer; the journey from piecemeal to strategy, complicated.
As proof of intention Sandwell MBC have promised a temporary portakabin on the park as a base for community meetings, and the early return of sporting activity, and a play-space at the top of Boulton and Murdock Roads for the children of existing residents and, as suggested by Juls Manneh, the children of travellers using the adjacent transit site if they want it.
Juls Manneh, and Oscar dog, in Black Patch Park
All involved, whether in the council its partners or among the FoBPP, remain acutely aware of the historic context; of the site across Foundry Lane, opposite the park, of the mothballed remains of James Watt’s Soho Foundry in the grounds of the W & T Avery factory, the association of the park with the Black Patch Gypsies, now memorialised at St Mary’s Church Handsworth, of their link with the reputed birthplace of the great Charlie Chaplin whose mother Hannah Chaplin, long ago found refuge in a vardo on the Patch, as believed highly likely by our patron, Chaplin’s son, Michael.
26 July 2015 - Michael Chaplin, our patron, in Black Patch Park, with Simon, Oscar, and historian Ted Rudge (photo:© Michael Scott)

*** *** *** ***
Have I got this – sort of - right? Three visions for ‘Brexit’ [How the referendum result looked to me last June].
1. A UK outside the political and legal structures of the EU but treating the rest of Europe as the most important of our trading relationship (Philip Hammond),
2. A UK of good bitter and trains on which most people, regardless of ethnicity, speak English, respect the idea of cricket, and strengthened ties with the USA (Nigel Farage),
3. A new UK enriched by vigorous global trading relations with all the nations of the world, unhindered by EU regulations (Liam Fox, Boris Johnson). 
There's also 'constructive ambiguity' about all of these, and perhaps more (David Davis)...
So what our PM has to spell out in Florence on Friday 22nd September, are 1. Brexit transitional arrangements and 2. UK's future trading relationships. That's a template with which to check the contents of her speech, which may give me a clearer understanding of the 'transitional' procedures between now and 29 March 2019, and a clearer understanding of how May envisions the UK's future trading relationships with the rest of Europe - notwithstanding the possibility that she may want to instil, into her speech, David Davis' intentional use of 'constructive ambiguity'. That's quite possible as, after all, today's speech is part of the negotiation. This'll means I'll be as confused after she speaks as I am now - prey, as I've been this last year, to the wordplay of optimists and pessimists alike.
*** ***
23rd Sept - I read Theresa May's speech in Florence. I don't think our PM does 'chickening out' despite suggestion. Vicar's daughter etc. This was a crafted set of words to placate different visions inside her cabinet, party and voters; even a gesture of consolation towards people like me. A friend said her speech's most cogent point was a request to lengthen the transition process beyond 29.3.19, plus 'mood music' to support David Davis in next week's negotiations. Of course this will not please those who have urgent fantasies about a white Britain, and an end to immigration, or the much touted recovery of a form of sovereignty that never existed - as King Canute, according to myth, tried to point out to his courtiers on a beach rather a long time ago.
When my dad and mum divorced in 1949 the court proctor (what was he called?) had staff to keep an eye on both parties to prevent meeting or any hint of collusion between them to lessen the legal declaration of their case's breach in the moral fabric. My dad, guiltless of being unfaithful, honourably paid for a private detective to observe him entering and leaving a Brighton hotel with 'another women' - a humiliating pantomime to give the court 'adultery' as a cause. In the case of the Brexit 'divorce' collusion seems to be what the civil 'leavers' desire, while the uncivil ones prefer public repetition of Farage's 'You're not laughing now' speech in the EU parliament on 28th June 2016.

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