Saturday, 31 May 2008

Well, Dr Johnson, I am not tired of London

Sadly, my penultimate uncle, Vic, died last week. This was a relief both to him and to my aunt Audrey who had suffered to see him rapidly deteriorate in the past few months.

As a result, I made the journey back to London for the day for Vic’s funeral. Though we’d kept in touch by phone and, ironically we’d arranged to visit them this summer, I hadn’t seen them since I’d help them move into sheltered accommodation just before we moved up to Yorkshire. It seemed that I was the only family member to attend the funeral.

It was a delight to see Audrey; she may be incapacitated by leg problems and poor sight but she remains mentally sharp with a wicked sense of humour. The service, both in English and Hebrew, at Golders Green was conducted well and there was much support for Audrey from her wide circle of good and warm friends. And it made me realise just how much ‘Londoners’ are a sociable and cohesive tribe.

The first thing I said to Mrs R when I returned to Refugee Towers was, “I’d really like to go back to live in London”.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Unbridled sex at Refugee Towers

After a delayed arrival of our batch of swallows – probably weather-related – I‘ve made a rough body count of birds nesting happily at Refugee Towers.
In the main (Swallow) Barn, there are 3 pairs.
In the garage, there are 2 pairs.
In the shed attached to the garage, there is 1 pair.

Amidst unbridled ‘activity’ from the swallows we await to see just how many young these 6 pairs produce. Now, if anyone would provide us with closed-circuit cameras!? Oh, that may be a bit voyeuristic!

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

An unexpected addition to the family!

Last week, after IS’s Birthday, Mrs R decided to take the young Refugees to groovy York to the RSPCA to see if they could replace our much-loved but departed rat sisters (Crystal and Pearl) with a new pair of young rescue rats. I should have known better when I wished them, 'bon voyage and happy rat hunting'.

They returned 3 hours later leaping and squealing about a trio of 6 month-old puppy brothers – Quibble, Quarrel and Quaker - that they had fallen for. My partial enthusiasm was doused when they explained that the puppies were Chihuahua-Patterdale crosses.

Me, with a Chihuahua – no, never, EVER!

However, a week of unquenched enthusiasm saw us travel into York on Sunday and check out the vertebrates on show at the RSPCA.
I must admit that it’s a choking experience seeing so many animals unwanted, abandoned or under court orders; but the staff at York are fantastic – caring, hard-working, patient and helpful. Eventually, we came to the 3 puppies....except that there was now only 1. And what a little cracker he turned out to be. Mrs R had her heart set on Quibble but she came round to liking the remaining pup, Quaker.

So we went for a lunchtime pow-wow at our favourite York bistro, Café No 8, and
ruminated over Quaker. Of course, being the inveterate softie that I am, I soon found myself lobbying for the addition to our menagerie whilst Mrs R remained dubious.

After lunch we returned to the RSPCA took Quaker for a ‘trial’ walk with our hound, Poppy....and that went remarkably well. The decision was unanimously made!
We had ourselves a new addition to the family....a Chatterdale.

As I filled out the paperwork and collected the RSPCA voucher for Quaker to be de-nutted, the girls started thinking of a new name – the list started with Pip, Smudge, Dex, Carlos, Archie, Rocky, Mohammed until we finally anointed him...Woody!

By Jove, it’s good to have some more testosterone at Refugee Towers. So, here is Woody the Chatterdale with his step-sisters........

Saturday, 17 May 2008

The SATS scrap...or...Scrap the SATS

2 days of English testing, 2 days of Maths testing and 1 day of Science testing.
IS didn’t shed any tears – as children in her class did – and IS didn’t have any sleepless nights – as some children did: however we did have FIVE difficult months.
What’s gone on?
SATS finished this week.
SATS are over for this year.
SATS are over forever for IS.

It seems that a chasm has developed between this government’s education ministers – Ed Balls, Jim Knight and Beverley Hughes – and this country’s educationalists. Jim Knight proclaims, “SATs are there to give pupils an understanding of how they're doing nationally, to give parents the opportunity to see how well their child is doing and how well the school is doing, and for the public to see how well schools generally and how the school system as a whole is performing." SATs results are part of the targets that the Government expects schools to meet, and which are published, and then ranked, by the media, into "league tables". Government-speak clearly translates into the government being driven by the misguided and obsessive ‘target’ culture.

But the tide is turning.

The tests have been slammed by everyone from politicians to children’s authors such as Philip Pullman, Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson.

An influential teaching body, The General Teaching Council, attacked the government's policy of rolling out national testing of children from the age of seven - it says “the stress from over-testing is tainting perceptions of education” and it is calling for all national exams to be abolished for children under 16. The council says exams not only fail to improve standards, but also leave pupils demotivated and stressed.

Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers are calling on the Government to scrap the tests on the grounds that the pressure of league tables is forcing schools and teachers to stay at the top of league tables by routinely "drilling" pupils to pass exams and is consequently putting children off learning.

The Cambridge-based academic Professor Robin Alexander has been studying the testing regime in England's state primary schools, the most exhaustive in the Western world. He says, “People do not like ‘high stakes testing’, with its league tables in the press and all the pressure that goes with that . . . I think there is a pretty clear consensus that change is needed...the evidence is so strong . . . it points in the direction of radical reform.”
And if tests are scrapped, how will parents know how well their children are doing, or which are the best schools? “There are Ofsted school inspection reports,” says Alexander, “Parents can read those.”
Alexander’s final report is due out at the end of the year.

Scotland never introduced Sats.
In Wales SATs were scrapped in 2004.
When will England follow?

Our daughters go to a terrific local state school with great teachers and support staff and a marvellous Head Teacher, GB. Yet the constraints of the system mean that IS's class has seemingly done little since January beyond preparing for these narrow tests.
Compelled to regurgitate much of the English, maths and science they have been force fed in the past three years, these little automatons musn’t let the side down; yet they will gain no marks for sharing how much they enjoyed the few books they were able to read for fun, nor their delight at discovering a germinated sunflower seed, nor the sense of achievement from learning the importance of angles in a triangle.

Let the children have a more relaxed environment to learn and enjoy their subjects and plough the cost of SATs into supporting learning and teaching and trust teachers to assess their children regularly

A couple of months ago Mrs R was standing outside school and happened to talk to Head GB about the ongoing preparation for SATS. Mrs R thought that it might be a good idea that IS went ill over the week of SATS and very symnpathetically GB replied that that was our right if we so felt.

Then Mrs R turned to GB, “, G, what do you really think of SATS?”
G thought carefully, looked Mrs R dead in the eye and lowered his strong Welsh voice, “Bollocks!"

If you feel inclined please sign this parent-led petition on the Downing Street website: PETITION

Monday, 12 May 2008

Roll up Roll up for....The Great Bickering Game Show

Last year The Refugees spent oodles of dosh and baked our winter-whitened bodies with our first visit to the Great Bickering Game and Country Show (GBGCS). As this event coincides with IS’s Birthday – 11 this year – we dipped into the Credit Crunch bank account and lathered on the sun-screen. If we excitedly expected that the GBGCS 2008 would be spectacularly different from GBGCS 2007, then we were as deluded as Gordon Brown’s fabled listening abilities.

By the time we arrived at 11 the temperature was rising gradually to the early 70°’s and the Great Bickering Showground was teeming. There are 2 activities that the young Refugees are on the lookout to do – speak to as many dogs as possible and spend money at the most interesting stalls (usually, animal- and food-related). I have never seen a Show such as this one for the amount and variety of dogs to remark about. Because of the heat, most of the dogs lounge around or sashay slowly with their owners and Poppy, our 7½ year-old Whitby Dog rescue hound, behaved impeccably. The vast majority of the dogs are labs, spaniels, terriers and lurchers as these are the dogs of choice locally but we also talked to and stroked poodles, staffies, peeks and Bedlingtons etc. Whenever we are unsure as to the breed of dog we turn to Is who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of dogs.

A great deal of my time is spent people-watching.

To the left is a Yorkshire or Geordie hog: on the hotplate is a poor pig. Hmmmm! The Refugees have forsaken piggies on our plate for the past few months.

Every home should have a pig out back and lots of piglets.

This is Alice from Doncaster. Alice is the matriarch of a gorgeous quintet of donkeys who, she told me with some wry truth, received more attention from her husband than she did.

Here is a man of some cultural rectitude.
He was lucky to escape HS shoving a Mister Whippy cone (less flake) down the back of his red neck. Ho-ho-hum!

And whilst the stalls with...50 different rifles, army fatigues from around the globe and hunting aids attracted vast numbers, this was our favourite stall – The Retired Greyhound Trust. There were 5 greyhounds selling their wares and Karen and Nick were a delight to talk with.

Please check out their website.......Retired Greyhound Trust.
Greyhounds are the most gorgeous of dogs – they have lovely faces, beautiful eyes and ideal temperaments.
I want a greyhound for Christmas!

If you haven’t visited the GBGCS then I would entreat you to make a visit – especially for those Southerners amongst you. It’s packed with a cast full of characters and animals and the odd celebrity now treads the Show’s boards – Worrall-Thompson showing off this year. It seems to be growing in ambition so 2009 promises to be even better.

Oh, and it’ll set you back a hundred quid.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Nowhere I'd rather be at 5 in the morning....

Dawn in early May in distant Balham would never have been much different from any city suburb at nay time of the year. A revving engine, a bin upturned, the odd congested sparrow but mainly a general dull hum.

But here in rural North Yorks dawn in the cool, still air of May is an auditory spectacle. We are lucky to have a bedroom that collects sounds from front - tall trees and grass verges – and back hedges, bushes and lawns – and from 4 to 5 in the morning the Dawn Chorus begins. Invariably the chorus seems to start with a blackbird or two singing out their territorial song; this will most likely be followed by a gang of hedge-sparrows and the odd discordant rook or pigeon. Occasionally I may be able to decipher a tit, finch or wren amongst the throng and as the summer rolls out the swifts rise earlier and wheel the skies screeching wildly. At its crescendo this symphony must consist of 40 or 50 musical maestros in concert.

If I’ve had sufficient sleep I’ll be serenaded for several minutes before getting up and enjoy the sounds and sights of ‘our’ birds By the time I reach my workroom at the back of the house I’ll be lucky to hear a thrush singing beautifully on a high tree or in our ‘secret garden’ cracking open a snail shell. Just about the only bird that doesn’t rise for the dawn chorus is....the swallow. The swallow tends to remain a’bed in the early morning though I often hear ours chattering in the their nests until ready for their mid-morning aerobatics.

So....would I swap one of the natural musical wonders of nature at 5o/c in North Yorks for 5o/c in London? As they say round these parts, ‘Would I ‘eck!?’