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Saturday, 31 December 2011

The Passage of Time

Faster than the blink of an eye, 2011 has come and gone – well, almost. In a little over 12 hours (at the time of writing) we will be in a whole new year. It is unfortunate that Time has the habit of running out on us – sometimes quicker than we would like it to. Indeed, always quicker than we would like it to. Time is something that each of us is given at birth. It is a commodity that, if wisely used can appear to stretch out. Time appears to pass more slowly the younger we are. When we are in the autumn of our years it passes all too quickly. I recall reading somewhere, sometime, that some part of the brain compares the passage of Time with the total length of Time we have experienced since birth. I guess that makes sense. I am now at the age where I have stopped counting my birthdays – I merely try to guess how many I have remaining. I recall that in my youth I often wondered whether I would be alive to experience life in the 21st century – well, I have now lived through eleven years of it.

2011 has seen time run out for a number of individuals whom I personally considered evil – Osama bin Laden, Gaddafi, Kim Jong-Il are the three that come to mind. There are plenty more evil leaders still hanging on to Time – Mugabe immediately comes to mind - he can’t have much Time remaining in his coffers. And there’s that chap in Syria, what’s his name? It would be nice to be a god and to be able to pick out Earth’s most evil characters and just snuff out their candle. It doesn’t work that way though, does it?  

What about the celebrities who passed to the other side during the passage of 2011? There were actresses Elizabeth Taylor, Dana Wynter and Jane Russell, Apple founder Steve Jobs, actors Peter Falk and Pete Postlethwaite, boxer Joe Frazier, IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon and Betty Ford, widow of former president Gerald Ford. The list goes on of course, and I have named only a fraction of many celebrities who are no longer with us.

The year has not passed without its disappointments of course, the greatest of them being that of failing to find a new owner for the farm. We thought we’d sold it just a few weeks ago (see “Sold the farm – whoopeeeee!” blog) and at a good price – even shook hands, but then their bank refused or at any rate failed to come up with the money. We had hoped to have been celebrating tomorrow in North Carolina but – well, it just wasn’t our Time. So what now? First and foremost I want to get Liz to Louisiana to her daughter’s. I may have to beg, borrow or steal the money for her ticket (any takers?). She actually has a job offer in NC right now, but will have to turn it down. Meanwhile I am building up a valuable potential client base on the East Coast. Liz will be able to spend the time, until my eventual arrival, changing her name and applying for a spousal visa for myself. And me? Well I’ll let you know tomorrow – if I have the Time.

Sunday, 25 December 2011

Internet dating

Exactly ten years ago today I received an email that included the following script

“Just came across your ad. Looks good!! Sorry, I just need someone to chat with once in a while….. Sorry. Hope you will email me back and we can have the opportunity to learn one another. Just a thought really!! Hope to hear soon. Me.”

Having been separated from my first wife for more than ten years, I had placed an ad in personals – not wishing to end up a lonely old man like my father had, I had been actively engaged in looking for a soul mate for quite a while. A few months later Liz flew to South Africa and we have been together since then. In May 2005 we were married, and in all the time we have been together have not had one fight. I am sharing this story to illustrate that it is possible to find one’s soul mate on the Internet. It’s all about positive thinking and maybe a little luck.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Pre-Christian Christmas

One of the things that the elders of the Christian churches have taken great pains not to tell us is that the season that we have come to know as Christmas was, in fact, celebrated as a festival many years before Christianity was invented. It is no coincidence that Christmas falls at the time of year that it does, for the Northern hemisphere's winter solstice is an annual event that pre-dates today's organized religions. This is the time of year when humans saw the Sun at its lowest point in the sky, the time of year when the trees had lost all of their leaves, and the fields were barren. The solstice was celebrated in different ways, but the common theme that extends over many different cultures and periods is that of the Mother Goddess who, known by one of her many names, gave birth to the Sun itself, a theme that was adopted and adapted by the early Christian elders.

Many of the rituals associated with the Winter solstice have been embraced by the new religion. Fearing that the light of the Sun would never return, some of the Northern cultures lit great bonfires and burnt Yule logs. They hung burning torches from the trees, and decorated their homes with evergreen branches in order to persuade the apparently dead deciduous trees to grow again. It was a traditional season to give hospitality to family, friends and even strangers. Sadly this has given way to the commercialized money-making season that has come to replace the original reasons for the festival. This feasting was originally an annual magical ritual held to guarantee good harvests in the following year.

May I wish all my readers a prosperous 2012.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Silly Season

Welcome to the annual South African silly season. The season when all (well, most!) of South Africa closes down for three or four weeks. I thought it appropriate to write today about how the season regularly, without fail, lets down the general public by allowing supermarkets to run out of stock. But first, let me tell you about our local supermarkets.

Liz and I have this small farm in a locality called Martindale. We don’t actually farm, but rather use it as a lifestyle home. The house is huge and has been here for several generations – it started out before WWll as a shop on the corner of the dirt road that goes up to Peddie, and has been added to from time to time by different owners. Our closest supermarkets are either in Grahamstown or Port Alfred, each about 38kms away from here. It used to be that during the school holidays we would shop in G’town and during the annual Arts Festival we would choose PA. In each case this was to avoid the crowds. The supermarket we most often use has always been dictated by its demographics, but since the opening of the new Rosehill Mall on the road out of Port Alfred to Port Elizabeth, we have been more and more using the Super Spar there. It’s cleaner, the aisles are wider, and it is altogether a more pleasant place to shop.

I noticed a couple of days ago when I was doing our shopping that the silly season had started. The aisles in Spar were narrower, having been lined with rows of Christmas goodies to tempt the Vaalies who are down for the season. Port Alfred, even though short on hotels, is a magnet to hundreds, if not thousands, of seasonal tourists, many of whom either own a second home down here by the sea or rent one for the season. The town will be full of big Mercedes, Beamers, Audis and dozens of 4 x 4’s for a few weeks. Forget about finding a parking space near to the town center for the period. Fortunately the new mall is out of town and has plenty of parking.

Which brings me back to stocking up the shelves. Every single year – there’s been no exception, and it happens all over the country – in the days leading up to and after New Year, you will find the supermarket shelves becoming depleted of stock. Out at the farm we are fortunate – we know what is going to happen and usually stock up before our local supermarkets put their prices up for the season. The one item I have noticed is always missing from the shelves is dog food – whether tins or dry pellets, the shelves are guaranteed to be empty by about 3rd or 4th of January, and will remain empty for several days. The silly season will end when the schools go back in mid January. Meanwhile Liz and I will mostly stay at the farm, taking in Nature, and planning our future in North Carolina.

By the way - our farm is for sale at a giveaway price. This is a chance for someone to make a metaphorical killing. Contact me for details.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Great Letdown

Well, it was too good to be true. At the time of writing, the sale of our small farm in Martindale has fallen through – all because of the banks. We have not yet given up hope,  but we have decided to accept a much lower price if the prospective purchaser still wants to buy. We have also dropped the price on all of the websites on which the farm is advertised. This is even more of a disappointment as we had arranged for the freight company to come out and requite for moving all of our goods. Ah well!

One good thing did come out of the episode though. We went through the entire house sorting out the good from the bad. Piles of books ended up being given to Headman, the local Xhosa man who does odd jobs around the farm and doubles as the preacher on Sundays. In fact he is now the new owner of such junk as old computer keyboards, modems, switches and so on. He told us in his broken English that he was going to use them to start a museum at the local farm school – maybe some good will come of them after all. The school is on church land a couple of hundred metres from our main house, and has about 12 or 14 pupils and just the one teacher. If nothing else the house is now much tidier, the walk-in storage room has been cleared of all rubbish for the first time in six years, and everything is sorted and ready for the freight movers. 

So where are we now? Liz is very depressed because the chances of her seeing her grandchildren for Christmas have fled out of the door. I, too, am somewhat depressed over the whole affair, but at the same time have to be positive. As Robert Burns once said “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley”. So, where are we? The price is down and we’re doing some active marketing at a lower price as well as having one more go at the prospective purchasers. I am a firm believer of Fate. We were obviously not meant to sell the farm at the price we were asking at that particular time. There is a time in the universal scheme of things when we will sell and will relocate. A little more patience is all that is needed.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Planning the move

It has been a while since my last rendition, but not one without its happenings. Liz and I have had our smallholding on the market for the best part of three years now. As you undoubtedly know the property market has been down in the dumps since the World recession three years ago – so much for our timing! However our perseverance has, hopefully, at last paid off. We have an offer, which we have accepted, and it is now down to the banks and the lawyers.

Knowing that we will be transferring possession at the end of the year – our purchaser begins a new job close by on 1st January – means that we have little time to get our things in order. The two of us have been going through the house sorting out what we will take with us, what is to be given away, what is to be sold, and what is to be left behind. When we first decided to sell three years ago we planned to take with us all, or at least most, of our furniture. This includes a Blackwood four poster bed and two Blackwood single beds. These are the three items we will most regret leaving behind. The cost of freight is astronomical and will eat into our meager profit. However we should hit North Carolina with enough for a reliable automobile and a sizeable deposit on a house.

For the benefit of any clients that would like to continue using my services – nothing has changed. Existing clients will probably continue to receive a favored rate, but my rates will surely have to be raised to be more compliant with existing rates in the USA and UK. Our ultimate destination in NC has yet to be finalized. We had thought of Murphy, but the town is probably just a little too off the beaten track. We have been concentrating on the Lake Lure region, where there are some nice looking properties. The final destination may well depend on whether Liz is offered a job at a specific place – It’s good to be flexible. Keep watching this space and note the gradual move towards American spelling.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Sold the farm - whoopeeeee !

I have been a little lax in writing for this blogspot for a couple of days. Not really because I was lazy, but because Liz and I have had a couple of house guests. An extremely pleasant and friendly couple – in fact a younger version of us to the tee (is that how the phrase is spelt?). Anyway it was an extremely fruitful weekend which ended up with us all shaking hands on selling the farm. Riaan and Juan Mari are an artist/musician and a medical doctor respectively, and will be moving in by January 1st when she takes up a position at a local psychiatric hospital.

We just knew that there was a buyer out there somewhere – it turns out that they were hidden away in Bloemfontein in the Free State. They will be just perfect for Martindale Farm and have said that they will take on Jack and Bob, out two neutered cats. Now we just have to wait for the banks – hold thumbs.  Hope to get Liz across the pond before Christmas and I will follow when the financials are all sorted out. I will not have too much time for writing during the coming weeks. We have to sort out all the stuff we are sending over and must carry out a few small jobs about the house before the handover.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Is this the First Mud Duplex?.

The Mud Home story continues. This morning, before breakfast, Liz noticed that our two small friends were entering their reconstructed nest by way of the old tunnel. The new tunnel is now about half the length of the old (see latest pic) and is parallel to and adjoining the old. The big question is this – is this the first swallow’s nest with two entrances? My guess is that there cannot be too many that have been recorded by camera, which is why I have placed a watermark on the photograph. If anyone reading this would like a copy of the original please contact me.

I was doing a Google search for photographs of swallows’ nests a few minutes ago and was horrified to find that there are companies that actually specialize in the extermination of swallows. The ones I came across were in Florida and California. Watching the fascinating way that our two little friends have meticulously built up their home day after day has only left me more than ever at wonder with the great mysteries of our Universe. Life, however small, is a wondrous thing.     

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Black Tuesday

Not being a journalist, I have yet to grasp the full meaning of the Freedom of Information Bill, but from the comments I hear on Radio Algoa, our local radio station, if the Bill is passed into an Act today by parliament, then today will indeed be known in future years as Black Tuesday, for yet another nail will have been hammered into South Africa’s fast-growing coffin. Often misquoted, it was Lord Acton who said in his Historical Essays and Studies that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” I have witnessed close up in what is now Zimbabwe what the misuse of power can do. Sadly it seems that South Africa, a beautiful country that looked as though it had a bright and colourful future under Madiba, is showing all of the signs of going in the same direction.

When my American wife Liz first arrived in this country in 2002, I made a point of telling her some of the signs to keep a lookout for, signs that had reared their ugly head in Zimbabwe in the late 1980s, signs that would eventually trigger our relocation to more acceptable climes. Now those signs are here. Reverse apartheid, corruption, bribes and mis-management in quasi-government agencies and local government, and ministries that have all but ceased to function. I recently had to wait eight months for a computer generated printout of my marriage certificate, and then only after a personally addressed letter to the Director of Home Affairs. This seemingly simple task is something that would have taken less than five minutes in any developed country.

The Freedom of Information Bill, if passed into law, would be a blatant misuse of authority that would prevent South Africa from ever being a truly democratic society.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The two G’s – Gullible and Greedy

Maybe I’m becoming completely paranoid, but every time I see one of those marketing ads on DStv, I say to myself, and sometimes to Liz, “How can South Africans be so gullible as to fall for that?” The “that” can be anything from a collection of see-through storage boxes to the latest product I witnessed, a flexible metallic vegetable holder that can be used for blanching vegetables and the like. “R99!” I ventured, as we waited for the price to be shown. Liz was beaten by the screen, which came up with the incredible R149.99. Liz’s first remark was “You can get those in Wal Mart for 99 cents.” – Liz is American and knows her Wal Mart prices. I know she’s right because we actually have a similar contraption in one of the kitchen cupboards that I bought in an Abu Dhabi souk some 25 years ago (my, how time flies!). In those days I paid just a couple of rupees – certainly less than the equivalent of R10. I think I’ve used the device three or four times all told. This type of product appears all too often on our television screens. The target of these clever marketing ads is the gullible South African who has never ventured outside the country’s borders, knows no better and must add this invaluable contrivance to his or her collection. 

At the other end of the scale, and this is something that can probably only be seen by visitors to South Africa, is the business that overcharges for a product or service. I have for many years held the opinion, not always to myself, that the world’s worst banks are all housed in South Africa. No bank in any other country (to the best of my knowledge) charges for putting money in the form of cash into your account. The excuse used to be “Oh, but someone has to count it.” Recently one bank that has introduced a new ATM that counts your cash decided to make the account holder pay for this once-free service, even though the ATM counts the cash. No doubt the excuse will be something like “Oh, but we have to check that the machine is correct!”. Even the government gets in on the act. How many South Africans are aware that this is probably (and I would stand corrected here) one of the only countries in the world in which you have to have a license to own a television set (other than the United Kingdom, I am informed). 

It’s not just big business that is accused of being greedy. My next door neighbour is a European who spends several months each year in South Africa. This man is an investment advisor, highly educated, and something of a philanthropist. He decided to build a house in the Eastern Cape, where he has invested in some land. The price he was charged by a local architect and the quotes he received from local building companies were, apparently, laughable. So much so that he has put his project on hold. It reminds me of another local resident of European extraction who did build a house here. He came up against a similar obstruction, and ended up flying a handful of artisans in from Europe to build the house for him from scratch. The total cost of the house including airfares was in the region of 50% of what he was quoted locally.

I am not gullible, and I’m certainly not greedy. This blog will probably do nothing to change the situation, but at least I have the satisfaction of airing my views to those that care to read them.

© Michael J Mason 2011

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Mud Home takes a new turn

It seems like every morning I am presented with a new surprise by my two small friends. If you can make it out on the inset photograph, it appears that they have decided to bypass the old tunnel and may even have blocked off its inner end. What is certain is that they are now starting to build a new tunnel parallel to the old, and are progressing at quite a rate. It is now six days since the two tiny birds started their construction work, now nearing completion.

One of the joys of living in the countryside is to be able to witness Nature close up. I have tried recording the two swallows chatting to each other, which they seem to do every time that they arrive back from their source of raw material and perch on their wire, ready to add the next minuscule brick to their fast-growing mud home.

© Michael J Mason 2011

Thursday, 17 November 2011

More on the Mud Home issue

I feel obliged to my two little friends to write a sequel to my previous blog, since they have been so busy over the last three days. So busy, indeed, that they have almost reached their pre-decorating stage. I apologise for the quality of the photograph, but it is possible to make out the darker colour of the mud that has yet to dry out. The pair spend several hours each day flying back and forth to one of our two dams (about 200 metres each way), and there is evidence that they must start soon after dawn (about 0430 at this time of the year) since there is always new construction when we sit down for breakfast at 0800.

I have no doubt that our two little friends will complete their construction job over the coming weekend, and next week we'll see them scavenging for feathers, dog hairs and the like in readiness for a clutch of eggs. 

© Michael J Mason 2011

Monday, 14 November 2011

A Mud Home in the Eastern Cape

I have moved my domicile many times, and have lived in places as far afield as the north of Scotland at the one extreme and South Africa’s Eastern Cape at the other. That’s where I live now, with my American wife, two white shepherds and two domestic cats. One of the greatest joys of living nearly ten miles from the nearest tarmac road is the plethora of wild birds, and here on the farm we have a good cross section of them. Our more common visitors are the Blackeyed Bulbul, the Fiscal Shrike and the Hoopoe, although I have listed some thirty-odd species seen on our 18 acres farm at the end of this article. Today I want to write about just one pair of birds, because they are our favourite.

When Liz and I moved into Martindale Farm in 2005 there were the dried mud foundations of a swallow’s nest up under an overhanging porch. It was not until November of 2010 that a pair of Lesser Striped Swallows started rebuilding this mud home, laboriously flying back and forth with small mud balls in their tiny beaks until after some four weeks they had rebuilt a perfect nest, the main “living quarters” being some 15cms across where it joined the wall, tapering down into a 20cm long tunnel that served as the entrance, the whole nest being some 35cms from wall to entrance. While building the nest the pair had used our Christmas lights, which were strung along the front of the porch, as a perch. By mid December the pair had finished their home and were busy lining it with bits of dog hair (our shepherds were molting) and feathers shed by our free-range hens.  

I was loathe to pull down the lights after the twelve-day Christmas period of grace ended, but when I did, I replaced the perch with a thick piece of heavy-duty electric wire, which they soon became used to, as did their three babies, soon to be hatched. As the end of summer approached in early 2011, our pair and their offspring took of for climes unknown, presumably somewhere in Europe.

This year the pair returned, and one morning in early October we found the main living quarters of the nest lying broken on the concrete stoep, leaving only 20cms of the tunnel intact. It is now mid November, and a few days ago the pair began rebuilding their home, advancing the walls a few millemetres a day. There is still a wide gap between the “work in progress” and the inner end of the tunnel, but after dark we have seen their tail feathers protruding from the tunnel, which must be where they are roosting. We have come to know their small talk to each other as they perch on their wire, and we are now once more looking forward to the pitter patter of tiny feet.

© Michael Mason, Martindale Farm November 2011.

The following is a list of birds seen (or in the case of the Nightjar, heard) on our farm.

Pintailed Whydah
Longtailed Widow
Yellow Weavers
Blackeyed Bulbul
Sombre Bulbul
Blackheaded Oriole
Forktailed Drongo
Redwinged Starling
Cape Glossy Starling
Redheaded Quelea
Black Sunbird
Greater Doublecollared Sunbird
Greyheaded Bush Shrike
Fiscal Shrike
Cape Rock Thrush
Cape Wagtail
Blackcollared Barbet
Trumpeter Hornbill
Crowned Hornbill
Redbilled Woodhoopoe
Brownhooded Kingfisher
Speckled Mousebird
Lesser Striped Swallow
Cape Eagle Owl
Knysna Lowrie
Purplecrested Lowrie
Martial Eagle
African Fish Eagle
Secretary Bird
Stanley’s Bustard 
Spotted Dikkop
Yellowbilled Duck
Egyptian Goose
Sacred Ibis
Hadeda Ibis
Blackheaded Heron
Jackal Buzzard
Countless and nameless raptors soaring above the farm

Martindale Farm is currently for sale. For details see here

© Michael J Mason 2011

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Updating Websites

Well over 90% of all websites, once up and running, are forgotten about by their owners in the sense that they are just left as they are with little of no updating ever carried out. Unless new content is added to a website and the source code optimized for search engines, the website will attract little attention. It will certainly never be found in the first few pages of a Google search. If you have such a website, maybe the time has come for a little updating, and this is one of Mike's fort├ęs.

One of the easiest ways of updating is to add a few pertinent articles that are scattered with the correct concentration of keywords (about 2% to 3% is a good figure). Older websites that were written in html code or a simple css system will both look and function better if they are converted to a cms (Content Management System) format, such as Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal. Mike is no only well qualified to write articles for your website, but can also convert it to a cms site and if you wish give the website a brand new look.

Contact him through the Contacts page here for further information at no obligation.

© Michael J Mason 2011

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Michael J. Mason

Mike was born at 6.00 a.m. on May 26th, 1940 to a modest middle class English family in the small village of Amblecote in the West Midlands of England. By coincidence this was his mother's 26th birthday. He saw little, if anything at all, of his father until the termination of hostilities at the end of WWII. His education started off in a modest way, until in 1950 he was packed off to boarding school, a never to be forgotten gesture by his maternal grandfather, Blockbuster Brooks, who gained his nickname from the bombs he designed and built during WWII.

After his schooling Mike, who had failed to make the grade that would have enabled him to enjoy a career in medicine, tried his hand at banking and laboratory work, the latter in the field of solid fuel rocket motors. He later settled on an early career in the armed forces, in which he became a successful air warfare and air weapons instructor. After serving in the Fleet Air Arm in Buccaneers for a little over eight years, Mike emigrated from the UK to what was then Rhodesia, remaining in the field of aviation, specifically in Air Traffic Control.

After Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and started the downhill trend under the new ownership of Robert Mugabe, Mike took his family, now consisting of a wife, a stepson and a daughter, to South Africa. This was after a brief stopover as SATCO at Biggin Hill Airport, the UK's busiest general aviation airport. Mike spent further time in ATC in Johannesburg and Abu Dhabi before becoming involved in computers, a field in which he has been involved in, one way or another, since 1972. Today Mike has a new wife, Liz, an American from North Carolina. He is semi-retired, and spends his time writing content for the Internet and designing websites. Mike and Liz plan to relocate to NC as soon as they have sold their Martindale, EC, Farm. Mike's own websites include,, and The Masons.

© Michael J Mason 2011