• Message from James Clarke

    "South Africa's Best Humour Columnist"

    - SA's Comedy Awards September 2008

    “South Africa’s funniest columnist.”

    - Financial Mail


    The name is Clarke. James Clarke. I have been told by people who know their way around the electronic world with its iPads, USBs, processors, modems, 500 gb hard drives, Blackberries and microwave ovens, that as a writer I have to have a blogsite. Otherwise, I am told, it is like passing oneself off as a CEO and you haven’t a leather chair that tilts back.

    Yet after four years of having a blogsite I still don’t really understand what it is or how it helps sell my books which is my major concern in life apart from not stepping on cracks when walking on the pavement.

    I am also told that on a blogsite it is customary to refer to oneself in the third person. This enables one to grossly exaggerate ones attainments without appearing to have done so personally.

    Not being one to buck the system...

    London-born James Clarke is your average tall, dark, handsome fellow who writes books – fiction and non-fiction. As a humorist he has been compared with PG Wodehouse and James Thurber. (The Daily Bugle in Des Moines said “compared with the works of PG Wodehouse and James Thurber, Clarke’s writing isn’t worth a row of beans”.)

    He long ago settled in South Africa where he became a mover and a shaker in the world of the environmental sciences. As a youth, being a mover and a shaker, had made it impossible for him to follow in his father’s footsteps as a bottler in a nitro-glycerine plant. Hence he turned to journalism.

    But around the time he retired a few years ago he found a new pursuit as a humorist. He wrote a daily humour column in the Johannesburg Star (now syndicated) and began turning out books of humour in the UK and South Africa.

    Clarke very recently moved boldly into the electronic publishing world. It was, he said afterwards, like a non-swimmer diving into a pool without first testing its depth.

    In November 2011 he re-issued his latest book of humour, “Blazing Saddles”, as an Amazon Kindle e-book under the title “Blazing Bicycle Saddles”. For a mere US$4.99 you can download a copy of this seminal cycling book in a matter of seconds by clicking here ....


    He did this with the full realisation that he is totally at sea in the electronic world with its telephones that take movies and receive faxes and sports results.

    The original edition of “Blazing Saddles”, published by Jonathan Ball, has been out of print for two years. It reveals the true story of how six retired men – five of them journalists – year after year set out (intrepidly) from the African continent on a series of exploratory expeditions cycling into “Darkest Europe” to bring back to the people of Africa tales of its funny natives.

    Clarke will also shortly be publishing, via Amazon.com, another of his action-packed autobiographical books – this time an account of his Second World War exploits as L*E*A*D*E*R of the Yellow Six Patrol of the 1st Streetly Boy Scouts in the English Midlands. He recounts the patrol’s ceaseless campaign to defeat Adolf Hitler’s plan to invade England.

    You can read about “The Yellow Six” within this blogsite.

    Clarke, apart from moving and shaking, is a travel writer and proud father of two highly successful daughters – one a biologist and the other an environmental impact analyst. He and his wife, Lenka, live north of Johannesburg.

The Bastille – the truth is out

Some time ago Dr Hugh Cobb of Fairview sent me some useful notes on France and as it is Bastille Day today I thought it appropriate to share some of them with readers.
France, he says, is a nation of shopkeepers and has many national treasures such as the Louvre, EuroDisney and Brigitte Bardot. (She’s a bit sun-dried these days.)
Its 56 million people persist in speaking French and carrying bread under their armpits. French males often have girls’ names like Marie, Michel and Jean and kiss each other rather a lot.
The French eat snails but, curiously, will not eat slugs.
In general, France is a safe destination though travellers are advised that it is occasionally invaded by Germany.
As I say, today the French are celebrating Bastille Day. The day arises from an episode early in the French Revolution when a mob stormed the fortress-like state prison on Paris’ east side – la Bastille.
But was it really as heroic as the French make out?
The answer is “Non!”
The French should ask themselves, “‘ow is it possible for a crowd of civilians to spontaneously demolish a massive stone fortress while chanting Liberté! Egalité! Maternité! And Non taxation sans alimentation! And Le stylo de ma tante est dans le champ.?
Even after having watched the French play rugby one still wonders how ordinary Frenchmen managed to tear down those eight huge towers and metre-thick walls – especially as riots, no matter how enthusiastic people are at first, never last very long because the cops always spoil everything.
And yet, after Paris cooled down, there was the Bastille – or, rather, there wasn’t the Bastille.
How did the French manage it? Comment? (ie: ‘Ow? As we French linguists say.)
It was all trés poissony. (ie: very fishy).
And why did the revolutionaries tear the place down anyway? After all the prisoners had long been released and the revolutionaries were well on the way to gloriously defeating the royalists at least 27-nil.
I feel it is incumbent upon me to spill le verts.
It was a real estate ploy. That’s what. A ploy of grand proportions.
Pierre-Francois Palloy, a real estate agent, some years before the uprising, suggested to King Louis XVI that the little-used Bastille at Porte St-Antoine (a bastille is a fort don’t you know?) was occupying prime real estate.
“Let’s demolish it!” Palloy suggested to the king. “We can use its stones to build you a magnificent palace”.
He unrolled the plans to show the king. But Louis XVI was unenthusiastic. He had other things on his mind – like how to preserve that part of his anatomy upon which his crown rested.
Later, when the king’s ratings were sky-rocketing downwards and Palloy heard that a mob was going to demonstrate at the Bastille, he ordered an associate to recruit as many labourers as possible and issue them with pickaxes and crowbars and have them join the rioters. He was sure that once the rioters saw men dismantling the Bastille they’d join in.
But the riot was enough to persuade King Louis to withdraw his army from Paris and so the riot lost its steam and everybody shuffled off home.
Later the revolutionary government confirmed that the Bastille should be razed.
King Louis, soon afterwards, lost his stature (about 25 cm of it at the top end) and in any event palaces became passé.
And the stone blocks? Palloy had them cut into smaller pieces and he sold them as souvenirs of the Revolution.
Ah, ma soeur met ses poupees sur son lit, if you’ll forgive my French.

Can a Jumbo loop the loop?

The question arose out of the blue and for no discernible reason: Can a Jumbo jet loop the loop?
For the benefit of those who aren’t flyers or don’t drive Johannesburg taxis and therefore might not know what looping-the-loop is, let me explain.
Looping the loop describes how an aircraft suddenly climbs steeply and performs a backward somersault before diving and resuming level flight.
The question was picked up from the Internet by a friend who was for years involved in space flight and aviation. He says it was originally posed to Cecil Adams who runs a questions and answers website called The Straight Dope.
The full question was: “Is it possible to roll or loop a 747 or DC-10 (airliner) loaded or empty?”
Adams replied, “No one has ever tried to get fancy with one of the Big Birds, but there once was a Boeing test pilot who, in a moment of frivolity, took it into his head to execute a barrel roll in a (Boeing) 707.”
The consensus at Boeing’s factory, says Adams, was that a 747 would probably survive a barrel roll but to try it would be, and he quotes, “an extremely foolish action.”
A barrel roll is when the aircraft rolls over on its back and continues the roll through 360 degrees, spiralling along a horizontal path hopefully through the air.
The problem, says Adams, is not so much with the strength of the wings, which are designed to stand much greater pressures. It has to do with the skill of the pilot.
“Enough forward speed must be maintained during the roll to compensate for the loss of lift that occurs when, in effect, the wings cease to function. That happens when the wings are in the vertical position and can no longer hold the plane up.
“In a small plane, the problem is minimal: the wings spin out of the vertical position in a split second. But in a larger plane it takes longer to roll and the margin for error is increased, and the fatal moment could be stretched out enough to pull the plane down.
“Looping a 747 or a DC-10 would be trickier still.”
I sent the comments to Geoff Quick, an ex Royal Air Force pilot who is a fellow member of the RAF Officers’ Club in Johannesburg.
Geoff is originally from Cornwall where, he says, people still point excitedly at the sky when aeroplanes pass overhead.
Geoff has seen both the Trident (a De Haviland airliner) and the F28 airliner (some versions carried 85 passengers) barrel rolled at the Farnborough Air Show in Britain. And he says the VC10 – a serious four-engined jet airliner in the 1960s – has looped-the-loop .
“Most business jets have barrel rolled from time to time. Executed properly the manoeu
vre puts little stress on an airframe or its occupants,” says Geoff. “Most aircraft, including many helicopters, can theoretically do it.”
I was shown a U-Tube video of a pilot balancing a cup of coffee on top of the instrument panel where it remains steady while the plane rolled through 360 degrees. Then he poured a cup during another roll and spilled not a drop.
Trick photography? No says Karl Jensen, perhaps South Africa’s best-known airline pilot (now retired). Karl knows the fellow who did it.
It’s all very sad. There’s just no respect for the law these days – not even the law of gravity.

Entitled to a title

In the 1990s with the emergence of a freer society in Russia a number of people began assuming long-forgotten titles. The people of Europe love fancy titles.
Although I haven’t lived in Europe since about the time of Henry VIII I received a letter from Dr B J in der Busch of Hemelijnstraat, Holland who signed himself Emeritus Professor of Economics but did not say where; Grand Prior of the Templar Order, Chancellor of the Lofsensic Ursinius Order and Member of the Academy Midi.
These orders, I found, actually exist.
The letter was headed HONOURS and it listed honours currently available.
I must confess I hunger for honours. I am one of those persons who has initials only in front of his name.
Mind you I could add OMD. I know an academic who adds OMD after his PhD (Oxon) and MSc (Rand) and he says only one person has ever asked him what OMD meant. It stands for Honorary Member of Densa – Densa being the club for those too stupid to get into Mensa.
The only honour I have received was an honorary membership of the Institute for Solid Waste Management. (Being a writer this often bothers me.)
Dr in der Busch offered me membership of the Maison Internationale des Intellectuels in Paris. Me! That is to say, Moi! Une intellectuel!
If I’d become a member I would have received a “passport-like identification book, three buttons for the coat and a large plasticised diploma for the wall”. All I had to do was send $140 (US) and three photographs.
Or – for the same price plus three photographs – I could have become a Knight of the Templar Order (12th Century) which comes with two sealed diplomas. (Hurry, while stocks last!).
A knighthood in the Order of the Lofsensic Ursinius Order (10th Century) – I find that this too exists – could be had for a mere $100 and just one photograph. So could a knighthood of the Holy Grail (King Parzival), or a knighthood of the Order Circulo Nobilario de las Cabelleros, or a Captain of the Legion de L’Aigle de Mer which included a medal (“large”).
Captain Clarke! Le croissance! Touts! (I’m sorry, I can get very excited at the thought of having a title other than Mr.)
For $200 and six photographs I could have got into the serious stuff: “six various honours including three medals with band” (a “toot ensemble”?). He adds “you may include members of your family and friends”.
Not believing in half-measures I posted off $500 and a dozen pictures of myself in adulthood.
The weeks went by. I could hardly sleep. Then, very early one morning, came a Dutch-sounding knock at the door.
My wife answered the door and called up to me: “Coo-ee! Baby shoes!”
“What is it, Chicken pie?” I called down as I tried to fish my teeth out of the tooth mug.
“There’s a man at the door with a long sword who wants to fight you. Oh! No, sorry… He says wants to KNIGHT you! He wishes to bestow upon you a knighthood and proclaim you heir to the throne of Silesia.”
“Does it come with a plasticised diploma?” I shouted back.
“He says he comes with some assorted crown jewels – oh, and a tiger’s eye for the kids. And, guess what?”
“I am trying to think, my Sugar Plum.” (THINKS like anything.) “I give up. What?”
“He has just made me Baroness of Brakpan!”
“Tell him that as soon as I get my teeth in I’ll be right down.”
“He says you don’t need your teeth – he’s offering knighthoods not Gouda cheese.”

Is this the end for Bond?

London: MI5 is laying off veteran intelligence agents who can’t come to terms with the internet age. The Star.

Bond. I say, Bond! James old boy! Can you hear me?
The entire office was now looking at Bond. But Bond had his hearing aid off. Even if it were on he would not have heard for he was oblivious to everything except his computer. He hated computers. He never could understand them and until now had avoided working with them.
He was hesitantly pecking away at his keyboard with his two pointy fingers – pecking like an old hen seeking widely dispersed seeds. As he tapped each letter he first looked at the individual key and then up at the screen to see if it had registered.
Bond had, years ago, permanently parked his Aston Martin DB6 with its twin 22mm cannons and ramjet booster. He was forever having accidents in it – scraping street poles or hitting the firing button instead of the hooter.
Now he was office-bound trying to liaise with minor Middle Eastern agents.
The most difficult part of his job was trying to understand his HP Z200 SFF with its dual-core processor options based on the new
Intel CoreTM i3 and i5 series, as well as quad-core processor options based on the enterprise-class Intel Xeon 3400 series, if you know what I mean.
Ali Akbar Habibi, a new and nervous mole within the Iranian Foreign Office, had just sent a message: 31FB81B-1335-11D1-8189/ÿÿÿsk.
Bond wasn’t sure whether this was a coded message or simply the type of inscrutable stuff that comes with email.
In Bond’s day, agents writing secret messages used invisible ink made from onion juice – the recipient simply had to heat the paper for the words to appear.
Bond struck a wrong key and his computer informed him that his gobulated transcender was unconfigurated. He ignored this and resumed pecking out a message to Habibi.
Bond: Hi Hibaby – Dom’t wory with code for Pate;’s sake becauise my mnacbine has a bult in Scudl device.
Habibi: Myself much alarmed – what you saying about Scud device?
Bond: No, no not sced drvice. I maent to writte SKoT, no SCID SCUD – yes, ScUD. It stands for Secret Code Unscrombling Device. this confoundred keSyboard. its made for lottle Japanese fgirls whose wrists ar2e broken at birth so they can use these blkoody thungs. Has SCUD not hit Teheran yet/?
Habibi: Myself now very alarming. Your Scud not hit Teheran yet. You gone mad Mr Bond!
Bond: Ni, ni Hiabaabi I said Sced not skid. No skid not scud. Yes ScUD is par5t of our communci3ation system.
Habibi: Your aiming the Scud at out communications system! You mad! You sick! Myself no longer your agent. I will alarming my superiors.
Bond: Just hang2 on Hababy@! Y4ou hav git it al wro5ng. Teheran is UK!
Habibi: UK can stay out of Teheran! You double cross me. I tell my Minister now. If UK hits us with Scuds we not scared to use our new nuclear weapons.
Bond: No ni Teheran is OK. I typed UK by mis5take. Are you saying Iran has nuclar weapoms after all? You told me yo8u don’t. This is seriuis!
Habibi: Very serious, you wait and see Mr Bond. You mad.
Bond in his agitation hits the mysterious “Sys Rg” on his keyboard and the screen says “Fatal Error!”
He looks around in anguish and finds his eyeballs pressed up against the eyeballs of the MI5 boss who is silently mouthing something that looks like “Your farewell party – come Bond, there”s a good lad!”

Is there a Santa Claus?

I wish to commemorate that milestone in American emetic journalism when a New York editor, Frank Church, received a letter from a little girl named Virginia.
Virginia told Church that her friends were mocking her because she believed in Santa Claus. Frank Church wrote: “Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age… Not believe in Santa Claus? You might as well not believe in fairies.
“No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives, and he lives forever.
“A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.”
One wonders how, in this day and age, an editor might handle little Virginia’s letter.
How, for instance, would I have handled it?
“Dear Virginia,
“Thank you for your letter of the 12th inst. Herewith is my response, please find enclosed.
“Your friends are dead right.
“Santa Claus! Ha! You might as well believe in fairies. Nay, you might as well believe in the Easter Bunny, time tables and what you read in the newspapers.
Make no mistake, Virginia, Santa Claus is a figment of the Chamber of Commerce’s mission statement.
“Have you ever stood back and watched Father Christmas at your local departmental store? Do you see how obscenely fat he is? Can you visualise him sliding down your chimney – even supposing you have a chimney which, living in New York, you almost certainly don’t?
“Can you imagine him getting into any suburban home today without setting off alarms and Rottweilers and getting lead poisoning from 9mm slugs?
“Come on Virginia, get real.
“I am yours ever so sincerely,
“James F Clarke
“Editor of the Column that Tells It Like It Is.”
As I typed in that final full stop (please find) I heard the thump of gumboots getting louder and louder. They stopped outside Stoep Talk Organisation’s luxurious suite of offices. Then a fat, white-bearded man, dressed in ridiculous red clothes launched himself at my computer’s “ZAP” button.
“Stop!” he cried. “You are crazy! You have gone insane! Look at me! Say who I am! Go on, say it!”
I said: “Who I am.”
“No, no! Tell me who, or even whom, YOU think I am!”
“Father Christmas,” I said, taken greatly aback. (Nay, Virginia, I was gobsmacked.)
“And how did I get here notwithstanding the absence of a chimney?”
“You screeched up on that sledge pulled by those overgrown sprinklebokkens and kicked down my door causing the picture of my aunt, Pamela Anderson, to fall off the wall.”
“Yes, well, it was an emergency. But note that your lack of a chimney was no handicap to me. I gain entry through MAGIC.”
Then he said: “Look here, do you want something really nice for Christmas?”
“Yes please. I could do with a one of those cellphones that takes movies, prints faxes, boils kettles and has a built-in Swiss Army knife. Then I’d like mag wheels for my dustbin and I’d like some socks and…”
“And what must you be to get all these things?”
“I must be a good boy.”
“Then just remember that!”
And, so help me Virginia, he hit my “ZAP” button and rode off leaving a trail of stardust which the cleaning lady is going to be spitting mad about.

The collected papers of …

Today is International Columnists Day when newspaper columnists the world over traditionally update a past column so they can knock off early and sort out their beer mat collection.
It gives me the opportunity to recount how, some years ago, I read that Princeton University was working on the collected papers of Albert Einstein. Time said it was “one of the most ambitious publishing ventures ever undertaken in the history of science”.
Ha! I tried to imagine what it would be like if somebody tried assembling the collected papers of James F Clarke when he finally parks his bicycle.
Actually, my papers are already in a collected condition – piled high in cupboards, on shelves and in boxes in the garage.
Finding material that might prove remotely interesting would be the challenge.
I can see it now – a two-man team from the new University of Ogies’ English department headed by Professor Fanie Phello.
The prof stands scratching his brainbone. He is dwarfed by a mountain of paper – cuttings, tear sheets, lists headed “things to do” and inscribed, “fix back door, replace hall light, sharpen knives, get Band Aid, get car serviced; cholesterol check; pick up post; Marmite; cheese; superglue; fix kitchen tap…”
Prof Phello speaks to his assistant, Thola Izibi: These lists of ‘things to do’ are endless and obviously he never got around to doing them. Take ‘Fix kitchen tap’ – it appears on lists spread over many years.
Izibi: Over here are drawers and drawers of papers and boxes all labeled “M”.
Prof: Yes, that would be his secretary, Threnody Higginbottom whom he insisted on calling ‘Miss Smith’. She filed everything under M for Miscellaneous.
Izibi: Well it’s mostly letters from readers whom, I understand, used to write his column for him. And lots from medical aid.
Prof: Medical aid? That could be interesting – they might tell us something about his health.
Izibi: The letters are mostly to inform him that his medical fund is not prepared to pay his Wine Club bills and that he must desist from trying to claim them each month. It appears he read somewhere that red wine was good for the heart and he felt it should be considered as “chronic medicine”. He also used to send them his bills for All Bran and …
Prof (interrupting): Ah, what have we here? A letter from Buckingham Palace! It’s from the Queen’s assistant deputy private secretary, Sir Percy Snodfellow, begging Clarke to stop asking the Queen to write a foreword for his proposed book titled Prince Charles and me,(or I). It appears he once met Prince Charles and shook his hand and said “How d’you do?” That, for a journalist of Clarke’s calibre would have been the basis for a thick ganglion-flattening book.
Izibi: We must surely find something that gives an insight into what sort of fellow he was. He rose, after all, to head the biggest society in South Africa – Densa, the club for those too stupid for Mensa, the society for the highly intelligent.
Prof: Yes, that figures.
Izibi: But, Prof, Densa had some great ideas. Imagine if Densans had taken over South Africa! Who knows – traffic lights might have worked again; traffic cops would have come out from behind the bushes to help motorists for a change.
The cops would have arrested bad taxi drivers and sentenced them to filling in potholes.
The government would have introduced capital punishment for anybody caught putting up posters on suburban trees… or saying “isit?” every time somebody told them something.
Prof: You seem to be impressed by Densa.
Izibi: (Cough. Cough.) My grandfather was a closet member.

Aunt Prudence strikes again

Few readers know it but The Stoep Talk Organisation – the holding company for the Stoep Talk Column – has a rich history of helping people and at one time ran an agony column by “Aunty Pru”. Readers were invited to send her their problems.
Mindful of how some agony columnists are said to make up their own questions – something Stoep Talk (as everybody knows) would never do – we employed Miss Prudence Subtle-Boozer.
She wrote part time while running a home for fallen women in Ventersdorp. She was later matron at Stilton College, a well-known maximum security boys’ school in Natal and had enormous experience solving irritating personal problems such as bad breath and criminal insanity.
Aunt Prudence, in her sensitive columns, saved many a couple from the marriage yoke and set many an acne-tortured teenager on the right path (to lovers’ leap, mostly).
Some who responded were trying to strike up a relationship with a boy/girl/their mother/a Maltese poodle – others had problems such as itchiness or self-actualising and how to neck when one has a heavy cold.
This was 11 years ago and Aunt Pru is still around.
But the day we launched we were inundated by three letters:
Dear Aunt Prudunce,
(Please ecxuse my typing) Accordinh to my stars – I am Pisced by th way – I am abour to meet a tall, dark, hangsome man yet I am enfaged to a short, bald fat man who plays with model trains. He even maks me imitate train tooting becasuse, he say, it turns him on. Should I (at 43) wait for the TDH man or marry what’s in hand? Deepl:y Troubled, Tonteldoos, Ext 3.
Dear Gertie, you say you are Pisced. I do hope you meant Pisces. (If not try switching to low alcohol beer.) I would certainly give that frustrated would-be shunter a final shunt. You’ve waited at least 20 years for the right man so why not hang about a bit longer because, in the new South Africa, tall dark handsome men are, these days, going places fast?
Dear Aunt Prudence,
I cannot bear my fiancee’s name – Monica Piddlington (but please don’t use this as her mother will murder me) – yet she flatly refuses to change it. I have suggested Brunhilde (I am German). Piddlington will, of course, fall away when we marry and become Von Kimmelling-Berscheshagenoffenbach. What worries me is that if she won’t do little things for me now – like changing her first name – what about when we get married and I might require bigger things? For example, she will need plastic surgery to change her face so that it is in keeping with what I expect of a wife. Werner, Dinwiddie.
Dear Werner, women can be very unreasonable and stubborn. Monica’s mother might be a problem too. If you really HAVE to marry the girl – on account of, say, her money – why not let her keep her name Monica on paper but call her Brunhilde in the house? She’ll soon warm to it.
Dear Aunt Pru,
I am 18 and all my friends have dates except me – all I seem to have is acne. What can I do? Tearful, Midrand.
Dear Tearful, there’s nothing wrong with going out with acne. I accept that acne isn’t going to pay for your cinema ticket or a meal in a fancy restaurant but it will always be there next morning which is more than your girlfriends can say about their boyfriends. From your picture you have a particularly hideous case of acne. Try wearing a bag over your head. Boys love a mystery.


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