• Message from James Clarke

    "South Africa's Best Humour Columnist"

    - SA's Comedy Awards September 2008

    “South Africa’s funniest columnist.”

    - Financial Mail

    WELCOME TO MY BLOG

    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 ....


    ooo

    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.

Wot I woch on telly

Mrs Williams at Malhurst Primary School, desirous of going in search of some aspirin, set her class the task of writing a composition on “What I watch on television”.
She saw Belinda Tamsen, atrocious speller though she was, snatched up her pen and began to scorch up the paper – and Mrs Williams knew she and her staff room colleagues would soon be learning more about the dysfunctional Tamsen household.

Wot I woch on telly-vidgen
By Belinda Tamsen

I dont see enny-think on telly-vishun becoz mummy and daddy is orlways fitin over the remote cont-trole ex-pesh-ally this week when mie daddy wunts to wotch soccer and mie mummy wunts to wotch tennis.
If mummy win then we hafta wotch wimble-dun and for the nest 200 ours we hafta lissen 2 pok-pok-pok-pok-pok OWT! Pok-pok-pok-pok Juce! And then some-body name Ivan something itch win and he slides on his knees. It is so bor-ing. If my daddy win then we havta wotch soccer and he showt SHOOT SHOOT YOU BLUDDY FOOL.
And he ask me How can that iddi-yot get paid fifty milyun thowsind an he cant even see the gole?
As if I am sposed 2 no!
I wunt 2 wotch sumthink intrestin like super robot munky. I tell daddy I wanta see sumthink inter-resting and he say the soccer cup is histry in the making. Then he suddinly showt OFF SIDE! He was bluddy OFF SIDE! and he ask everybody – Did you orl see that. Mummy roll her eyes.
Daddy say we must orl emty ow piggy banks and send the munny to the reffa-ree so he can by glasses becaws he is bluddy blind.
And when sumbody gets kicked and lies on the grownd all curld up he showt gerrup you goddam sissy. Sum times he even sware.
Mummy askt daddy to switch the telly-vishun 2 tennis becaws the soccer scor was nill nill and even daddy was neely asleep so he switch just for a minnit and wen he switch back sumbody have scord and he didnt see it and he showt so lowd my little brutha wet hisself. So did the dog.
Wun satiddy after-noon we had tennis, soccer, rugby, crickit an car racing orl at the same time but daddy forl asleep in the armcher. We manage to taik the remote controle offa him and woch a film abowt chim-pan-zees. mummy say it is a bit like wotching soccer but mor in-telly-gent.

Beryl, the real peril

Health and safety officers in Britain are alarmed at the number of children doing adults’ work – illegally.
They found a 12-year-old operating a mechanical digger laying drives in Birmingham, and a l3-year-old girl working as a hospital receptionist. – Report.

Beryl (13) knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was too old for Selwyn (12), but then, she told herself, Selwyn was way ahead of his years.
Did he not drive a 32-ton mechanical digger which could, with one scoop, lift out a fair-sized cottage?
Indeed, had he not done just that – accidentally?
The problem was, Beryl said to herself as she examined her acne in the little mirror at Thornton Hospital reception desk, Selwyn was doing a man’s job – yet her parents refused to admit it.
Ok, so it was their cottage he had totalled. But still, it was no reason for them to go on and on about it for two whole days.
The telephone rang and Beryl chanted: “Thornton Hospital! How may I help yoo-hoo?”
It was a very excited woman on the other end. Beryl puzzled, removed the phone from her ear and stared for a moment into the earpiece. Then she said “What? I mean pardon, madam? You say your waters have broken?
“I think you need a plumber. Try the Yellow Pages.”
Beryl put down the phone in time to see the dragon-like Mrs Monckton coming down from seeing her husband in ward 6. The old lady waddled up to the reception desk and announced “Ernie is much better today. He says he’s dying to come home.”
“It’s the anaesthetic,” said Beryl, “it can’t have worn off yet.”
Beryl removed the wooden tongue-depressor she used as a bookmark and tried to continue reading Nancy Drew and the Arab Prince. But her mind was in turmoil.
There was the disco tomorrow night, and what to wear, and Bob’s invitation to his school dance.
Bob, now in Std 9, was working part time driving locomotives. His kid brother, too young to even climb on to one of those monsters, had to be satisfied working a signal box on Saturday mornings.
It was nice earning money, Beryl told herself, as she thought of all her friends who were either studying or in labour.
The phone rang again: “ThorntonHospitalhowmayIhelpyoo-hoo?”
It was a woman asking how it was that her husband, who was being treated for asthma, died of heart disease? Beryl reassured her: “Please, madam, if the hospital was treating your husband for asthma he would have died of asthma.”
Beryl saw young Doctor Harding walking past, nonchalantly swinging his stethoscope. She sighed a little sigh. He once did 10 tonsillectomies in an hour. Everybody said that wasn’t bad for a 15-year-old.
Her thoughts slipped back to her boyfriend, Selwyn. Maybe she thought, he would look older if his mother let him wear longs. But his mother wouldn’t buy him any until he learned to do joined-up writing.
It was fair enough. Selwyn had a little dyslexia but it was hardly a handicap. There was just the one incident where Selwyn had ripped up the drive of number 31 Oak Avenue instead of number 13. But everybody makes mistakes.
And, anyway, it was nothing compared with what Bertie Grimes did at the airport. But then Bertie was only 11 and, as the chairman of the board of inquiry said, at Bertie’s age, he should never have been put in charge of air traffic control.

The Yellow Six to the rescue

The Second World War, which 70 years ago was going well for the Allies, was a good time to be a Boy Scout because, apart from helping with The War Effort (which included collecting any kind of waste with which to hit the Germans) there was also such a shortage of manpower that it meant Scouts were often called upon when a lot of hands were needed.
One grey November afternoon I heard, over the radio, that the Warwickshire police were seeking volunteers to search nearby Sutton Park – mostly a marshland – for a missing woman.
We marched to the police station and, as most of us wore studs in our shoes, we made quite an imperialistic noise. As we swung into the police station everybody looked up including Chief Inspector Victor Rex Cogbill who had been seconded to co-ordinate the hunt. It was, of course, a Boy Scout’s duty to ‘serve God and the King’ and we instinctively recognised that the Inspector represented both.
But there was a distinct raising of the eyes when our village constable saw us. He towered above us, which was not difficult. He knew us collectively and individually and suggested to the Inspector that it would not be wise to have Boy Scouts wandering around the moors, especially as it was near dusk, and especially as the missing woman might have been murdered.
Murdered!
Now we were really keen. We all began tugging at the Inspector’s sleeve. He then nodded to the Constable who, with undisguised reluctance, allocated us a sector of the park which was particularly soggy.
We carried our patrol whistle which had a pea in it and we were told to blow it loudly if we saw or found anything.
We walked through strings of cold mist, down into the dale, singing patriotic songs in deep voices in the hope that if the murderer was around he would think the Eighth Army was bearing down. Although the sun was still two hours from setting the afternoon was gloomy and foreboding. Soon we were shivering and up to our ankles in black ooze.
Our voices trailed off and we lapsed into a silence. It was then we became aware of the distant baying of bloodhounds and our hair stood on end despite the weight of Brylcreem.
As it grew dark we closed up.
Each of us carried a scout staff, a long pole made from ash which Boy Scouts use for vaulting streams and building arch bridges similar to the Sydney Harbour Bridge. None of us had really mastered the art even of vaulting streams but we never gave up trying. As we advanced into the swamp I let Vincent Laidlaw go in front because, well, first it was good to give everybody a go at leading, and second, he had a bayonet lashed to his staff.
Darkness fell.
We were frequently sinking up to our knees in mud and were keeping so close together we kept standing on each other’s feet – except Arbuckle whose enormous feet enabled him to walk on the surface.
Somebody said ‘What if we run into the murderer?’ We closed up even tighter. It now became impossible to move in any direction. I decided to blow on the whistle but the pea kept popping out.
Late that night a huge spotlight that should have attracted enemy bombers from as far away as Schleswig Holstein began sweeping the marsh and it finally settled on us. There were dogs and voices and, in the white glare, some agitated mother-looking figures. A loudhailer said ‘Walk this way!’
We then learned that the missing women had been at a cinema. In those days you could sit there all day for a shilling.
The police had spent the evening looking for us.
There towered Constable Cope, his eyes raised up into his forehead so they gleamed like a pair of hard boiled eggs.
(Adapted from The Yellow Six – available via Amazon (kindle) and Smashwords.

The Great Thames Expedition

All tourists are essentially explorers, otherwise they’d stay at home straightening pictures on the wall and letting the dog in and out. It was certainly with exploration in mind that, in planning our fifth annual, Tour de Farce, I approached the offices of VisitBritain (formerly the British Tourist Authority). I reminded them that this year, 2006, marked the 150th anniversary of the Burton-Speke Nile expedition which departed from Britain to find the source of Africa’s most important river. I suggested that we explorers from Africa should mark the anniversary by embarking on a cycle-mounted expedition to find the source of Britain’s most important river – the Thames.

There is, believe it or not, still some controversy over its source. Even Jerome K Jerome’s famous Thames expedition, recounted in Three Men in a Boat in 1889, didn’t venture very far into the mysterious interior of the West Country where the river’s source is said to be.

Just as the Royal Geographic Society in Victorian times fell in with proposals by Burton, Speke, Stanley and others to explore Africa, so VisitBritain threw all its expertise into helping us plan an expedition to explore the Thames and open up for the people of Africa the wonders of the Valley from its source to the North Sea. They suggested we make our base camp the 500-year-old Wild Duck Inn in the village of Ewen near Cirencester. This, my colleagues agreed, sounded an excellent idea. Edwin Swan, director of VisitBritain in Johannesburg, said one of the supposed sources of the Thames was only 6 km from there.

Once again there was the advantage that the people of the Thames Valley were known to speak a form of English. Admittedly their pronunciation can sometimes puzzle. If, for instance, you ask a West Country man, “Kind sir, is this the way to Bicester?” (the natives pronounced it “bister” just as they pronounce Gloucester, “Gloster” and Worcester “Wooster”) he will say, “Eee-arrr” which, in West Country patois means, “Yes.”

Another attraction is that the valley is not only beautiful but, as somebody long ago said, “Every drop is liquid ’istory.” Its colourful story involves kings and queens, knaves, battles, Romans, Saxons, Druids, stormy royal love affairs, West Ham United and many bizarre customs. There’s even pre’istory in that there are intriguing clues to life in the valley going back to the time when the Thames was still a tributary of the Rhine. It stopped being a tributary when the Ice Age melted and the English Channel formed 10062 years ago. (I know the precise date because when I was at school we were told Britain became separated from the Continent when the Ice Age melted 10 000 years ago.)

And there are signs of Romans everywhere in the valley. That goes for the whole of England of course, but particularly the Thames. People are constantly coming across Roman coins (why were the Romans so careless with their money?) and archaeologists are excavating Roman sites by the score. We called in at Cirencester which isn’t far from Ewen. It was called Corinium in Roman times and was Britain’s second largest city after London. Roman artefacts are constantly being unearthed.

A few years ago, archaeologists excavated an enormous Roman fort called Vindolanda which, although not in the Thames Valley, gave a fascinating insight into how the Romans felt about being in Britain. Scored of letters and notes were unearthed written in ink on wafer-thin pieces of wood the size of postcards. The messages indicated that Roman soldiers were, according to scholars, “preoccupied with socialising and writing letters home begging their parents to send luxuries.” One letter challenged the image that Romans were master road-builders. It was signed by a Roman named Octavius and inferred that the Romans hated the English weather and, surprisingly, that, because of the climate, the Roman-built roads weren’t fit for wheeled traffic. I am not in the habit of reading other people’s mail but I can guess what it said …

 

Vindolanda Mars XV

 

Dearest Mama,

It has not stopped raining since Septem and my skin is all white and crinkly. My helmet has half-a-XII rust spots and my leather skirt is green with mildew. I beseech you, Mama, please send me some olive oil, a new toga, some vino and some dinars.

Our civil engineers are having a bad time building roads. Because of the weather the roads quickly become quagmires and the local savages have taken to them like ducks to water – they trundle up and down with their infernal herds and their crude ox-sleds which cause massive congestion. Yesterday I was stuck in an hour-long chariot jam on the MV, the new route to Londinium. O Jupiter – all those horses and cattle and ox-carts, cattle pads and horse droppings! By the time traffic eased the malodorous pollution was axle deep and steaming like Vesuvius.

The placid druids, who are quite creepy, say these gaseous odours will eventually change the climate causing Britain to become warmer and as dry as the Sahara. Flavius says the druids are insanely optimistic.

The worst drivers are women although there are not many of them. Down in Londinium there is one, a warrior named Boadicea, who has it in for us. Instead of hubcaps on her chariot she has curved knives and races through our garrisons whipping off kneecaps – and worse with the shorter fellows.

She is typical of the locals – they resent all we do for them. They seem to forget that until we arrived they had no idea what a shovel was! The Picts are not bad though. Flavius says that with C Picts and C shovels he could construct IV kilometres of roads per diem.

I cannot wait to get home and am ever grateful that your wise counsel led me to invest all my dinars in that little townhouse in Pompeii. At least there is no air pollution there.

Hail Caesar and all that,

Octavius

  1. PS: Don’t forget the money. I really don’t know where all my coins go.

 

Once again, wearing the mantle of leader, I had the onerous responsibility to lead my five faithful companions into the unknown and bring them safely back to their loved ones. What was, in 2002, a one-off idea called the Tour de Farce, had now become, like the Tour de France itself, firmly established as an annual event. Why were we doing it? We were still uncertain. As Lance Armstrong said, “It’s not about the bike.” That much we knew. Alan said it was more about the stomach.

The Thames is only 338 km long. That’s not far, I can hear you say. After all, the Eastern Cape’s famous giant earthworms are longer than that. I can only repeat that I do wish readers would refrain from interrupting. Yet to cycle from the Thames’ source to its estuary was to take a week of steady pedalling and refuelling on low octane English ale from which beverage we were, nevertheless, able to achieve 35 km a litre.

Our route and stopovers were organised by a Buckinghamshire company, Capital Sports, whose motto was, “Gentle Cycling.” The lads squirmed with embarrassment when I mentioned “Gentle Cycling” for although our average age was by now sixty-seven, we were a rugged bunch who, even in the South African winter, could sometimes be seen outside without jerseys.

There was even more shuffling of the feet when I broke the news that after the Thames we were going to cross to France for a week-long celebratory tour of the Lower Loire Valley, to celebrate the completion of our fifth expedition. This I had booked through a widely known Manchester group called “Cycling for Softies”, which specialises in cycling in France. It seemed “Softies” did everything for the cyclist except pedal. I had to remind Susi Madron, “Softies” proprietor in Manchester, that we were not softies. She said she fully understood but what did we expect Cycling for Softies to do – change its name to Cycling for Toughies?

There were the usual misgivings when we discussed the finer details of the Thames expedition. Only days before we were due to leave, Richard emailed to ask if I’d seen the current temperatures along the Thames Valley. They were as low as 1 degree Celsius. Even our campaign-hardened photographer, Alan, was worried about his pixels freezing. I told them to pull themselves together. It would be the Merry Month of May, the height of springtime in England.

To save time we decided to fly the first 10 000 km from Johannesburg, once again using a British Airways aeroplane. BA agreed to drop us off at London’s Heathrow Airport which, they pointed out, was in the Thames Valley. Capital Sports would then bus us to Ewen where our bikes were tethered and the Thames Eye was waiting to be discovered.

We found Cirencester a pleasant little city and we visited its ancient cathedral built centuries ago by the wool barons of the Cotswolds. The contrast between Britain’s austere and poorly illuminated cathedral interiors and Europe’s flamboyant basilicas with their gilded statues and unrestrained baroque ornamentation is profound and says a lot about the differences between Continentals and the Brits, though I am not sure what.

Accompanied by Wendy Carter who had met us at Heathrow Airport and who is a guide with Capital Sports, and Mike Dunmore, an Oxford-based guide (he is also Capital Sport’s Mr Fix-It) we then drove a few kilometres from Cirencester to some undulating farmland near the village of Ewen whose name means “river source.” We stopped at an open farm gate from where we walked a kilometre or so over a knoll and down into a pretty glade with a copse whose floor was covered in bluebells.

Here Wendy pointed out a shallow, bath-sized depression of exposed limestone. An adjacent slab of engraved Cotswold rock proclaimed that this was it – this was the source of the Thames – “Thameshead.” It was bone dry. We found it very hard to believe that this was the eye of Britain’s most famous river.

Rex said the world had come to a pretty pass when one could no longer believe what was cast in stone. We stared at the hole for as long as seemed appropriate before trudging back over the knoll.

Wendy told us there are people who say that the Thames’ real source is a few kilometres north of Cirencester, a little south of Cheltenham. This is where the River Churn rises. The Churn, at an elevation ever so slightly higher than the Thames, joins the Thames east of Cirencester and many people say the Thames should be renamed the Churn. Anyway, the Thames is properly called the Isis all the way down river until it passes Oxford. In Oxford itself people hiss if you refer to the river as the Thames. It is always the Isis.

We found this all very confusing and, as we’d forgotten to bring a tape measure to measure distances.  As Rex said, “It’s all too much.” As it was practically lunchtime, we unanimously agreed to return to the Wild Duck Inn.

With Wendy and Mike, we dined in a cosy corner of the ancient tavern and discussed the week that lay ahead. My mind wandered off on its own, as it so often does, and I thought about earlier customers who had sat in this very corner of the tavern, centuries ago, debating even weightier matters – matters such as whether the earth was flat and whether you’d fall off the edge if you sailed too far out to sea, and whether inserting tadpoles into the ear was a genuine cure for The Plague or whether it was just an apothecary’s trick to sell tadpoles.

We ordered our first English pint of ale and solemnly raised our glasses to the Tour de Farce V.

[Extract from Blazing Bicycle Saddles available via Smashwords or Kindle.] 

The most beautiful site in Tuscany – in fact anywhere

(An extract from “Blazing Bicycle Saddles” – the story of how a bunch of retired daily newspaper editors from Africa decide to explore “Darkest Europe” and bring back to Africa stories of the funny natives there.)

I’m sure it was sheer fatigue that led to our confusion after landing in Rome and making our way to Tuscany. At the central railway station, considering we were all seasoned travellers, we had the devil’s own job finding the train to Florence where we were due to change for Certaldo, the starting point of our cycle ride across Italy. The Italian rail system does not make things easy for foreigners. In fact, we were often left with the impression that the Italians actively dislike visitors and would much rather would-be tourists stayed home and posted their money to them.

While I stayed with the luggage the other five set off in different directions on intelligence-gathering missions. One found the train to Florence was leaving from platform 1, two said it was from platform 4 and a fourth was told platform 9. As two concurred on platform 4 that is where we went. There we found an Italian family who assured us we were on the right platform and pointed to the indicator screen which read “Firenze” (It’s difficult to say why the Italians get the spelling so wrong.) It worried us, though that there were so few people yet the train was imminent. With only five minutes to go the family suddenly panicked and ran off into the distance shouting “Sette!” (Seven!) We hurtled along in their wake and were just in time to leap aboard the train. Thank goodness, I thought, that Peter who had just joined our team and at 58 was by far the youngest, had reduced the team’s average age (seventy one) to well below seventy, because we could never normally have run that fast with our luggage.

The train sped through countryside that was bathed in autumn sunshine and it seemed that every other hill wore a crown in the shape of a medieval citadel. As the express quietly hummed along and the blue-grey olive groves and lush vineyards slid past, some of us dozed off.

We reached Certaldo late in the afternoon and stepped out of the station, sweaty and unshaven after 24 hours of travelling by air from Johannesburg and on trains. We surveyed the town’s steep Via San Giugno leading up to the base of the centuries-old fortified upper town – Certaldo Alto where our hotel was situated at the summit. Although there is a funicular it meant a 500 m walk to get to it so we hired two taxis for the ascent through the maze of narrow cobbled streets to the very summit itself.

After booking into the 400-year-old Hotel Vicario Osteria we were supposed to turn left out of the front door and walk down the street to our rooms in a more modern 300-year-old annex. But something made us turn right. Call it a sixth sense if you like but we did it in perfect unison with our instinctive finch-like flocking motion. In retrospect it was probably because there was no sign reading “caffé” if we’d turned left and we were seriously dehydrated. Around the corner we saw – and I will try not to be too sentimental about it – one of the most beautiful sights in Tuscany. Nay, in the whole of Europe at the time. We found ourselves in a thirteenth-century piazza and there, on an iron table in a shady corner, a shaft of sunshine was beaming down on an object of singular beauty – a large glass of golden beer. We flopped into chairs and ordered one each – our first Italian draft birra. It came in a litre-sized mug and a minute or two later we were staring into our empty glasses. Well, at least, I was.

Later, too tired to change the clothes we had worn overnight and having decided on an early night, we wandered down a steep and narrow alley to a delightful restaurant where we sat on a terrace with a panoramic view of Upper Tuscany. In the valley below were Roman walls and tiled roofs glowing in the setting sun. Far to the south, high on a hill was a citadel, toothier with medieval towers than any we’d seen up to now – San Gimignano, our destination the day after tomorrow.

Some of us ordered wild boar for dinner. Remembering how the Ancient Romans had tried to domesticate Africa’s guineafowl I ordered that. It was excellent. Everything was excellent and we joined in some banter with an English family at the next table.

It was a clear, warm evening and, as the sun slid below the hills the lights of distant villages competed with the stars. We raised our glasses to Italy and toasted a lot of other things besides. Even our wives again. Alan suggested we send them flowers on the morrow. The silence that followed was broken by Rex who said with his usual gravity, “Never do anything that might vaguely suggest to those at home that we might be feeling even a tiny bit guilty about being here without them.” We solemnly raised our glasses to our treasurer’s unquestionable wisdom.

We agreed that as we had the whole of the next day to spare we would get a train back to Florence and spend the day there.

 

A matter of class

Being a travel writer I fly around a lot – some of it by plane. I love taking off for an unusual destination. Even more, I love taking off from that unusual destination bound for home.

On one occasion I was flying first class to London – a rare treat but travel writers occasionally get upgraded – and I found myself sitting next to the head of the London Stock Exchange. (It wasn’t, of course, just his head on the seat. There was a considerable amount underneath.)

I shared with him my expert opinion on the world economy. He occasionally nodded and sometimes even seemed startled.

I had sworn that on this trip I would eat and drink in Spartan moderation and I had managed to stick rigidly to this resolution right up until I entered the plane and was offered champagne. Free champagne is difficult to resist. Then came dinner… well the meals are such that it would have been churlish to have sent back an unfinished one. The hors d’oeuvres was “Osietra caviar from the Caspian Sea”.

“I am rather partial to Osietra caviar,” I told my companion. “Much prefer it to Black Sea caviar.”

“Really?” he said.

I then had roast duck served with grilled mango.

My travelling companion had chosen a delicious looking fish dish. I peered closely at it and frowned. Then I looked again at the menu and saw he must have chosen the “Chef’s choice”. Now why didn’t I do that? I suggested we swop but he said he’d rather not.

I read out to him that the menu said the dish “was developed for the Culinary Olympics in Berlin”.

The Culinary Olympics! “Give me a knife and fork and get me to the Culinary Olympics and I’d do my country proud!” I said.

“Undoubtedly,” he said.

I chose a 1994 Pinotage because of its “soft tannins” and wondered aloud whether business class gets harder tannins and “cattle class” gets tannins as tough as old boots.

Airlines have, since then, mostly done away with first class and now meld it with business class which is also luxurious. Often, after travelling business class, I have difficulty adjusting to the social level of my family and friends.

I rummaged in the complimentary toilet bag and worked out how “Ooncle Jum” (as I am called by my English relatives whom I intended visiting en passant) would distribute the largesse among his nieces and nephews. I’d be able to give one nephew the shoehorn; another the tiny toothbrush with the tiny one-squeeze toothpaste tube; another the comb; while my four lucky little nieces would get, respectively, the little bottle of toilet water, one earplug each and the toilet bag itself.

My sniffy little cousin Prudence would get the sick bag.

After dinner I felt like pulling back the heavy curtains that divided first class from business class and then the curtains that separate business class from tourist and, in the name of egalitarianism, tossing my first class chocolates among those at the far back. But, instead, I ate them while revealing to my Stock Exchange companion my plan for accelerating the world’s economic recovery.

I noticed he drank champagne with his dinner. I mentioned that I had been told to avoid drinking anything sparkling when flying because if the aircraft has to increase altitude the bubbles in one’s stomach expand and one could find oneself floating, like a dirigible, against the ceiling with no chance of descending until the plane resumed a lower altitude.

He looked at me for a long time.

As I say, I enjoy flying overseas but there’s nothing quite like it when, at the end of a sojourn, one gets to the airport well in time to relax before one’s departure and settles in the business lounge where drinks and snacks are free.

On the return journey I acquire yet another toilet bag but the last time I did the distribution bit at home, one of my daughters said: “Oh no, Daddy, not another shoehorn!”

Talk about spoilt! There are some kids who’ve never even seen a shoehorn.

[Extract from "Recalculating" (The funny side of travel)  available on Kindle and Smashwords].

The garden gnomes liberation front

A couple of years ago London’s Chelsea Flower Show reluctantly admitted garden gnomes for the first time in its 100 year history.

The English are funny about gnomes.

A few years ago somebody sneaked some into the show and unveiled them when nobody was looking. Shocked, show officials reeled about clutching their head bones – mainly I think because the gnomes were naked.

With or without clothes garden gnomes have come to be regarded by “top gardeners” (to quote a Chelsea horticulturalist) as the worst kind of garden kitsch.

Nevertheless, gnomes keep coming into the news.

A few years ago a house-owner in Tipton in the English Midlands was advised by the council that the two garden gnomes outside her front door were illegal. Each was no higher than a milk bottle. The council said “people might trip over them when running from a fire” – and I suppose, go arse over Tipton (if you’ll forgive me madam).

I would have supported the council but only because I believe keeping gnomes is cruel.

In Paris there’s a movement called the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The GGLF kidnaps garden gnomes “to free them from domestic captivity” and returns them to their natural woodland habitat.

A few years ago 11 were found hanging from a tree – a mass suicide.

Some years ago I wrote about the GGLF and a woman telephoned to say her garden gnome had been stolen and that a week later she had received a postcard from the gnome saying he was at the seaside and having a wonderful holiday.

As I had, not long before, written about liberating gnomes, the woman (who sounded genuinely upset) blamed me for putting the idea into somebody’s head.

A week later she phoned again. She said that when she woke up her gnome had mysteriously reappeared. (Her gnome was ghome.) She said his face and hands had been varnished to a deep tan.

Gnomes do deserve sympathy.

Just listen to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

“Rumps” is head gnome in a suburban garden. He has faced the same fence for 24 years.

He can see the front gate and one of his favourite distractions is the tumultuous arrival, once a week, of shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes. They come for the dustbins. Rumps has no doubt that they are angels and I’ll tell you why if only you’d be patient.

Rumps can also see the ridiculous little fishpond where dwells another garden gnome, Cyprinus, with his pointy red hat long faded to pink, holding a fishing rod with no line attached. His mind has long gone.

(Gnomes – their name is from a Greek word meaning intelligence – generally communicate using an extrasensory method.)

Rumps frequently ponders human heartlessness. He’s heard all about the human cruelty to metal birds which people buy at the roadside only to condemn them to a lifetime standing rigidly in one spot.

But metal birds at least have an ally – rust! Rust soon puts them out of their misery.

But ceramic gnomes go on forever.

A few doors down the road a gnome has stood “frozen” for 10 years in a bed of agapanthus whose pointed leaves tickle his noise and about which he can do nothing.

There is a rather gloomy gnome whose mismatched head comes from a different body – he came from a broken gnome.

Fortunately garden gnomes have their faith. Rumps often has to remind the more despondent gnomes that when they are irreparably broken – mercifully smashed by small children, or sent flying by a clumsy dog, or hit by a lawnmower – the pieces are placed in a large bin behind the house from where they are taken to the gate. Their remains are then carried off by the shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes who empty the bins into the Big Truck  that takes them off to paradise.

 

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