• 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.

Report back on Zimbabwe

It was dawn. There I was, traversing a Zimbabwean swamp (rather intrepidly, even if I say so myself), the water above my boots and the reeds often above my head. I was hoping to flush an African Crake.
I’m a birder you see.
As I have said before, birding is a bit like train-spotting, except that a 600 ton train is easier to spot than a hiding bird. . And birding requires a lot more skill and far greater intrepidness and energy.
In fact it’s nothing like train-spotting and I don’t know why you even mentioned it.
Birds are not just beautiful, they are a mystery. That’s why birding is so absorbing.
[Aside: One of the mysteries, to me, is a typographical one: why do newspapers and other journals use capitals when writing bird names? They’d never write White Rhino or Blue Wildebeest. Yet even House Sparrows and the Penduline Tits, if you’ll pardon me, madam, get capital letters.]
Anyway, the swamp… it was the Monavale Swamp in Harare’s western suburbs, an internationally recognised birding site.
There we saw 40 species of birds, though the crake eluded us. Nevertheless I saw a Senegal Coucal which was a “lifer” for me (a lifer is a species seen for the first time).
Mary, my companion, whose “life list”, at that time, was over 650 birds, way ahead of mine, had seen one before.
We saw many species that people travel across the world to see.
We had booked three nights at each of three famed Zimbabwe birding areas – first around Harare which has an astonishing birdlife. Here we were taken into magnificent Miombo woodlands and forests.
We had flown into Harare and hired a small car and then for the 5-hour drive southeast to the Eastern Highland, a 4X4.
Here we spent three nights at Seldomseen in the mountainous Vumba region bordering Mozambique. It’s a delightful old colonial lodge with terraced gardens and a cathedral-like forest. Three days later we drove 3½-hours north, winding through spectacular scenery to Aberfoyle Lodge in the Honde Valley on Mozambique’s border. The valley is carpeted with tea plantations and deep forests.
These two areas are famous for some of the world’s rarest birds, found nowhere beyond.
We used quite brilliant Shona bird guides at $5 (US) an hour per person. Without their guidance we would have found only a tenth of the 180 species that we eventually found. I notched up an unbelievable 41 lifers and Mary, who’d birded there before, listed 24.
So excited did Seldomseen’s guide, Buluwesi Murambiwa, become that when we tracked down a difficult-to-find Spotted Creeper we’d been following for two hours, he hauled me into position by my collar. Mary, who’d also found a good vantage was pulling me just as vigorously in the opposite direction. I’m going to need a rugby jersey in future.
As both of us are beyond pensionable age we had gone to Zimbabwe with some misgivings regarding our safety. There was no need. Never did we feel insecure. Wherever we went, even in the remotest places, we were met with cheerful greetings and smiles.
Road blocks on trunk roads were manned by trim, smartly dressed policemen and women. They never solicit bribes. They used to. They’d inveigle $10 from passing tourists insisting something was wrong their car or their papers. But just before a tourism convention last year President Mugabe warned that any policeman found soliciting a bribe from a tourist would spend the rest of his life in jail.
They’re quite a contrast to South Africa’s often overweight , bribe-hungry police in their blue upholstery bursting at the seams.
Only once were we stopped. I signed an admission of guilt ($5) for not wearing a seat belt. The policeman’s white shirt was spotless and ironed.
[Footnote: Zimbabwe’s currency is US dollars and South African rands, though very few places accept rands.]

Grow a better brain

Some time ago, Tracey J Shors, professor of psychology in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Rutgers University in America wrote in Scientific American that brain neurons are constantly regrowing. The more you exercise your mind the more neurons you grow – even in old age.
Apparently exercising the brain is much like exercising your muscles. OK, you can’t do press ups with the brain but you can get it bubbling like porridge by thinking hard.
New neurons come and go so that if you sprout a bunch of them after some heavy thinking but afterwards revert to watching television while drinking beer the new neurons will die off from neglect.
I have always been interested in the brain and often pop upstairs onto my cranium and talk to the boys in the various departments.
After reading Professor Shors article I popped upstairs and knocked on a door labelled “Pondering Division” and entered (not that I have to knock of course – after all I own the place).
Everybody leapt to their feet and tried to look busy.
I gave a boss-like nod of acknowledgement to those assembled before asking the Head of Pondering (I call him, Hop),“Hop, how’s the neuron situation up here?”
“They’re coming in slowly,” he said. “Every time you write a column three more come tumbling down the chute. On the rare occasion you write about something intelligent or that is rather creative, a whole lot of them can come down.”
I told him about scientists experimenting on rats and pigs and finding that mental exercise keeps the brain constantly topped up.
Then it occurred to me: “Why use rats and pigs to gauge what makes humans tick?” Five or six shiny neurons come rattling down the chute.
Hop said, “What would you rather they use – earthworms?”
As my mind grappled with this question a single shiny ball rolled out of the chute and rolled across to the floor.
I told Hop about cognitive neuroscience – even as I pronounced this 20 neurons came bouncing out – and I told him about the imminent advent of brainchips.
I explained how one day I could have a chip inserted into my brain and then, without using my fingers, I could operate my pc while eating a hamburger with both hands. One’s thoughts alone could activate one’s computer which would instantly reveal what you were thinking.
“It worries me,” I said. “What if you are having a terribly private thought and the boss walks in and sees your screen – or, worse still, what if one’s wife walks in?”
An avalanche of little balls emptied into the room so that workers were skidding about on them.
HOP said, “Don’t ask me, I just work here.”
Scientists dealing with neurons find that alcohol retards the growth of neurons and that physical exercise stimulates growth – though the neurons die if not used fairly soon.
We are born with countless billions but once a child starts passively watching TV or idly playing on a laptop for hours on end the neurons die and one becomes first a teenage turnip and later a parliamentarian.

Back from Zimbabwe

This is a brief and hasty note to say we are back from the wilds of Zimbabwe – having spent our time mostly in the Eastern Highlands on the Mozambique border – nine days of birding in woodlands and cathedral forests and amid spectacular scenery.
There was not an uneasy moment and we felt perfectly secure at all times – security being my major concern before setting out.
I must now catch up with my columns etc but I must first put on record that even in the remotest areas we felt relaxed and secure and were greeted everywhere with smiles and greetings. Everywhere.
Incredibly, I found 43 “lifers” (species I’d never seen before and many of which are found only in small isolated habitats on the border. Mary who’s Southern African life list was already way beyond my own, saw 25 species new to her. (We used local birding guides daily).
Apart from the wilds …
Harare is in a state of decay with appallingly potholed roads and permanently broken traffic lights as well as rusting non-functioning street lights. Mutare too is in an advanced state of decay. Yet city and town drivers show no impatience despite traffic conditions and although taxis and cars cross through uncontrolled intersections half-a-dozen at a time rather than one by one, there’s no hooting or signs of aggression.
Beyond the cities the highways are excellent and the quality of driving is good.
Zim, we decided, is a wonderful country – despite its politicians.
Its remaining whites – although their quality of life and their properties have greatly deteriorated – show a great spirit. We came across no whinging. The Shonas – despite their poverty – are cheerful and well dressed.
I feel quite elated having rediscovered our northern neighbours. They’re nice people!
(I should add that our expedition was totally unsponsored and that we flew into Harare and so avoided the notorious Beit Bridge border post.)

Questions about Zimbabwe and touring there

Since my last post I have been assured that motoring in the remoter parts of Zimbabwe is not as bad as some make out. Nevertheless my (female) colleague and I, both on the wrong side of 60, feel rather vulnerable.
We are wondering if it would be safer to hire a driver. This would be for the six days that we’d be birding away from the Harare region where we will have a guide with us.
The e advantage of a driver would be to have somebody to look after the vehicle shouild we stop at the roadside to do a bit of birding or if we visit a popular tourist site – and we’d have somebody who speaks Shona should we run into trouble. On our last day we have to drive from Aberfoyle to Harare airport (5 hours).
A major disadvantage is that only one of us could then sit up front – birding from a back seat is useless.
Can somebody with experience regarding birding in Zimbabwe, espescially in the Eastern Highlands, advise us please?

Is it safe?

I have decided to turn this blogsite into a more informal site – to share some of the daft events that happen to me and some of the thoughts I have after 60 years in daily newspaper journalism in South Africa and the UK and New Zealand. Nothing very profound you understand.
I’ll treat blogging as a grown-up version of facebooking.
Right now I am finalising – with some trepidation – a nine day expedition to Harare’s surrounds but mainly to Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands (Honde & Burma Valleys, etc).
Mary and I are mainly birding but also seeking material for our travel articles in various magazines and newspapers for which we regularly contribute.
My concern is: how safe is Zimbabwe?
I have in the past enjoyed Zimabwe immensely – especially its friendly people, but I was last there in 1999.
These days I am deep into pensionable age and Mary only just. The two of us are, let’s say, vulnerable should we run into official or unofficial road blocks.
Not that I, personally, know of any such incidents though I have read of some – especially of police blocks where the officers are merely looking for bribes – as so many do in South Africa.
We are travelling in a rather remote part of Zimbabwe and a Zimbabwean has warned us:
1. Don’t stop on the side of the road and get out to admire the scenery or to identify a bird.
2. Don’t visit view sites or tourist sites on your own.
3. Hide your money is some unlikely places in the car (w’re hiring vehicle from Lucky Bean Car Hire in Harare).
4. Carry dollars of small denomination so that when you feel compelled to pay a bribe you don’t pull out $10 or $20 notes. Rands, despite being legal currency, are no good. They want US dollars.
5. The police are not always in uniform.
Can anybody enlighten me further? Are we taking an undue risk?

Interviewing Santa Claus

HO HO HO.
It was some greeting, considering what I had gone through to get to the North Pole.
I stood there on the steps of Number One, Ice Street, exhausted. My compass, totally confused, was spinning.
My pemmican had run out at Ornskoldsvik and I had been forced to eat my mukluks (gently fried in olive oil with a little peri-peri).
Even as I stood on the steps of Number One my stomach was growling. It was White Fang, my faithful sled dog – I had been forced to eat him.
Here I was, with terrible indigestion, standing next to a brass plate inscribed “S. Claus, B.Com., MBA”.
I said: “Father Christmas, I presume?”
He said: “Ho ho ho.”
“I am from The Daily Bugle and I bring tidings from all journalists.”
“Ho ho ho,” he said.
He directed me through vast halls filled with the rustling of Christmas paper as the elves and pixies wrapped gifts for good little children wherever they may be
He showed me into an office where, behind the desk sat Dr Deng Xiaoping, PhD., M.Com.,Llb., MBA (Beijing).
He said, “I’m Santa Claus’s boss – chief executive of Toyland”.
I was taken aback.
“I was hoping to interview Santa himself,” I said.
“Out of the question,” said Xiaoping. “We are way behind schedule. It’s mainly Santa’s fault. He suggested Toyland held back its orders on toys from China in the hope the currency would weaken.”
“Ho ho ho,” said Santa, embarrassed. He then rushed off.
At this stage a fairy came in and offered me tea and then minced out again.
I said, “What I’d like to know is how does Santa get all these toys to boys and girls in one night?”
“By reindeer sleigh, of course,” he said, surprised at my question.
“This time of year reindeer have completed their migration and are just standing around eating moss. They welcome a winter job with a bit of travel thrown in. Our big problem is updating the lists of good kids on the computers. I mean, what’s a naughty kid anymore?”
Good point.
In my day you were naughty if you walked through puddles in your best shoes. Nowadays kids knock off their parents to qualify for the orphans’ Christmas party. Yet child psychologists argue that this isn’t really being naughty so much as responding to negative sociological stresses aggravated by the pressures of the ‘me’ syndrome for which children cannot be blamed.
“And what’s all this ‘Ho ho ho’ stuff? Why is Father Christmas so inscrutable?” I asked.
Inscrutable? Even as I said the word it dawned on me – inscrutable! The Inscrutable Chinese… Of course! Father Christmas himself is a Chinese businessman in disguise!
The real Santa Claus had been kidnapped by the toy mafia in the Far East. It was my bounden duty as a newspaperman to tell the world.
Xiaoping, realising the secret was out, pressed a button on his desk and a gun-toting hobgoblin walked in and opened fire with lead-free bullets. I dropped where I stood, full of holes.
Suddenly somebody was shaking me by the shoulder. A huge pot-bellied man with a red track-suit and white beard was bending over me.
I realised I was still on the snow-covered doorstep of Number One. I had been dreaming – overcome by weariness and hunger.
Father Christmas said merrily : “Come in, my boy! Come in!
I was ushered into his warm home with its merry fire and smiling elves and pixies. A leggy Snow Queen brought in some mince pies and a cognac glass of genuine French anti-freeze.
I heard somebody saying, “Ho ho ho!” and immediately recognised the voice.
It was mine.

The Christmas exodus

Psychologist Dr Niki Swart, speaking some time back at a civil defence conference said that in a disaster situation seventy percent of people become confused and panicky while 10 percent scream and cry and the rest become distanced.
I have personal experience of this. It happens every time we go on holiday which is when the entire tribe migrates down to the kwaZulu/Natal North Coast.
It is not that we want to avoid dishing out Christmas boxes back in Johannesburg to those 300 or so dustbin men who arrive in impis shouting “happeeeeee!” and armed with authentic-looking letters claiming they are indeed our municipal dustbin men.
Although, to be honest, that is partly the reason.
It is really to avoid hearing “Jingle bells, jingle bells” every time I go the shops.
But I have long realised how right Dr Swart was. My family, when setting out on a long journey, manifests the first two syndromes – confusion/panic and screaming/crying.
I tend to be like the 20 percent and become “distanced”.
We usually go down to the sea in convoy taking hours because there are so many females and females have bladders the size of eyedrop bulbs and this necessitates stopping every 20 minutes.
And then the younger ones want crisps and soft drinks so that they can mash the chips into the back seat and set the cans, once almost emptied, rolling under the front seats going downhill and rolling back going uphill.
Nowadays we rendezvous at dawn at the house of either one of my daughters where we reverse over suitcases and where we burst plastic bags.
The women tend to bring enormous quantities of food as if the North Coast is served only by a single trading store that sells candles, salt and paraffin.
“How can you have bought all this stuff?”
“It just looks a lot,” I am told. “In any event you should just see how much we left behind on the supermarket shelves.”
The scene is reminiscent of a dockside as an ocean liner prepares for the Far East.
“Who are all these people?” I cry.
But really, I know, because I recognise many of their faces.
Meanwhile every burglar south of Harare can see he has two clear weeks to clean out the house. My son-in-law says, “I just hope they’ll have time to clean out my garage too”.
On one occasion when my granddaughter was small, she spied a packed taxi pulling up and called to the people getting out: “You see this house? Well, Jesus is looking after it because we’re going on holiday.”
The drive is filled with people shouting helpful things like: “Aren’t you folks ready yet for Pete’s sake?”
“Oh no, whose are all these bags?”
“They’re yours,” I am told.
“Wadyou mean?”
“Well, there’s the dog basket and a duvet in one…”
“Dog basket? I thought he was going to the kennels!”
Silly of me.
The scene changes to become reminiscent of the Grand Staircase on the Titanic. I slide into the phase Niki Swart describes as “helplessly withdrawn”.
Inevitably, irrepressibly, the convoy moves out, forsaking the agreeable highveld climate and the peace that engulfs the suburbs at Christmas and heads southeast towards the rains and the tropical humidity that lies ahead.

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