• 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.

James Bond – the truth

I saw an old James Bond movie on television recently and it reminded me of the words of the French director-general of La Securité Exterieure almost 20 years ago. He said, “Avez-vouz une bonne recette pour le poulette?” He added as an afterthought, “Aimez-vous le riz au lait?”  

Being a bit of a linguist, I knew immediately what he was trying to say – that the old-type spy, such as  James Bond, was obsolete and that office-bound nerds behind computers were taking over.

 I was in counter-espionage myself in those days.

 Let me take you back to 1976. 

I was in a Rome hotel. Bond entered the room by kicking down the door. We old boys in counter-espionage never knocked. Bond suspected I had gone over to the other side. It was a story MI5 had put around to help me infiltrate the Russians. 

Bond said, “The name’s Bond. James Bond. Double-O-Seven. Licensed to kill and all that.” 

I said, “The name’s Clarke. James Clarke. 76598/337/76447A. Licensed to sell toiletries in the magisterial district of…” 

Bond was not amused and cut me short, “Where’s Botvinik?”  I neither answered nor got up. I stayed where I was – in the bathtub, with my little plastic battleship, trying to sink the floating lid of the shampoo bottle.

Frankly, although I did not show it, I was surprised to hear Bond was still chasing Botvinik. Botvinik, I could have told him if I’d wanted, had been switched to computers long ago but had proved too old to adapt and so the Russians had, as we computer buffs might say, configurated him. 

I sat there, tossing the soap from hand to hand to show my total indifference to the Walther pistol leveled at my head. Inevitably, I dropped the soap and had the devil’s own job catching it again under water.

Bond waited, arms folded, pistol cradled in the crook of his arm. I found the soap, tossed it to him and said, “Catch!”

He automatically dropped his gun and tried to catch the soap, but it kept popping out of his hands. While he was thus occupied, I nipped out of the bath, shaved, squirted a little Mum under the armpits, dressed, got the fat end of my tie to hang lower than the thin end and leapt into my old Toyota 1.6.

 I saw in my rear-view mirror Bond gunning his Aston Martin DB 116 in my wake. Thus we burned up the kilometers on the Roma/Napoli autostrada.

In all his 30 years in the game, Bond never scared me. I knew too much about him. He was no better than those wimps who appear in cough mixture ads on television, whose wives give them medicine and tuck them into bed. But Bond doesn’t have a wife.

Ever wondered about that?

Bond was gaining. My previous Toyota had a special feature – at speed, its hubcaps fell off, causing the fellow behind to lose concentration. My present car had no hubcaps, so I ripped the spine off my copy of Computing for Dummies and tossed it out of the window. As the pages stuck against  Bond’s windscreen he hit 16 Alfas and eight Fiats.

I visited him in hospital. He was entirely cocooned in plaster and I’d been chatting to him for at least half an hour before I realised the cocoon was empty and that Bond was behind me, this time with a 9mm parabellum leveled at my 166mm cerebellum.

I never carried a gun – the bang always makes me jump – and the nearest bar of soap was in the bathroom. But I fooled him. I shouted, “Catch!”

His gun clattered to the floor. I kicked it under the bed. He was helpless.

“I’ve brought you flowers,” I said.

He was touched. I left him holding them. They were timed to explode in 60 seconds.   .


  It was only in the 1990s that the Queen of England agreed to pay personal income tax – a formality she was neither familiar with nor particularly happy with. The visit by Nelson Mandela in 1996 prompted her to make special representations regarding a rebate.

To HM Inspector of Taxes

From HM Queen Elizabeth II


We have been Queen of England now for more than 40 years and, as you know, we have agreed to pay tax on our personal income. Ipso facto we have a right to claim certain expenses and we thought you should take into consideration the enclosed material pertaining to our ever-increasing living costs.

Our husband, as my Inspector of Taxes is doubtless aware, has been out of work since he left our Navy in 1951. Our eldest son, HRH the Prince of Wales, is unemployed at present although he does perform a lot of duties for us and has tried his hand, not terribly successfully, at painting pictures.

Our daughter is, at the time of writing, again married but our two sons are underemployed and their contributions to household and palacehold expenses amounted to a mere £196 in the financial year although HRH Prince Andrew did occasionally bring home take-aways.

In addition HM The Queen Mother continues to be with us and, at 96, is getting through 12 bottles of Saluza 45 (King Size)a day and three boxes of Carter’s Little Liver Pills.

Our travel expenses are itemised from page 289 to 401 and will need sympathetic attention involving as they do 10 Rolls Royces, Six Jaguars, 12 Land Rovers and Range Rovers, five superannuated Austins, eight coaches, 12 Landaus, various bicycles, 786 horses, two helicopters and a largish boat.

To give you an example of the enormous costs involved – the simple act of entertaining Mr Nelson Mandela last week and accompanying this gentleman just once round the block involved the Household Cavalry, the Queen’s Own Highlanders and the Queen’s Flat of Foot; 278 horses, 60 footmen, 417 security men and 457 others.

You will see from the enclosed (pages 578-89) that we are trying to contain expenses by, possibly, disbanding the Household Cavalry and, instead, training the corgis as watchdogs. This will entail inaugurating the position of HM Keeper of the Corgis which, I trust, will be deductable.

As far as running costs at Buckingham Palace (pages 667-759) and our other palaces are concerned, although the bonds are paid off, running costs are heavy. You will recall we lost a section of Windsor Castle to fire in 1992, and it was not insured. We still owe the plumbers.

And we wish to draw my Inspectors attention to entertainment. Our request for £699 876 765.57 may appear, at a cursory glance, to be a trifle excessive but HM Controller of the Purse Strings, the Hon Sir Angus McMeany, assures us that the claims are reasonable.

Take the banquet which we organised on behalf, let it be emphasised, of our loyal subjects, for Mr Mandela. It involved 600 personnel, not to mention several trips to Fortnum and Mason before we managed to procure fresh sole which, one may point out, was hardly touched by that worthy gentleman although it cost the earth. This is not to say that others in his party did not eat very heartily indeed. Indeed they did. As for wine, they drank as only South Africans can. You must appreciate they don’t sip like Englishmen.

We also had to entertain, for diplomatic reasons, the Sultan of Jumpah. I am not sure if you are acquainted with the price of sheep’s eyes and stuffed camel bladders which have to be specially brought in from somewhere south of London, but you will probably be surprised to learn that the hors d’oeuvres alone amounted to £78 987.98.

We sincerely hope this helps towards your understanding our claim for deductions set out hereunder, enclosed herewith, please find.

Signed. Elizabeth II.


  A small child wrote: “Everyone is a human bean.”

 Yes, that’s us – black, white; male, female; thick or thin – we are all simple human beans. It is a stunning truth told by a schoolchild.

Stunning? Well, as another child wrote:

“He was so stund, he just stud there.”

Those two gems were collected by teacher Joel Goldstock of Huntington Park High School in Southern California and immortalised by columnist Jack Smith of the Los Angeles Times many years ago.

Such items are sometimes called “Pullet Surprises” – again, a phrase borrowed from a confused child who meant to write “Pulitzer Prize”

In 1993 I invited readers of my column to send me Pullet Surprises. One of the first came from Tug Wilson of Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, a collector of “howlers”. A child wrote that the future of “I give” is “I take”.

I amassed some great classics:

“The direction of the Alps is straight up.”

“One by-product of raising cattle is calves.”

“The four seasons are salt, pepper, vinegar and mustard.”

“Oliver Cromwell had a large red nose but beneath it were deeply religious feelings.”

“The blood circulates through the body by going up one leg and down the other.”

“The inhabitant of Moscow are called Mosquitoes.”

“He is a sex thimble.”

“I know where babies come from. Women produce the eggs and man produces the spam.”

“When you put Roosevelt and Wilson side by side, you can see that they had few differences but their contrasts weren’t that similar.”

“It’s hard to imagine, but some day I’ll be a mother. First, I’ll get pregnant, then I’ll spend nine months in hard labour.”

“I like everybody. I don’t have any enemas.”

“I would hate to kill him. That would really ruin his life.”

“The best part of the cow is the pork chops.”

“Suicide can really kill you.”

But it was the innocent mistakes of the smaller children that were most amusing. One of my favourites:

“Without an education, many people would be dum.”

School magazines are useful repositories of Pullet Surprises and I was able to collect many indigenous gems:

The Highveld Primary School’s magazine (the school is in The Hill, a suburb south of Johannesburg) recorded how Standard 1 pupils responded to the question “What is your mother like first thing in the morning?”

“All floppy” – (Dwayne); “Looks like zombie” (Michael); “Looks nice, to be onest” (Daniella).

Sabrina, when at that school, wanted to be “a melan air”.

From St Stithian’s College magazine in 1991:

“Dear God,

“Isent it boring up there? It must be. Now lets get on. Well thank you for all the things you have done… I do hope you beet the devil. – Jonty Tasker.”

From Mondeor Primary School magazine:

Who were the first inhabitants of South Africa? The Hoppenpops. (Std 3)

How do we come into the world?  Naked and poor.

Where is Holland? Overseas.

Who was William Shakespeare? A Zulu warrior.

Who was Alexander Graham Bell?  He invented the paragraph.

Sowetan schoolboy Tshepo Mamatu of Barnato Park School, Johannesburg, sent me some “pullet surprises” by his sister Avril Mofoteng, a Wits student who wrote them 10 years before when at Moodea Preparatory School, Evaton. I often wonder what Avril did to him when she found out he had immortalised her howlers.

Her teacher invited pupils to write a scary piece about “The night I was alone . . .” Avril wrote: “I heard footsteps… it was a snake.”

When asked to write about “the kind of mother I am going to be”, she wrote:

“I wish fore my childs. I only want a gile. But I don’t wont her to be in me like many mums so I will by her frome the hospitolle.”

Some teachers take a huge risk in asking pupils to write down what they think of teachers… “She looks very old,” wrote a child of her 25-year-old teacher.

Cari Maclean of Bryandale Primary, Sandton: “My teacher is at school to teach us how to spull.”

An admiring pupil, Dominic Filocha at Bryandale Primary: “My teacher is clever. She is good at sharpening pencils.”

And, when the class was asked to complete “The most important thing in the world is…

Gary Odendal wrote: “Your bodi, if you don’t tac cer of your bodi you can di.”

From Risidale Primary School, Randburg:

“I am clever because I’ve got what it takes – BRAINS!” – Janita Candelaria.

“I am clever because my teacharer teachars me.” – Sheri Kindler.

And then there was Robyn Donaldson of Rosebank Primary School writing about springtime:

“Love is in the ear.”

Nicolas Green, when in Standard 1 at Bryandale Primary School, Sandton wrote:

“God said Adam must have a partner. So when Adam was sleeping in the bushes God took one of his ribs out and made a woman. And when Adam woke up he nearly died.”

Schools themselves can come with some good “Pulletsers” – Benje Joseph of Sunset Acres, Northlands, Johannesburg says a local school sent round a circular:

“We are asking for donations for a swimming pool that the school needs. If we do not get enough contributions we will hold a school concert.”

(email: jcl@onwe.co.za)


  One of the most dangerous things a schoolteacher can do is ask pupils to write what they think of their teacher.”My teacher is fat and screams all day,” wrote one child.

“Miss Smith is nice but not very bright,” wrote another.

An insightful view came from Glen Shaw of Rosebank Primary when he was in Std 1. He produced a frank expose of a day in the life of a teacher:

“They get up and have a shower, get drest, have breakfast. Then they go to school, sine our work and have tea and go home. They watch TV and go to sleep.”

I would like to ask Glen Shaw and other fearless classroom critics what they think goes on in that secret room called the Staff Room. Most people know, of course, that teachers go to the staff room to eat all the apples and sweets they have confiscated from pupils and then they eat cake and fortify themselves with generous glasses of sherry. And there they plot ways to get their own back on the parents of precocious kids.

Picture the scene: three teachers in the Staff Room put their heads together and, cackling and rubbing their hands, they dream up HOMEWORK PROJECTS.

They chant the first verse of the Teachers’ Anthem:

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair:

Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Ms Hecate: Cackle, cackle. I have given my little monsters Ancient Egypt as a project. Do you know how difficult it is finding pictures of Ancient Egypt?

Last year it gave Felicity Worthington’s mother a nervous breakdown – she thought she was a labrador and began chasing cars up and down the road. Jenny Mclean’s mother was caught stealing pictures from a public library book!

Ms Graymalkin screams with laughter. Prancing forward she tells the others how she gave her class a project on soil conservation because it is so difficult finding good information. She says she had just heard that little Johnny Stewart’s father, who runs a big computer business, is helping Johnny by enlisting the aid of one of the secretaries as well as an assistant manager with a BSc – and they have so far worked 22 hours on the project. Her red eyes narrow as her thin, purple lips mouth the words:

“Sleep shall neither night nor day

Hang upon his pent-house lid…”

She adds with a shriek: “And when Little Johnny hands in his project I shall give him… and his father… a D minus!”

Shrieks of hideous laughter fill the air as the three prance around a table containing a pile of unmarked geography books and sandwiches containing eye of newt, toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog.

Mrs Paddock, burying her long pointed teeth into a big red, confiscated apple, shrieks: “I have given mine a project on Sandton Square. Do you know what that means?

“It means their parents will have to take their kids there and some will feel obliged to invite their little classmates and they’ll all want sweets and icecream and hamburgers and some will stray and get lost.

“Last year Mrs Swinton took eight children to the square and roped them together so they wouldn’t get lost. Ha! Then she put them in a lift but only half fitted in… Haaaar haaar haaar!”

Ms Garmalkin leaps forward, her twiggy hands clawing the air in ecstasy:

“When shall we three meet again

In thunder, lightning or in rain?”

Mrs Paddock cries: “When the hurry-burly’s done.

When all the projects have been done!”

A flash of lightning, the bell goes, all three smooth down their dresses and recompose their features and walk briskly back to their respective classrooms.


  It was pouring again. Lightning picked at the cityscape.Nobody in the scurrying, home-going crowd had a raincoat.

Johannesburg’s 1,73 million people possess only three raincoats among them, two dating back to the last really wet year, 1933.

On the rain-sodden corner of Diagonal and Pritchard streets stood the most stunning girl I have seen since Jennifer O’Neill in “The Summer of ’42”. She could not have been 19.

Thirty-six maybe, but not 19.

At her age she had probably never really experienced rain before. Not real rain like this. Not rain that goes on and on for seven or eight minutes registering more than 10 mm on the Richter Scale.

I had spotted her as I was driving past the old Stock Exchange. She was wet through. Her sleek blonde hair fell in wet strands on her bronzed shoulders (it would grow again, I was sure) and her blouse, transparent with rain, clung to her voluptuous goose-pimpled breasts.

My eyes travelled downwards, following the curve of her thigh to which her wet skirt clung like a second skin.

It was then that I ran over five pedestrians and cannoned off a passing minibus, clean through the plate glass window of Yashat Patel and Sons, curry merchants, fogging the air with a billowing, powdery, yellow imitation of a World War 1 mustard gas attack.

Somewhere a fire started and a distant siren wailed.

I slowed down.

Miraculously I was not badly hurt – a limb or two some lacerations. Nothing inoperable.

But I knew no pain as I alighted from the car and groped my way blindly across Diagonal Street, searching, searching for HER.

In retrospect, I suppose, I should not have groped. But there it is. One thinks of these things only afterwards, on the way to jail.

At least I was able to enjoy two seconds of tactile ecstasy which more than made up for the 10 minutes she spent spraying me with mace and sandbagging me with her enormous carpet bag.

Only when she saw my gaping wounds did she ease up and, perhaps thinking she herself was responsible, help me to my feet and into a Keep Your City Clean bin.


 Some may wonder how it was that I became the modest L*E*A*D*E*R of the Yellow Six patrol in the 1st Streetly Boy Scouts when it is only in the Wolf Cubs that groups of six are generally formed. Our group of six Boy Scouts – and we were indeed real Boy Scouts with pointy hats and incredibly dangerous knives – was a complete patrol despite its low number. We remained only six because, well, nobody else would join us. I suppose the flies bothered them.The ‘yellow’ label had to do with the yellow tabs we wore on our shirts. Each Scout patrol had an animal as a mascot and each animal was identified by a different colour tab.

A green and black tab meant the Scouts were of the Eagle patrol whose members aspired to ‘soar like an eagle’. This was a very casualty-prone patrol. The Beaver patrol resolved to ‘work hard’ and wore blue and yellow (I am not sure what they got up to.) The Wolf patrol, with its yellow and black, was ‘true unto death’. There was a Hippo patrol but, again, I am not sure what they aspired to do – presumably float around in swamps.

As each patrol crept about in the park, members would keep in touch by making noises appropriate to their chosen animal. The Wolf patrol howled and the Bulldog patrol barked; the Elephant patrol trumpeted while the Bat patrol went (according to Baden-Powell’s instructions) ‘Pitz-pitz’. This was intended to mask one’s presence by fooling picnickers into assuming there were merely wolves passing through the park, or a small herd of elephants, or a flock of eagles, and people would carry on, oblivious, playing ball or picking ants out of their sandwiches.

It didn’t always work that way.

My patrol was originally the Panther patrol which had yellow flashes. In Scouting for Boys the panther call is described as: ‘tongue inside of mouth – Keeook!’ We soon found that creeping around the park crying ‘Keeook!’ attracted unwanted attention and picnickers would sometimes call a park attendant or pack up their kids and go home.

The Elephant patrol sometimes had bigger problems. So did the Gannets so far from the sea, with their cry of ‘Aaarrr’. The Hyena patrol, which had to emit ‘a laughing cry – Ooowah-oowah-wah’, were sometimes set upon by whole families. After all, the last hyena to be seen in the English Midlands was in the late Pleistocene and older people obviously had unhappy memories of them.

Anyway, our panther cry of ‘Keeook’ didn’t sound very fierce so we changed to an animal whose sound was at least easy to mimic – the peewit or lapwing This call startled but never frightened picnickers.

Our change from being the Jaguar patrol to the Peewit patrol was not the first time we had changed animal mascots. Originally we were the Woodpecker patrol whose official call was ‘heear flearfle’ which, we discovered, the British public was not yet ready for. The peewit’s colour tab was green and white. But as our mothers had already changed our tabs from woodpecker (red and white) to jaguar (yellow) they steadfastly refused to change tabs for a third time. So the pewits retained the yellow jaguar tabs – and hence the ‘yellow’ in the illustrious Yellow Six.

(email: jcl@onwe.co.za)

(The Yellow Six is a book originally published in 1995 by Penguin (SA) and publihed in the UK in 2005 by Brewin Books, Birmingham)


  What with the strike in the public service and Secretaries’ Day coinciding last week, business fizzled and telephones went unanswered throughout Johannesburg.It was no different at the headquarters of the Stoep Talk Organisation. Threnody Higginbottom, my private secretary whose name we pronounce as “Smith” and who files everything under “M” for Miscellaneous, had conspicuously circled Secretaries’ Day on her desk calendar when it was still barely mid August outside.

I pretended not to notice. I like her to think I can remember special days unaided.

Halfway through Wednesday I said, “Happy Secretaries’ Day!” and from behind my back I brought out a surprise in an envelope. She opened it and exclaimed, “But it’s a Christmas card!” That was the surprise, I said.

Oh my, how we laughed.

Well, I certainly did.

It’s always nice to give a little surprise on Secretaries’ Day. Last year I surprised her with an expensive (and hardly used) “Get Well” card. The year before it was a birthday card.

Every boss should have a sense of humour.

I fully realise it is also incumbent on the boss to do something bordering on the generous on Secretaries’ Day otherwise you get tea slopped in your saucer for months afterwards. So I took Threnody, once again, to lunch at Bobo’s where, I was pleased to see, they’d installed seats at last. It made it a lot more comfortable than having to stand at the counter admiring the back-lit blown-up photographs of sausages and chips.

“This is your day,” I told her, “and you may order whatever takes your fancy! Spare no expense! Even the ‘Special’ – a ladies’ steak and chips, if you like.”

To be frank, this annual lunch requires a very real sacrifice on my part. It’s not just the money it’s that Threnody is so very reserved. She sits up very straight and tense while I tend to be an exuberant eater, waving my fork around and dropping things down my tie which, when I get home, I often dig straight into the compost heap.

I allow her to drop the “Mr Clarke” and just call me “Sir”. I call her “Threnody” although, in the office I never address her as anything but “Miss Smith”. Threnody ordered a small hamburger, with chips. I ordered just a cold drink for myself but told her not to worry about me. “Just relax,” I said. To show her that I was perfectly at ease and that there was no need for her to hurry the meal, I tapped a little tune on the table with my fingers.

The conversation, as always, comprised mainly of little fits of coughing.

Cough, cough, cough she went and then she said how long it had been since she’d had a salary increase. Naturally, I was curious. “How long?” I asked.

“(Cough. Cough.) Four years.”

She confessed she’d actually prayed for a rise. I was shocked that she should have gone above my head and said if she wanted a rise she must say so.

“(Cough. Cough.) Well, I do!” she said.

Then I too went into paroxysms of coughing and subtly changed the subject: “How’s your mother?” I asked. (A lot of bosses don’t care about their secretary’s family.)

“Fine,” she said.

I asked her if she liked my “surprise” card. She said “Yes.” Then I reminded her of last year’s “Get well” card and we had another jolly good laugh

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