• 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.

Gorilla in their midst

It was The Selectors on the phone. They wanted to know if I still had contact with Freek Saunders, owner of the Ventersklip Private Zoo. Readers might recall the name – he owns Smiler, the semi-tame, 400kg gorilla that he trained to play rugby.

When I say “semi-tame”, I mean the gorilla’s discipline during games was about on a par with the All Blacks.

Some readers might recall how Freek tried Smiler out in 1996 when the Ventersklip Witrenosters agreed, as an experiment, to slip him into their team for their annual needle match against the Lichtenburg Wild Bulls.

The Witrenosters knew, heavy though their pack was, that they’d need a bit more weight if they were to succeed against the Bulls.

And, anyway, the Bulls themselves had few scruples. They once fielded a thinly disguised Massey Ferguson tractor on their side. After the match in which Smiler featured, many said that, from a sportsmanship point of view, it was not one of rugby’s nobler moments.

The final score, 378 – 0, and two dead, is still talked about.

Smiler’s main advantage is that he is good at tackling – he does it with one hand while he uses the other to tear the ball away. Sometimes hre tears away far more than that.

Provided that Smiler wears rugby togs, few people notice anything odd when he runs onto the field.

The long and short of it is that I was able to help The Selectors and, Smiler is now training with the Springoks.

But some people are worried. While the French might not notice gorillas in their midst, the English probably would. The Australians too. For this reason The Selectors might hold Smiler back until the Boks meet the All Blacks again.

It is true that when, in the Witrenosters game, Smiler ran out onto the field, some of the opposing side looked at him sideways. This was not so much because of his hair or absence of neck, nor was it because of his practically audible smell – it was because of the way in which Smiler stopped to scratch himself and for how long and where.

Freek directs Smiler from the touchline with a series of whistles, and in the loose scrum he has got Smiler to push the other side back 60m with team mates clinging to him.

Once, when a ref dared to show him a red card, he ate it.

The Witrenosters v Bulls went into two hours of injury time and the final movement was when Freek whistled to Smiler to “get ball”. Unfortunately it was just at the moment when the ball had been intercepted by the Witrenoster’s own captain, so Smiler took his own captain’s head off, tucked it under his arm, dropped onto his knuckles and went for the try line.

Fans on both sides now had reason to cheer him on although the captain’s wife was concerned that this might be a career-limiting injury for her husband.

Smiler touched down with the head, but the ref ruled against it – at least until Smiler menacingly moved towards him, beating his chest. Then he allowed it.

One of the worries The Selectors have is that for the first time in history a country will be fielding

a team weighing well over a ton and this might raise suspicions.

Footnote: Happily, the captain, after a transplant operation involving a pumpkin, was able to pursue a career in Parliament.

Secrets of the Staff Room

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 in agriculture – 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 a shopping mall. Do you know what that means?

“It means their parents will have to take their kids to the mall here 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 hurly-burly’s done.

When all projects have been done!”

A flash of lightning, the bell goes, all three, smoothing down their skirts, walk briskly back to their classrooms.

Taxiing to a dead stop

TOGETHERNESS Amadeus Tshabalala jinks his Toyota mini-bus taxi (with BMW hubcaps) through the rush-hour traffic.

He is a confident man of high spirits, as evidenced by the stickers on his rear window: “God loves Taxi Drivers” and “Defeat Constipation – Travel by Taxi”.

On the front of his taxi, above a dent which, ominously, is in the shape of a large traffic cop with his arms akimbo, is a placard reading: Northern Suburbs Express – Inaugural Flight.

Using the word “flight” is Togetherness’ little joke. He could well have used the word “fright” for such is his sense of humour.

We are witnessing (dear reader) the inaugural journey of a township taxi which hopes to establish a daily service between the quiet, leafy, mainly white  northern suburb of Jukskei Park and Johannesburg city centre. It is a 25km journey that takes Togetherness 8.5 minutes if it’s not too busy and assuming he can occasionally drive on the pavements to avoid queuing in traffic.

The percussion waves from Togetherness’ powerful radio cause the vehicle’s sides to rhythmically flex. He hoots as he drives. Togetherness hoots at anything he sees – including trees and pretty girls – as is the custom of township taxi drivers.

Aboard the taxi are a dozen white people. They do not come whiter. Their whiteness is not due to fear; it is due to stark terror. Take John Hilton. Never in his life has he experienced zero to 100 km/h in six seconds – not in heavy traffic.

Denise Smith’s colour had changed to green-white as quickly as the last traffic light changed to red – a colour which, as is traditional among taxi drivers, Togetherness ignores.

He looks over his shoulder – for a full minute – asking passengers their destinations. Elsbeth Brown, sitting right at the back, says. “Randburg centre!” She really wants to go all the way to Johannesburg centre but, suddenly, Randburg seems preferable.

She worries about how she will make her way from the backseat, but only fleetingly because the taxi has now reached Randburg and has stopped as suddenly as a plane might stop up against a mountain.

Now everybody is in front in a warm, intimate heap.

Elsbeth alights as gracefully as anybody can with one knee locked behind the other. She is vaguely aware of passers-by loosening her clothing and shouting: “Give her air!”

Togetherness bowls happily along Jan Smuts Avenue overtaking a police car that is chasing a getaway car. Then he overtakes the getaway car, exchanging boisterous greetings with the driver whom he appears to know. Togetherness is steering with his elbows because he needs his hands free to check the morning’s takings and to wave to girls.

He announces: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. We will shortly be landing in Johannesburg. Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened and your seats are in the upright position. Thank you.”

Piet Smit is chewing on a seatbelt that is made of leather. Togetherness had them specially made because he felt first-time passengers would need to bite on something.

Togetherness now merges with the mainstream of in-bound traffic. He merges with it in much the same way his Zulu ancestors merged with the British at the battle of Isandlwana.

He stops at his usual disembarkation point in the middle of a busy intersection and picks his teeth, patiently, while people sort out their legs and teeth before groping their way towards a street pole around which they can throw their arms.

By the time his passengers’ eyeballs have settled back in their sockets, Togetherness is halfway back to the northern suburbs.

Wartime and Sex Problems

I was (to use that unfortunate expression) ‘brought up’ in London but, as soon as the Germans began their timeous campaign to create much needed public open space in our particularly crowded borough, the Clarke family was transferred to the quiet little village of Streetly some twenty kilometres north of Birmingham.

My father, who was involved in the early days of plastics manufacturing, was not called up during World War II because his work was considered of strategic importance. He left London to work in a small factory half-concealed on the edge of a pretty silver birch woodland on Streetly’s western border. I am not sure to this day what he was doing, but I do know that he spoke of it only out of the corner of his mouth.

He also did his bit for Britain by joining the ARP, a voluntary corps whose members ran around during and after air raids tidying up after the Germans. ARP stood for Air Raid Precautions though my mother insisted it stood for ‘’anging Round Pubs’.

We knew suffering of course. For the six years of war we were forced to eat our crusts. And we would queue from dawn at Gillings the grocer’s when a shipment of oranges came in from South Africa – and come away with one for each child in the family and purple stamps in our ration books.

Clothes and shoes were also rationed and the shoes we wore were made of compressed cardboard. My mother hammered into the soles stout metal studs called Segs. Even my sister, who cried piteously about the indignity of it, had to wear Segs. The idea was to save our soles because there was a wartime shortage of cows and, therefore, of leather.

When my sister and I walked down Foley Road we sounded like the Brigade of Guards. Dull red sparks flew from our shoes in all directions, sometimes setting fire to hayfields.

Walking on Segs was like wearing roller skates because they elevated one some distance above the ground. For years I never knew what it was to walk at ground level and it was only in 1945, when the war ended and the cows came home, and we could walk around without Segs, that I discovered I was quite a short fellow.

A couple of years after the war our biology mistress announced that the time had come to teach us about animal reproduction. We could all sense that she was hugely embarrassed because in those days sex was like Operation Overlord, the plan to invade Europe – one simply never talked about it. We were appallingly ignorant about it because, after all, there were no late night TV films with men springing into bed with women.In books, when the man took the woman in his arms and her robe slipped off her shoulders to the floor, the author would resort to using dots into infinity…

We were so marvellously ignorant about where babies came from that most kids happily accepted the stork theory. Those of us who were more scientifically informed subscribed to the cabbage patch theory.

Our teacher, looking at the floor, asked if any of us knew anything about sex. I thought she had said ‘Segs’ and that she wanted to reminisce about the war, so my hand shot up. She was surprised – I think everybody was – but she bade me say my piece and I began saying how if you had lots of Segs it made you walk tall and how really good Segs could set hayfields on fire. I told her how it took me quite a long time to get used to Segs and how, quite often, I would end up on my back.

Noticing the way her eyes snapped open I warmed to the subject and told her how, the more Segs you had, the longer your shoe leather lasted. And I said how, thank goodness, Segs down at the village cost very little and how the cobbler’s wife would even give a discount.

At this stage she held up her hand for silence and bade us turn to page 117 of our textbooks and read, quietly to ourselves, about sexual reproduction in the common newt.

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