• 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.

We must keep our heads down

An international team of scientists is persisting in trying to connect with aliens living in outer space. This week the Seti team in California (Seti meaning “the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence”) announced it would carry on trying to make contact with Aliens despite calls for caution.
The “Alien-hunt facility” has almost 400 signal-detecting dishes in the mountains northeast of San Francisco.
It can transmit into deep space and receive signals.
The question is: what happens if we receive an intelligent message?
The astrophysicists have agreed on one thing: “Don’t answer it!”
They prescribe that “no response should be sent until appropriate international consultations have taken place.”
This decision comes as a great relief to me. The last thing I would want is for Planet Earth to attract the attention of some giant planet which might then send a double-decker space bus filled with lizard-men 70m high in their stockinged feet who come tramping all over us as if we were ants as they search for the intelligent life that replied to their transmissions.
Since space probing by radio waves began in 1959 the most intelligent signal received has been from an electronically operated garage door.
An international team discused how to respond to it for four days.
Ever since scientists set up Seti I have pleaded for Seti to rather go for a KOHDASU policy (Keep Our Heads Down and Shut Up). This is because I fear that if there is intelligent life out there its creatures might be bigger, meaner and greedier than us earthlings. And the last thing we want to do is attract their attention.
They might harvest us to extinction just as we have done to various species on our own planet.
They might collect us in bags for sale in open air markets on Planet Zug selling us by the scoop like loose nuts.
They might carry our skyscrapers and railway trains back with them for their mountain-sized kids to play with – after shaking out all the wriggling little occupants.
Or they might be cold, slimy, smelly creatures who take a shine to us and with hearts overflowing with affection crawl into our beds at night eager for warmth and company.
The one ray of hope in all this is that if we do receive a signal it will probably be millions of years old. This is because if there is indeed life out there it will be on a planet zillions of light years away.
On the other hand what’s to say they can’t travel a million times faster than light or send remote giant controlled vacuum cleaners to suck up and bring home little samples of distant planets – little samples such as London or New York?

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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.

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