• 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.

The Ice Age Commeth

In 2011 global warming caused an iceberg the size of Switzerland
to break off the Antarctic Ice Shelf and begin drifting into the
open sea. I decided to raise funds to land on it and declare it a
sovereign state.
After all, nobody owned it. And, given time, its climate will
change for the better as it drifts north into the warmer
latitudes.
Although it was born of global warming, ironically it could well
be the last nation on earth to succumb to it because it is
underlain by 543 718 886 000 tons of solid ice (approximately)
which, if multiplied by the square root of the law of thermal
dynamics, would, even on the equator, take 2 570 years
(rounded off) to melt down to the size of your average ice
cube.
I would need a few rugged and enterprising chums to help me
establish a nation. Maybe my five companions with whom I had annually cycled
in Europe in what became known as the Tours de Farce (see Blazing Bicycle Saddles)
would be suitable.
I could envisage us jumping ashore to take possession. One of us would have to say a few
important words – heroic words that would go down in history, such
as, “That’s one small step for a penguin, one helluva leap
for mankind”.
Whatever is said, it would have to be said quickly because,
knowing my friends, one of them would preempt it by
saying something like, How the hell do you keep your footing on this stuff?
Of course, before announcing the birth of our new nation, we’d have
to find it a name. This, I know, would entail a lot of argument.
“Iceland!” somebody’s bound to suggest. We’d have to tell him
that the name’s been taken.
Somebody’s then bound to say, “Well, how about Chilly?”
“How about the Republic of Iceberg?” another would cry. Or New Seal Land.
(Personally, dear reader, I’d prefer a kingdom to a
republic. I fancy myself as king – James the First – it has a ring
to it. On the other hand, what if it were a republic? Then I would be president
– the only president in the world whose presidential seal could balance a
ball on the end of its nose.
“How about Schnapps?” another might say.
“How can you call a country ‘Schnapps’?” I would say.
“No, no, I meant let’s have Schnapps to celebrate.”
Somebody would then say, “Let’s rather heat up some Glühwein!”
That’s the trouble with my friends. Here we have
the opportunity to start a country from scratch and with dignity and
provide a shining example of nationhood to a troubled world, and what would they do?
They would set up folding chairs, find some chips and dip and start
shouting “Cheers!” and “Down the hatch!”
I should never have asked them in the first place.
But just think of it – starting a new country with no pollution, no
religions, no crime, no taxes – we can make up our own laws.
I can see us now… standing there in our mukluks, claiming
sovereignty over 45 000 square kilometres of virgin territory,
knowing that wherever we drift we would have fishing rights for
200 miles around. Fishing would underpin our economy – well,
that and the export of ice blocks to countries short of freshwater.
We could develop winter sports resorts.
Our main transport in this new land would be environmentally friendly
because we would mainly be skating around on our backsides,
feet in the air.
Our towns would be built on soil-covered platforms so as not to
accelerate the melting of the ice and our currency could be
sardines. Judging by the price of fish these days, we could start off with an
exchange rate of $12.40 to the sardine.

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.]

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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