• 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.

The garden gnomes liberation front

A couple of years ago London’s Chelsea Flower Show reluctantly admitted garden gnomes for the first time in its 100 year history.

The English are funny about gnomes.

A few years ago somebody sneaked some into the show and unveiled them when nobody was looking. Shocked, show officials reeled about clutching their head bones – mainly I think because the gnomes were naked.

With or without clothes garden gnomes have come to be regarded by “top gardeners” (to quote a Chelsea horticulturalist) as the worst kind of garden kitsch.

Nevertheless, gnomes keep coming into the news.

A few years ago a house-owner in Tipton in the English Midlands was advised by the council that the two garden gnomes outside her front door were illegal. Each was no higher than a milk bottle. The council said “people might trip over them when running from a fire” – and I suppose, go arse over Tipton (if you’ll forgive me madam).

I would have supported the council but only because I believe keeping gnomes is cruel.

In Paris there’s a movement called the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. The GGLF kidnaps garden gnomes “to free them from domestic captivity” and returns them to their natural woodland habitat.

A few years ago 11 were found hanging from a tree – a mass suicide.

Some years ago I wrote about the GGLF and a woman telephoned to say her garden gnome had been stolen and that a week later she had received a postcard from the gnome saying he was at the seaside and having a wonderful holiday.

As I had, not long before, written about liberating gnomes, the woman (who sounded genuinely upset) blamed me for putting the idea into somebody’s head.

A week later she phoned again. She said that when she woke up her gnome had mysteriously reappeared. (Her gnome was ghome.) She said his face and hands had been varnished to a deep tan.

Gnomes do deserve sympathy.

Just listen to the story of Rumpelstiltskin.

“Rumps” is head gnome in a suburban garden. He has faced the same fence for 24 years.

He can see the front gate and one of his favourite distractions is the tumultuous arrival, once a week, of shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes. They come for the dustbins. Rumps has no doubt that they are angels and I’ll tell you why if only you’d be patient.

Rumps can also see the ridiculous little fishpond where dwells another garden gnome, Cyprinus, with his pointy red hat long faded to pink, holding a fishing rod with no line attached. His mind has long gone.

(Gnomes – their name is from a Greek word meaning intelligence – generally communicate using an extrasensory method.)

Rumps frequently ponders human heartlessness. He’s heard all about the human cruelty to metal birds which people buy at the roadside only to condemn them to a lifetime standing rigidly in one spot.

But metal birds at least have an ally – rust! Rust soon puts them out of their misery.

But ceramic gnomes go on forever.

A few doors down the road a gnome has stood “frozen” for 10 years in a bed of agapanthus whose pointed leaves tickle his noise and about which he can do nothing.

There is a rather gloomy gnome whose mismatched head comes from a different body – he came from a broken gnome.

Fortunately garden gnomes have their faith. Rumps often has to remind the more despondent gnomes that when they are irreparably broken – mercifully smashed by small children, or sent flying by a clumsy dog, or hit by a lawnmower – the pieces are placed in a large bin behind the house from where they are taken to the gate. Their remains are then carried off by the shouting, whistling angels in funny clothes who empty the bins into the Big Truck  that takes them off to paradise.


How flying was invented in Africa

[Extract from Recalculating, my latest eBook dealing with the funny side of travel.]

 I enjoy history and if you think it lacks humour then you haven’t heard of “feel-good history”.  I was taught it all my schooldays in England during World War 2. I learnt about “Rule Britannia” and the Empire and how the British bought lots of Africa and Asia, freehold, for vast sums of beads and little bags of salt and tobacco.

Feel-good history continues to this day

African-American Baseline Essays, published by the Portland Public Schools Board of Education, has as its objective the task of making African-Americans feel better about their past.  But some historians might consider that the authors of a certain essay went a little too far in asserting that Africans – genuine black ones – invented the aeroplane. They aver that the Ancient Egyptians were indeed black and they developed flying machines.

The essay claims a 14cm model glider was, at some stage, unearthed somewhere in Egypt and quotes an obscure authority who said: “The Egyptians used their early planes for travel, expeditions and recreation.”

Frankly I cannot see why there should be a controversy.

It is common knowledge in the circles in which I move – mostly very tight circles – that the Ancient Egyptians had aeroplanes and flew them all over the place. These planes were at first called pharaoh-planes in honour of an 18th dynasty Pharaoh who financed the research and development. After the Pharaohs died out the “ph” was dropped and the machines were simply called araohplanes (later spelt aeroplanes).

A site, believed to be an ancient pharaohdrome, has been unearthed very near where Cairo’s airport is today (loc cit.).

The first Ancient Egyptian aircraft was developed at Luxor by none other than Damocles Caliph III and was named the DC3 in his honour. It was known as a heavier-than-air machine on account of it being made of the same type of stone as the Pyramid of Khufu. Few Egyptologists are prepared to admit that the pyramids were designed not as tombs but for launching the first pharaohplanes. Slaves would drag the machines to the top, pour honey down the sides of the pyramids and tip the aircraft down the slope. The first planes, being, as I say, heavier than air, naturally nosedived into the sand.

Undeterred, Thutmose IV ordered a lighter and more porous sandstone to be imported from Thebes and this led to the first reported flight by Menhubotep II (none other) in 1286 BC at Kittihorus (Ibid., op cit. sit op.).

Many who witnessed its one and only flight – which was not terribly successful, the plane having crashed at the First Cataract – cried out: “A swan! A swan!” From this incident, Aswan, just below the Cataract, acquired its name.

Not surprisingly, Eurocentric history books do not record that Nefertiti began her career as an air hostess with Ancient Egyptian Airlines (Annals of Ramses II 1174 BC, tablet 34). The general manager was none other than the up-and-coming Tutankhamen. It is also not widely known that another great Egyptian queen – Cleopatra herself – began her adult life as an air hostess (el al). Cleopatra eventually founded her own fairly successful airline – Cleopatra’s Air Operations (C-Air-O) – the name later being adopted by the Egyptian capital.

Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, after defeating the Egyptians by verily smiting them with large catapulted rocks, took over the airline but unwisely began a price war with the Bedouin caravans whose camels were, in fact, much faster than even the later Bronze Age planes, weight still being a bit of a problem.

The last Ancient Egyptian airliner to fly – although the word “fly” is somewhat inappropriate here – had none other than the Roman, Pontius Pilot, at the controls. It crashed at A-syut in the Lower Nile valley and, according to legend, A-syut derived its name from Pontius Pilot’s last words before hitting the ground.

How I summited Everest

Expeditions to climb Everest this year are oversubscribed. – report.

Damn! For $40 000 I could have joined an expedition and had my own Sherpa.

Not that I hadn’t already climbed Everest. I seem to remember doing it in ’94. Or was it ’96?

It was that year when simply everybody was climbing it.

I remember reaching the summit. Oh, the noise! And the people!

I hadn’t really planned to climb. I was actually on my way back from our local hardware with a collapsible aluminium ladder to fix my gutters and just got swept along by the crowd.
Afterwards I found it difficult to understand why people climb Everest – apart from the fact that it’s there. There’s absolutely nothing to do when one is up there except freeze or fall off.

Once into the snowline I found the crowd had thinned so I plodded on following a line of people.

Accommodation was a problem. The base camp looked like a pop concert was taking place – Woodstock or something. So I pressed on to Camp 1. Same thing, except there was more nosebleed at that level and much more panting and you couldn’t see who was addressing you because their breath created a cumulus nimbus cloud totally obscuring them.

I pitched my tent next to a nice couple from Durban – Ernest and Molly Pemberton with their dog, Popsy. They said they’d never climbed Everest before, but they’d done Mount aux Sources from the Witsieshoek car park.
At Base Camp, they’d bumped into their neighbours who’d already summited with a bunch of noisy Japanese schoolchildren.

“They complained about the queues,” said Molly. “So I told them – if you can’t stand queues you shouldn’t be on Everest!”
During the night, a 120km/h wind brought the temperature down to minus 42 degrees. “Nippy, hey?” I quipped trying to raise people’s spirits. Ernest Pemberton laughed so hard that the cold contracted his teeth fillings which shrank and fell out.
Obviously he had to turn back because the queue at the dentist’s tent was half-way round the glacier. Molly said she’d press on with the dog.
Many climbers suffered frostbite and next day I saw several discarded fingers.
That’s one of the problems on Everest: the route up the South Col is littered with fingers and noses dating back to 1924 as well as discarded oxygen bottles and Kitkat wrappers.

You’d think people would pick up after themselves. Mind you, if your fingers fall off how can you?
Near the summit, the crowd thinned even more but, of course, the space available begins to narrow till eventually it comes to a point. That’s another problem with Everest: one constantly has to say “Excuse me”.

And then as I neared the summit the Indian bloody Army team came clomping down, followed by some Frenchmen who can be very pushy – rather like the Russian climbers who are rowdy with it.
There were Swiss, Czechs, Irish, Britons… There was a Chinese railway engineer using a theodolite. There was even a Zulu from Mtubatuba.

I got to the summit thanks to a Sherpa who said I could hang on to his belt with six Japanese ladies.
You should have seen the crowd!

I shouted “Sawubona!”  to the guy from Mtubatuba and asked him,  “Likuphi ithoyilethe?” (Where’s the toilet?)

He shrugged and said, “I’m a stranger here myself.”

He asked me to take his picture so I asked him to step back a bit.

Silly of me.

At the summit, seized by an inspiration, I uncollapsed my collapsible aluminium step ladder and sat on top of it. The throng fell silent. Many turned green with envy because they were standing at 8848 metres, but no man on this earth has climbed higher than me.

The last hyenas in Britain


Some may wonder how it was that I became P*A*T*R*O*L   L*E*A*D*E*R  of the Yellow Six (not that titles mean much to me)   0r, more formally, of the Peewit Patrol  of the 1st Streetly Boy Scout in the county of Warwickshire for Yellow Six is a  term more applicable to Wolf Cubs (junior boy scouts).

We were indeed real Boy Scouts with pointy hats and incredibly dangerous knives and we formed  a complete patrol despite our 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 eagles’. This was a very casualty-prone patrol. The Beaver patrol resolved to ‘work hard’ and wore blue and yellow; the Wolf patrol, with its yellow and black was ‘true unto death’. There was a Hippo patrol but I was never 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 the instructions in  Baden-Powell’s s Scouting for Boys,  ‘Pitz-pitz’. This was 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.

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 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. The peewit is a lapwing, a tall, crested bird. The call “peeee-wit”, 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 peewits retained the yellow jaguar tabs – and hence the ‘yellow’ in the illustrious Yellow Six.

(I might  tell you more later but it gets a bit sickening.)

You can pre-empt it all by rushing out and getting my book, The Yellow S ix, on kindle. But hurry while stocks last.


Death of the intrepid traveller

Death of the intrepid traveller.

Death of the intrepid traveller


Travel and travellers have changed drastically since I was a boy in the late Pleistocene. For instance, I was in the Okavango Swamps in Botswana not long ago where I realised how neurotic tourists were about insect bites. One evening, an English family became almost hysterical when the father found he had an itchy raised spot on his arm – probably a mosquito bite.

Amid the hubbub my mind went back to a 2010 travel conference in Britain where a travel agent said that British travellers to Africa flew into a panic if they were bitten “by just about anything”.

The British – that one-time nation of intrepid explorers – never used to be like this…

1850. The scene –  The early morning mist lifts to reveal a small camp in Africa.

Ponsonby (walking into his companion’s tent): What ho, Carruthers! I say! Still in bed?

Carruthers: Be up in a jiffy old bean. Had a tiresome night.

Ponsonby: Not well, old boy?

Carruthers: Actually dear boy I was bitten during the night.

Ponsonby (noticing Carruthers’ leg has been torn off at the knee): I say, that IS a nasty bite!

Carruthers: Lion. Tried to carry me off! I’m surprised you didn’t hear the commotion – though I tried not to wake everybody.

Ponsonby: I say! But how are we going to cross the Semliki?

Carruthers: My dear Ponsonby, it’s a bite. That’s all. I’ll be tickety-boo after a cup of tea.

Ponsonby: But what if we run into the waHitto and have to make a run for it?

Carruthers: My dear boy, you worry so. Be a good man and help me to my feet. Or, rather, my foot! Ha ha ha. That was rather droll, what?

Ponsonby helps Carruthers to his foot.

They make their way through the jungle occasionally beating off creatures unknown to science. Inevitably Carruthers’ bloody stump attracts hyenas. One bites off his arm.

Carruthers: I say, Ponsonby, I’m dashed if I haven’t been bitten again!

Ponsonby: What beastly luck. Here, try some more Peaceful Sleep.

In crossing the river Ponsonby is bitten by a crocodile. Stifles a curse. On the far bank he whispers: Don’t look now but we are surrounded!

Try as he might not to look, Carruthers just has to peep. He finds himself touching eyeballs with a fierce waHitto warrior leading a war party.

Ponsonby (addresses them): My dear chaps, we come in peace for all mankind. And also womankind of course. We just want your land in the name of the Great White Queen, that’s all. Of course, if you want something for it… A bag of salt maybe? Beads? We have some lovely beads.

The tallest warrior signals in sign language: Chief Lambile, Chief of Chiefs, Lion Among Men, sends cordial greetings to the bwanas and says he would be awfully glad if I brought you fellows back for dinner.

Carruthers: How dashed decent of him!

Ponsonby (whispering): For goodness sake Carruthers! When the chief says he wants us for dinner I rather think he wants to casserole us. We must hop it!

Carruthers: That’s all I can do is “hop it”. Ha ha ha. (Then, becoming serious) Look, Ponsonby old boy, you make a dash for it. You’ve got twice as many legs as I have and the waHitto probably see me as being perfectly ’armless. Ha ha ha! There I go again. Armless! I’ll distract them with my rendition of Greensleeves until you are safely away.

The waHittos, fascinated at first by Carruthers’ quite beautiful singing (under the circumstances), become restless and close in with their spears.

Carruthers switches to God Save the Queen as best he can while maintaining a stiff upper lip. The spears sink home.

Carruthers: Ouch! (Dies)

Extract from “Recalculating”, a new book of travel humour by James Clarke.   Available on Kindle or Smashword

Wimbledon and the spitting season

Not long ago I was reminiscing how, when I was a Boy Scout, we held spitting contests. This brought an email from Jack Adno to say he was glad Tiger Woods was fined for spitting on the golf course. Jack thought it a pity that other sports don’t do the same.

I have a feeling it is nowadays being frowned upon at Wimbledon. There’s even a move  in the United Kingdom towards restraining soccer players on the field  “not just from spitting at their opponents but spitting in general”.

The problem is that television has brought the habit right into one’s lounge. There you are watching tennis and reaching forward for another Marie biscuit – when, splat!

Remember the tennis ace, Lendl, and his high velocity spitting? He could kill sparrows on Centre Court.

It would be interesting if the machine that measures the speed of balls also measured the speed of players’ spit.

Tilly Vosloo emailed asking, “Why don’t women tennis players spit?” Good question. Can you imagine Maria Sharapova letting fly with a sparrow-killer?

Is it perhaps a male signalling device – does it turn on the ladies?

High velocity spitting isn’t easy. I’ve tried it. I spent a morning in the garden behind the beans trying to do it in a nonchalant macho way and had to change my shirt.

During a recent rugby match between the Springboks and Australia the camera, swinging around to relieve viewers from having to watch medicos performing reconstructive surgery on the touchline, focused on Bakkies Botha just as he let fly with a pigeon killer. Soccer players are something else. Not content with dribbling they seem to spit in synchronisation with the cameras.

In ancient times expectorating was anything but casual – especially among refined people. Spittle was believed by religious nutters to contain some of one’s soul and one’s enemies could collect it and use it as a magic potion.

For this reason great men had their own spittle collectors who would carry a spittoon and bury the contents each evening.

Some people spit on their hands to get a better grip on things and this has become ritualistic in many cultures – men make a show of spitting on their palms to indicate they are ready for a task even if it’s only to put the garbage out.

One just hopes bakers don’t do it.

But in sport it’s something else. I have noticed in rugby there are two kinds of spitters: those who do it carelessly and those with style. The latter close their eyes, purse their lips and incline the head slightly forward as if about to kiss a girl on the tip of her nose and then “thpaaaat!

TV cameramen have a knack of interpreting the signals and cry out to each other: “Quick chaps! Here comes a real CM!” (CM = “crater-maker”.)

Tilly says it’s worse on a tennis court.

Sadly tennis groupies pick up all these habits. Look how Bjorn Borg used to blow on his nails while waiting for a serve – today even the women do it.

Look how Chris Evert-Lloyd used to crouch over the base line and wiggle her bottom when waiting for a serve. Now all the women do it.

I don’t know about bottom wiggling but spitting is out of hand.

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