James Clarke was born in London and educated in Staffordshire. He left school at the age of 16, dizzy with knowledge. On his last day as a schoolboy he set off late that afternoon hitch-hiking to France with £10, a US Army pup tent, a Royal Marine Commando jacket stuffed with rations and various implements looking very much like a one-man British Expeditionary Force.
Clarke surrounded by his fans
For weeks he tramped through the war-ravaged north and on through the Alps and Provence to the Mediterranean sleeping in hedgerows and haystacks and living as much as possible off the land.
On his return he immediately pursued his burning ambition – to become a tea boy on a Birmingham daily newspaper. There he broke so many cups they made him a reporter.
Clarke, after causing much mischief as a journalist in England, came to South Africa in 1955 as a reporter on The Star in Johannesburg “looking for trouble”. He quickly found it by marrying Lenka Babaya – of Croat extraction – who claims she married him only because she always wanted a simple surname. He skillfully fathered two very beautiful daughters, Jenny and Julie, neither of whom think he is in the least bit funny.
At the next sign of trouble (the 1961 Sharpeville Massacre which Clarke helped cover for The Star) he fled with his family to New Zealand where he became news editor of that country’s largest newspaper, NZ Truth.
Ironically he became homesick for South Africa. New Zealand was far too quiet and he missed being part of the unfolding drama as the social forces grew against the apartheid state. So he returned and became news editor of The Star.
The rest, as they say, is his story.
Clarke’s ambition is to become President of South Africa so that he can introduce the death penalty for people who say, “Is it?” every time one tells them something.
In 1968 he wrote a United States best seller – Man is the Prey (subtitled “a personal investigation into the methods and motives of man-eaters and man-killers”) – and decided to resign as a newspaperman. The Star then offered him carte blanche if he should stay. Clarke chose to embark on a career as a science writer specialising, for the next 30 years, in environmental matters during which time he wrote three comprehensive books on the subject.
He developed a particular interest in palaeo-anthropology – the study of man’s origins – and accompanied on field expeditions some of the great names in palaeo-anthropology – Raymond Dart, Phillip Tobias, Richard Leakey, James Kitching and Washington University’s Glenn Conroy.
He also became interested in natural history, geology, energy and cultural history authoring several books in those areas. For 30 years he wrote a natural history column and the occasional humour piece.
In 1992, when things looked grim during South Africa’s final transition from white to black rule and when right wing elements tried to violently upset the otherwise peaceful negotiations, The Star’s editor decided readers desperately needed some light relief. To Clarke’s amazement he was asked to write humour – on a daily basis. (Nay, dear reader, Clarke was gobsmacked.)
And so he turned South Africa’s longest lived newspaper column, Stoep Talk, into a humour column. It was immediately popular and, as the fax machine was fast coming into common use and, soon afterwards, emails too, Clarke was able to strike up a daily dialogue with readers across South Africa and the world.
Now officially retired from The Star he continues to write Stoep Talk on a thrice-weekly basis but also finds time for travel writing and writing humorous books both in South Africa and in the United Kingdom.
Another of Clarke’s ambitions is to live for ever and part of his strategy is to cycle two or three times a week round the houses and to annually lead an intrepid bicycle-mounted expedition into “Darkest Europe” and so regale the African public with stories about the strange customs and quaint habits of Europe’s natives.
On these expeditions he is accompanied by five old friends – four being former editors of The Star. Their average age is now 70. None of them had cycled since his first childhood.
Their explorations began in 2002 when the six pedaled 1000 km down the Danube.
The stories of their escapades and their attempts to annex small territories in Europe became popular reading.
Their annual peregrinations became known as “The Tours de Farce” and their first six journeys are the subject of Clarke’s latest book, Blazing Saddles – The Truth Behind the Tours de Farce (Jonathan Ball, Cape Town 2007). The printed copy is out of print now but fortunately for fans it was published as an ebook in 2011 with the title Blazing Bicycle saddles.
Quickly rush out and buy one while stocks last!
Since 2011 Clarke has published 5 more ebooks, all of which are available on all the major online retailers.
- The Yellow Six
- Golf – the funny side
- S*x for the Terribly Shy
- Recalculating – the funny side of traveling
- M for Misc…