Wednesday, October 30, 2013


It’s probably no great disadvantage for a writer to be named after a kind of food.  Take the example of Flann O’Brien, born Brian O’Nolan, and sometimes known as Myles na gCopaleen, and occasionally as Brother Barnabas or George Knowall, among other pen names.  At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are the two great books, and a good, searching look along my bookshelves proves that my copies have been "borrowed." 

Back in the day, when I was involved with what we used to call “London fringe theatre” I had a semi-girlfriend who acted in a stage version of The Third Policeman.  She dressed up as a strangely convincing and very lovely heifer. And she recited the poem The Workman’s Friend, which in fact comes from At Swim-Two-Birds, but was obviously thought too good not to include in the production.

         My favourite verse runs as follows (and is none the worse for being recited by an 

attractive raven-haired woman dressed up as a cow):

“When food is scarce and your larder bare
And no rashers grease your pan,
When hunger grows as your meals are rare –

I don’t know much about O’Brien’s eating habits, but we do know he was a serious alcoholic, also a depressive, cripplingly disappointed by his lack of literary fame and success (that old chestnut).  In the latest edition of the London Review of Books Jonathan Coe writes about two newly published collections of O'Brien’s work, one a volume of plays and teleplays, the other of his short fiction.  Coe quotes from a piece titled Slattery’s Sago Saga, which he doesn't really rate, but it had me chuckling fit to bust.
“The forenoon passed quickly and it was about two o’clock in the early autumn day when Tim sat down to his heaped dinner of cabbage, bacon, pulverized sausage, and sound boiled potatoes of the breed of Earthquake Wonder.”

I’ve never worked out precisely how many breeds of potato there are, and perhaps nobody even really knows, nor am I sure exactly what constitutes a breed, but I see the figure “over 4,000” regularly quoted.  They do have some fancy and improbable names, and of course the Irish potato famine was exacerbated by an over reliance on the Irish Lumper, a name that sounds absolutely weighted down with doom.  

Other breeds include the Glacier Chip, the Stampede Russet, the Dakota Chief, the Inca Dawn, (and my current favorite) Ruby Pulsiver’s Blue Noser; all of which sound as though they might have been invented by Flann O’Brien, though none, admittedly, is quite as good as the Earthquake Wonder.  Ruby Pulsiver’s Blue Noser looks like this (a disappointment in some ways):

        Potatoes do seem to have been on O’Brien’s mind quite often one way or another, and sometimes in connection with his lack of literary “success.”  He once complained (though I haven’t been able to find out exactly where) “Gone with The Wind keeps me up awake at night sometimes – I mean, the quantity of potatoes earned by the talented lady novelist.”


  1. Hi, I wonder where I can get Inca dawn potatoes in london... any ideas? THANKS

    1. Hi Maria - my knowledge of London potato sourcing is pretty patchy at this point. But I can direct you to the British Potato Variety Database (yes, really), which sounds a bit half-hearted about the Inca dawn: "Tubers have good resistance to splitting and weak resistance to bruising. Trials have found good resistance to potato virus Yo and common scab. Tests for resistance to potato cyst nematode demonstrated susceptibility to both Globodera rostochiensis Ro1 and Globodera pallida"

      More info here