A Country Life: Potatoes for beginners

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My wife Jane is reading
The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory's riveting tale of sex and violence in Elizabethan times. Between running one house and three holiday cottages, and caring for three children and 14 animals, the only time Jane gets to read it is in bed, which is also when I get to read my book; another tale of sex and violence, also with an Elizabethan subtext.

My wife Jane is reading The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory's riveting tale of sex and violence in Elizabethan times. Between running one house and three holiday cottages, and caring for three children and 14 animals, the only time Jane gets to read it is in bed, which is also when I get to read my book; another tale of sex and violence, also with an Elizabethan subtext.

Most nights, we read each other choice passages. Jane tells me about her characters - the scheming Anne Boleyn, the guileless Mary Boleyn and the manipulative Duke of Norfolk. And I tell her about mine - the versatile Duke of York, the vigorous Lady Balfour, the shapely Belle de Fontenay.

My book is Alan Romans' Guide To Seed Potato Varieties, and hugely engrossing it is, too. He touches on the history of the potato, its arrival in Europe from South America in the 16th century and how a seed potato industry was started in Scotland, where the climate kept the aphid vector of virus disease down to low levels - I confess my mind started wandering slightly when I got to that bit.

As for the sex and violence, it mainly relates to blight, Phytophthora infestans, which evolved from seaweed. Until a decade ago there was only one breeding blight in Europe, but now there is a second, which reproduces both sexually and asexually and has even more diversity to help it overcome blight resistance. Intrigue at the Tudor court had nothing on the stuff that goes on between tubers.

But the most enjoyable part of Romans' book is where he lists 151 spud varieties, and endearingly offers a potted biography of each one. The Pentland Crown, for instance, was the first variety to be banned from a supermarket for lack of flavour, whereas the Pentland Dell is used to produce all kettle crisps.

Maybe it's a sign that my mind is beginning to vegetate, but I find all this fascinating. Apparently, the Dutch potato Desiree has enjoyed a comeback in Britain thanks to Delia Smith's enthusiasm for it, while the Ballydoon, bred in 1931, is prized in Ireland as the boiled potato to go with boiled bacon and spring cabbage.

Best of all, Romans does not withhold his own prejudices, informing us that the Victoria potato is not the famous variety of 1863 bred by William Paterson of Dundee, which is a great shame, apparently, because nearly all the classics bred by people such as Nicol, Clark, Penn and Findlay had Victoria in the parentage. "One of the great missing varieties of the past," writes Romans, "a small number of us held a tiny hope that it would turn up one day in Nepal or New Zealand or some such. I can't bear to dwell on this new yellow chipping variety, presumably named after Mrs Beckham." Hear, hear.

One fined day

Last week I wrote that, befitting the rural folk we are rather than the city folk we used to be, we took the children to London during half-term, and visited Madame Tussaud's. This, it turns out, was not the only way in which we behaved like typical London tourists; we also strayed into the congestion-charging zone and copped a £40 fine. Added to the Madame Tussaud's admission prices, and lunch for five at Pizza Hut, this propelled the cost of the afternoon to over £150.

It was the first time I had driven in London since the congestion charge came in. Being a backwoods hick I didn't realise that I was entering the charging zone, and even if I had I wouldn't have known what to do about it.

Anyway, the letter from Ken Livingstone tells me, in language that could perhaps be simplified, that my contravention location was Chiltern Street, my contravention time 13:49:13, and, deep lawyerly breath, that the contravention was supported by a number of evidential images. Bang to rights, in other words.

I wondered whether to appeal on the grounds that I don't live in London, rarely drive in London, and didn't see any signs telling me that I was committing a misdemeanour. Instead, I decided to draw satisfaction from the fact that I am now officially befuddled when driving in London, which makes me officially from the sticks.

Leafy Birkenhead

A couple of columns ago I expressed surprise that Norman Thelwell, the artist whose name became synonymous with little girls riding squat ponies along country lanes, had been raised on the banks of the Mersey in Birkenhead. This, I asserted, was deliciously improbable. The only children to be found riding horses through the streets of Birkenhead, I rudely ventured, were those being pursued by a formerly mounted policeman shouting, "Hey, come back here!"

As a Merseysider myself I should have known better, and a couple of readers rightly took me to task for such snotty condescension. Rod Jones cheerfully pointed out that Birkenhead has "excellent rural credentials" and that Britain's first municipally-funded park, Birkenhead Park, was the model for Central Park in New York. Nearby, he added, is Arrow Park, venue for the Scouts' 1929 World Jamboree.

"And if memory serves me correctly," he concluded, "Frankby, a village just on the outskirts of Birkenhead, once had the highest ratio of horses to residents. Maybe this is where Thelwell was inspired." I hang my head, and paw at the ground, in shame.

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