On Potatoes

“And what should they know of potatoes, who only potatoes know?” asks Dobson, in the title of one of his pamphlets, which is sadly out of print. It is a dazzling tour de force, noted for containing an eerily accurate description of crinkle-cut oven chips, written before such things existed.

It is worth noting that the dazzling nature of the pamphlet is less to do with the quality of Dobson’s prose, which might better be described, in this instance, as hysterical and incoherent, and more to do with the then fashionable far out groovy psychedelic typeface employed by Marigold Chew when setting the text. Indeed, so dazzling is the appearance of the multicoloured swirly maelstrom of type that one is advised to wear sunglasses when reading it, or attempting to read it. Peter Hitchens has claimed, not without reason, that Marigold Chew was probably “high on pot” when producing the pamphlet, but she also may have thought that its far out groovy psychedelic look would increase sales in “head shops” and free festivals and other such excresences of the era. If so, she was horribly mistaken, for “That Potato Pamphlet”, as it is commonly known, sold only half a dozen copies in toto, and three of those went to a wandering proto-crusty who pitched his tent in Dobson’s back garden for the duration of the summer of love.

The pamphleteer himself might also have been “high on pot” when he wrote the text, for as I said, his prose is hysterical and incoherent. A weedy wannabe Dobsonist would have tossed the pamphlet aside, or even set it on fire, but I am adamantine in my devotion to the great man, so I enrolled in a special study group. Each weekday evening for three whole years, we met in an abandoned pavilion to pore over the pamphlet, eight of us, trying as best we could to eke some sense from it. What follows, then, owes as much to the contributions of Messrs Clapper, Shrublack, Inspip, Squelch, Dalewinton, Boggis and Globb as to my own insights.

Dobson seems to have conceived of the idea of the crinkle-cut oven chip as the ne plus ultra of space age food. This, he says, describing a then imaginary frozen sliver of reconstituted potato-based mush shaped with some sort of wiggly-shaped jig-slicer, will be the staple foodstuff of space travellers and cosmonauts as they venture through galaxies yet unknown. He asks if any alien beings they might meet would comprehend that the crinkle-cut oven chip and the ordinary potato, a tuberous vegetable buried in soil back on planet Earth, were in any way related to each other. And he answers “no” to that question. No matter, he asserts, how advanced and superintelligent the beings were, they would never be able to grasp the human ingenuity that turned the one into the other.

Dobson then posits the idea that it is the potato that has evolved from the crinkle-cut oven chip, rather than vice versa, and in a prescient passage written some years before Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001 : A Space Odyssey (1968), he invents a scene where a primitive ape picks up a crinkle-cut oven chip and tosses it into the air, where – pfft! – it is suddenly transformed into a potato. Annoyingly, Dobson does not specify the variety of potato. Or perhaps he does, and we were simply incapable of deciphering a particularly far out groovy psychedelic section of the text.

Quite what point he is trying to make with this topsy turvy twaddle is unclear, even when one is “high on pot”. I speak not of my own experience but that of Messrs Squelch and Globb, who often huddled together in the corner of the abandoned pavilion before our study group meetings, indulging in what I think in some circles is known as “reefer madness”.

For all that, And what should they know of potatoes, who only potatoes know? is a fascinating curio. Dobson does actually answer the question posed in the title, but in doing so raises a blizzard of further questions, the answers to which perhaps will not become apparent until the true space age is upon us.

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