The Spring is lurking somewhere outside in the undergrowth.
We know it is on its way. It is just a matter of time before this primeval hussy flaunts her way brazenly onto our island once more.
There are many portents of her wild ways: bulbs will be entombed no more, birds will brook no silence.
And the potatoes in my cupboard are putting out shoots with a predatory frenzy worthy of a triffid. How do they know it’s Spring in there? Shut away in the dark, entombed until dinner time? Those unearthly shoots show a diffidence for human authority which is nothing, if not unsettling.
Tubers. They are a life source all their own. They don’t need us.
What I need is a cheap source of infantile humour so that I may poke fun at what I do not fully understand. And we need look no further than Blackadder for some raucous ribaldry at the tuber’s expense.
This time, it’s a turnip. Lord Edmund Blackadder’s resident peasant, Baldrick, is obsessed with them, as befits a penniless Elizabethan.
There’s that classic time when Blackadder runs two celebration parties at once: a stag-style do with his rowdy rabble raising gentleman acquaintances; and a sparse turnipfest for his cultish relatives who may have an inheritance to pass on.
During his preparation Baldrick, chef for the day, and his sidekick Percy arrive in front of their Lord wreathed in giggles.
The problem, it seems, is that they have just discovered a turnip, shaped like a thingy.
Which is odd, chortles the servant, because his thingy is shaped just like a turnip.
The turnip has been around since Ancient Greece and before. Pliny gave it rave reviews, saying it was “directly after cereals or at all events after the bean, since its utility surpasses that of any other plant.”
Utilitarian, it is: but there is evidence the tuber has been viewed with the most marked awe and suspicion during its lifetime.
I speak, of course, of the Mandrake.
It exists: somewhere in my mind I had always thought it was utterly mythical. But tread the forests of Central America, or the land surrounding that dreamy home of myth, the Mediterranean Sea, and you can encounter them. Members of the Nightshade family, they are steeped in lore which stretches back thousands of years.
They get a sizeable mention in the pages of Genesis, as far back as documentation goes.
Jacob and Rachel have that age-old problem: Rachel cannot have a child. They also have a thoroughly modern problem: Jacob has been married before, to a lady called Leah. And Leah is Rachel’s sister.
It gets steamier. Leah has four sons by Jacob: and her eldest finds mandrakes in a nearby field. Mandrakes- in hebrew, ‘love plants’ – have a reputation for endowing anyone who consumes them with fertility.
She has a nerve, this Rachel. She sidles up to Leah and asks her for her son’s mandrakes.
It is an unforgettable line, in this most early of melodramas : “Is it a small matter that thou hast taken my husband? Would’st thou take away my son’s mandrakes also?”
Well, quite. Some people have no sensitivity whatsoever.
It seems man cannot leave this particular tuber alone. The mandrake has a root which is said to resemble a human being, and when it is uprooted it is believed to scream.
That scream, when heard by a human, is fatal to the listener. As early as 37AD in Jerusalem, Romano-Jewish historian Josephus was laying out careful instructions for its harvesting:
“A furrow must be dug around the root until its lower part is exposed, then a dog is tied to it, after which the person tying the dog must get away. The dog then endeavours to follow him, and so easily pulls up the root, but dies suddenly instead of his master. After this the root can be handled without fear.”
I do rather feel for the dog in this scenario.
The mandrake may have arrested the attention of herbalists and those interested in wizardry and enchantment: but as an inspiration for poets and writers, it leaves the turnip languishing at the starting line.
It lured Machiavelli, inspiring ‘Mandragola’, written in 1518. Shakespeare’s work is peppered with references. John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi has Ferdinand confessing to having ‘dug up a mandrake’.
John Donne, Samuel Beckett, DH Lawrence, and even JK Rowling: they have all been ensnared by the very idea of this most enchanted of tubers.
But it is Lord Byron who must have the last word today. An iconic catastrophe, lurching through relationships driven by tempestuous internal forces, his mandrake is evoked to describe yet another scrape he has gotten into. For the purposes of this exercise I shall change his reference to the love interest which has turned sour.
He writes of a cuckolded vicar, the Reverend Robert Bland, to his friend John Cam Hobhouse.
“The man is mad, sir,” he writes in 1811; “mad, frightful as a mandrake, and lean as a rutting stag, and all about a woman not worth a Bank token.”
Mad, bad, and dangerous to know. And I’m talking, Reader, about the tuber.