Sunday, September 28, 2008

Whack my conkers if you dare

It's been a truly lovely weekend; sunny, bright, dry. Cold in the evenings, mind you. But very nice for the time of year. I've spent much of the past two days in the garden, mowing lawns, weeding and packing up the last of the Summer fruit and veg. My grape harvest this year was pretty poor. There was barely enough fruit to make a decent batch of jam. Many had simply rotted on the vine. I can only put it down to a disastrous three months of heavy rain and little sunshine. My tomatoes were a bit rubbish too. But, on the plus side, the blackberries and raspberries are now at their peak and I'm picking around a pound a day and freezing them for winter crumbles, pies and jams. And I've had some fantastic courgettes, potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and greens, and I've never had so many apples in my life. The cooking apple tree is still loaded with them (see above) despite my best efforts to eat as many as possible. I've forgone the usual wine making this year in favour of homemade cider.

But the crop that always tells me that Autumn is here is the one crop I can't eat. Conkers.

I don't have a horse chestnut tree in my garden but there are lots of them around where I live. The September pavements are littered with hundreds of those spiky green spheres and their gorgeous occupants. I say gorgeous as I think that 'conker brown' is one of the richest and most attractive colours in nature. I love it. The roads are smeared with the powdery white corpses of those that didn't roll all the way to the kerb and everywhere you look, small boys are lobbing sticks up into the trees to knock down a champion. Because that's the point of conkers isn't it? They're there to be played with.

All over the country this weekend, small, grubby humans will have been preparing their horse chestnuts for the field of battle. Certainly, when I was a kid, the annual ritual of conker matches was taken deadly seriously. We would try all sorts of tricks and wheezes to turn our conkers into weapons of mass destruction. We roasted them or baked them in ash, we soaked them in vinegar or cold sea water, we froze them and we dessicated them with hairdryers. Some lads did strange experiments on their conkers using chemicals pilfered from nearby farms. One lad used a hooked wire to hollow his conker out (I suspect he'd seen a programme about Egyptian mummies and how the brain was removed from the corpse through the nose by way of just such an implement). He then filled it with a tough expanding foam. Others coated theirs with polyurethane varnish, or boot polish or massaged oils into the conker skin to stop it splitting.

Still others attempted to cheat further by filling their hollowed conkers with washers and bolts and, in one memorable instance, that quick-setting plastic resin you used to get in hobby sets for making transparent paperweights and keyrings having first entombed something within like seashells, a flower or a wasp (yes, I did make a wasp keyring). I don't think that kids are allowed to handle resin like that now as the Health and Safety people have declared it too dangerous. It does get very hot as it sets and it gives off narcotic fumes. But no one I grew up with got burned by a homemade keyring. Or lost an eye to a coathanger or makeshift sword (a stick). Or got trapped in an abandoned fridge. Or became a psychopath because Mummy bought them a toy gun. We took risks and we learned from our mistakes. We knew the difference between playtime fantasy and reality. And most of us made it to adulthood without the need for helmets, gloves or any other kind of padded clothing or specialist equipment. Life is for living, after all.

All of which means that it is with some annoyance that I must lay to rest one of the UK's more persistent urban myths; namely that the Health and Safety Executive banned school children from playing conkers unless they wore safety goggles and padded gloves.

I'd love it to be true so that I could rant and rave ... but it's a load of old conkers. It never happened. It's true that a couple of head teachers either banned the 'sport' or insisted on safety goggles. But not the Health and Safety people. I may whinge and moan about them often (and have done here and especially here) but, on this occasion, they are quite, quite blameless, damn them. In fact, they are even helping to promote conkers as a safe and healthy sport.

Believe it or not, the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) sponsors the annual World Conker Championships. They're held on the second Sunday in October in the pretty little Northamptonshire village of Ashton. Thousands turn up every year, as do competitors from around the globe, to swing their nuts on a foot long string. The championships have been going since 1965 and the winner gets to sit on the Conker Throne and wear the Conker Crown. The whole event is organised to raise money for charity. Which is how it should be, of course.

Playing conkers is one of those simple pleasures that everyone enjoys. Yes, you may occasionally get bashed on the finger. And yes, you may see your prize conker disintegrate before your eyes. But it's healthy, it's usually played outdoors in the fresh air and Autumn sunshine, and it encourages kids to play together. Computer games may be addictive but there are few thrills in the world greater than to come home proudly from school with your conker intact and declaring that you now own a Sixer.


Photos by me. Cartoon copyright (c) Health and Safety Executive.


Debby said...

Well. I have never played conkers before in my life, and after your post, am feeling as if I've missed out.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Ah yes ... the tense expectation as you hold out your conker on a string ... the ghastly thwack as your opponent's conker smashes into yours ... the deicious moment when you realise that your conker is unscathed and now it's your turn to attack theirs ... simple pleasures. Happy memories.

Oh, I'm taking about last year, by the way. I still insist on at least one game of conkers per year with one of my equally immature chums. It's my theory that as long as I play conkers and occasionally build a fort with the cushions on my sofa, I can never get old. And if I can't get old, I'll be immortal! Mwah! Ha! Ha!

Debby said...

*pauses from building fort with couch cushions to speak*

HEY! I just realized. This post also explains the strangeness of that Fleetwood Mac album cover (Rumours) all those years ago. Mick was a conkers player too! I'd always wondered. He had two, if I remember correctly. Apparently he played with himself.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - Ha! I do so love a bit of innuendo. Reading your comment made me smile in the way that bawdy 1970s British comedies make me smile. Incidentally, you may want to advise one of your blogging chums (you'll know which one) that she may get the wrong kind of customers if she insists on 'selling copies of her bush photos'. Oo-er!

Jon M said...

Of course one of the essential aspects of conkers was collecting more than you could EVER play with and leaving the rest to go fuzzy in a plastic bag somewhere.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jon - I'd almost forgotten the carrier bag full of mouldy conkers. Such an important part of the whole conker experience. Nicely remembered!

Katie said...

This was very interesting and informative. I had no idea what a conker was.... actually I've never even heard of a conker. ;)

Stevyn Colgan said...

Katie - Horse chestnuts are certainly not unique to the UK (incidentally, they look just like sweet chestnuts - the ones you roast at Christmas - but they taste like crap) but the British have taken this humble, inedible nut and have turned it into the sporting conker - a true British icon. We sort of did the same with tea.