Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Conkers



The reference in the previous post to unharvested mistletoe reminded me of something I'd meant to mention earlier in the autumn, but somehow forgot: all the uncollected conkers. For non-Brits I should probably explain: "conkers" are the seeds of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum); large, as glossy brown as a polished shoe, irresistibly tactile, yet strictly inedible, unlike those of their distant cousins the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) of which there are a limited supply in this country [1]. When I was a boy – in the middle of the last century! – conkers were much sought after. Large horse chestnut trees are widely found in British suburban avenues, city parks, and on many village greens, and on autumn days these trees would be constantly attended by children gathering up the conkers. If the pickings were sparse, the bigger kids would throw heavy sticks into the branches to bring more conkers down, still freshly-packaged in their spiky, spongy capsules. If you didn't keep your wits about you, one of those heavy sticks could easily bring you down, instead.

Why? Because we used to play a game with them, also known as "conkers". This involved boring a hole through a conker, and threading it onto a knotted string. You would then take turns in whacking your opponent's conker with yours – not as easy as it sounds – until one or other was sufficiently damaged to fly off its string in pieces. Some rogues would attempt to harden their conkers by various alchemical techniques – typically, soaking or boiling in vinegar – but, if detected, this was denounced as despicable cheating. Some conkers which had grown as twins within a single capsule would have one flat side with an acute edge, not unlike a fat axe. These were known as "cheesecutters", and prized by some as particularly effective conker-smashers: a false theory with its origins in sympathetic magic, rather than empirical observation. The game, taken seriously, had various arcane rules which I can't be bothered to recall or explain ("stringsies", "stampsies", and so on). If nothing else, it gave a certain seasonal excitement to the playground.

However, the game has now fallen by the cultural wayside, not least because many schools have banned it from the playground on safety grounds. The main legitimate risk was getting a hard knock on the knuckles as you held your conker dangling at arm's length, but it was also not unknown to get sneakily "conkered" on the head from behind. Which really fucking hurts, I can tell you. I suppose a lot of playground energy did seem to go into finding ways of injuring each other, it's true, but what a shame it is when such only very slightly risky links with the past get thrown into the same bin as cock-fighting and bear-baiting. Even if they're not actually as ancient and venerable as we imagine: according to Iona and Peter Opie, those historians of the playground, the first reference to such a game using horse chestnuts was in 1848. Like so many "traditions", it may well be a Victorian invention.

The result, of course, is large quantities of uncollected conkers lying unregarded in the grass and gutters beneath every horse chestnut tree surrounded by the remains of their protective capsules, which seem to biodegrade incredibly rapidly from a tough, green, spiked, alien jewel-case into mere wind-blown brown dust. Sic transit gloria aesculorum... I may be 64, but I can never resist picking out a few prize specimens to keep in my coat pockets. They can stay there for years, polished by my fingers into increasingly knobbly "touch pieces" as they dry out, until the outer shell finally separates from the kernel, and starts to disintegrate into sharp little bits of conker shrapnel.


Talking of unregarded treasures, I'm surprised to discover that I also forgot to write about some photos I found residing in the same "October 2018" folder as the conker shots. I suppose the blog's tenth anniversary and my various publications did turn October into a bit of a meta-month [2]. Anyway, a few years ago I posted some photographs of the Moscow State Circus, which was taking place on Bristol's Clifton Downs. This year, as if to restore the geo-political balance, the Downs were hosting Circus Vegas, of which every available square foot was plastered with the Stars and Stripes or some other icon of popular Americana, up to and including Elvis Presley. It was giddily, hyperventilatingly American, positively Trumpian in its vulgarity.

Although quite how American "Circus Vegas" actually is may be questionable, despite all the hoo-hah and flag-waving, as the name appears to be under license to the distinctly un-American sounding European Entertainment Corporation Ltd. I suppose "American", in this most reductive sense, is more a state of mind – one composed entirely of faux-chauvinistic show-biz clich├ęs – than any actual nationality. Which, if I were American, I would find more than a little annoying; it's as if a particularly gaudy Texas rodeo had elbowed its way to become, in effect, the purest summation of my great and diverse national culture. I wonder if anywhere has a British Circus, where the big top is a gigantic bowler hat plastered with the Union Jack? And the clowns are endlessly bumping into inanimate objects and saying "sorry"? Somehow I doubt it. We may be many culpable things, we British, and may have lost touch with much of our conkering heritage, but at least we've kept a reasonably firm grip on our brand.



1. Those of you who recognise "sativa" from certain other plant names may not realise it is a common botanical designation, meaning "cultivated". The phrases "distant cousins" and "limited supply" may also have prompted some of you to wonder, like me, whether conkers are the original big-eyed beans from Venus... Certainly, in America the equivalent Aesculus "nuts" are known as "buckeyes".
2. The blog is still in a bit of a meta-sulk about the surprising lack of acknowledgement of its significant birthday. No, no: too late now! It has been slightly cheered by a recent uptick in readers, though.

10 comments:

Garet Munger said...

I can't deal with this blog's sulk, but am driven to share a few words about what I happen to know of conkers.

Horse chestnuts are a common landscape tree here in Seattle as street trees and in our parks. I am often prompted to consider leaning down to pick up the shiny brown chestnuts to feel their smooth gloss. I never participated in a conkers and don’t have the experience of being conked but do have a passing knowledge of the “sport”.
As a schoolboy growing up in Ohio, we had living with us a teacher from the nearby high school, she taught world history to 10th graders and I suppose other versions of history as needed. She was also an anglophile and would, as soon as school let out for summer vacation, pack up to sail across the ocean on whichever of the ocean liners Queen Elizabeth or whichever of the queens was operating at the time (late 1940’s early 1950’s). She always brought back Kodachrome slides to show and stories to tell from her summer in England. I recall her telling me about conkers and of the school boy battles with conkers strung on a string.
Conkers never caught on as a game or sport on school yards in America. I was, even so, like you tell of yourself, intrigued by the shiny brown horse chestnuts scattered on the ground and picked the up and carried them around for a while in a pants pocket. My further understanding of conkers was gained from reading from the book series “Biggles goes to…”
Ohio is of course nicknamed the Buckeye state. The nickname for the Ohio State University American football team is also Buckeyes. Buckeye is one of the common names in use for Castanea hippocastaneum, also known as horse chestnut.
There is more to the story of chestnuts in the U.S; Longfellow’s poem of the Smithy ‘under the spreading chestnut tree, and the disappearance of the American chestnut, Castanea dentata, from our forests.
Garet Munger Seattle, Washington

Mike C. said...

Hi Garet,

Thanks: any comments always cheer up the blog considerably! It's pretty much over the birthday thing now. It's curious, how widespread horse chestnuts (and similar) trees are, and yet only here did we seem to get some (relatively) harmless fun out of them.

I can't help but think you're misremembering the "Biggles" connection. I, like many boys growing up in the 50 and 60s, was a huge Biggles fan, but can't recall any instances of Biggles, Ginger, or Algy playing conkers... Shooting down Fokkers and other aircraft in WW1, yes, and many aeroplane-based adventures around the world, but conkers? However, I would very much enjoy being proved wrong in this!

Mike

Thomas Rink said...

Ah, conkers! Even though the conkers game isn't known in Germany, we collected them, too. Add acorns, toothpicks, glue and a gimlet, and you have great building material for fantasy critters like dinosaurs, dragons and monsters. This could keep me occupied for hours on end!

The throw-stick-into-tree method isn't unproblematic, though. There was an alley of horse chestnut trees in front of our Gymnasium, and we used to gather conkers before the classes started. One particular morning - we were in 7th grade - my best friend threw a stick up into one of the trees. It didn't come down immediately, instead stayed up there for several seconds, just long enough for a Mercedes to drive by. I still remember seeing the stick falling down in the very instant when the car was below the tree. It seemed to take like forever until it dropped on the roof panel. We were first paralyzed but gave chase on the "boom". Unfortunately, the driver went to the headmaster who lead him through the classes, where he identified my friend, who had a nasty day afterwards.

I still collect conkers, keep them in my pockets, in my car, on my desk at work. I simply can't resist the rich, reddish-brown colour, their roundness and the moist luster. Unfortunately, they become unsightly too early (just like autumn).

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thomas,

It seems we're all walking around with pockets full of conkers... No wonder the trees are everywhere -- it's a very cunning seed dispersal system!

Mike

amolitor said...

I went to boarding school in Vancouver, Canada, for a year, where they were doing their damndest to recreate the British Boarding School experience. So, it was an appalling year for me. But we played conkers, which I remember somewhat fondly?

It was kind of fun!

I am also reminded on M&M duels, a legendary bit of writing. M&Ms are American Smarties, which you probably know perfectly well.

https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=M%26M%20Duels

Mike C. said...

Sadly, our ongoing Americsnization means kids probably eat M&Ms more than Smarties, now. Ditto things like Oreos and Reese’s peanut butter thingies, which I’d never heard of, never mind eaten. Although one good thing about Brexit (there surely has to be *one* good thing doesn’t there?) is that we can take back control of our confectionery and revert to calling a Marathon bar a Marathon bar and abandon the ludicrous “Snickers”.

Mike

Mike C. said...

Although PLEASE don’t take away our Lindt 70% chocolate when we go and make us eat that Cadburys Bourneville stuff...

Mike

Zouk Delors said...

Mike,you seem not to have noticed that horse chestnut trees in this country have been hit by an epidemic of leaf-miner moth. Here is a report from 2016 in the Daily Telegraph:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/10/17/conkers-could-vanish-from-britain-within-15-years-as-horse-chest/

That also carries a video report of the World Conker Championship, in which competitors from 15 countries took part with graphic top-class conkering action.

Also, shouldn't you have mentioned The Avenue, a gravel avenue lined with horse chestnut trees which ran next to our old school? Google Maps has it styled as 'Unnamed Road' (so perhaps it was just 'the avenue'?)and you can see it running from the Thomas Alleyne Academy (Alleyne's Grammar School, as was), east-north-east to Bury Mead here:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Unnamed+Road,+Stevenage/@51.9157403,-0.2095194,465m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m13!1m7!3m6!1s0x48762916a02a64d9:0x4341e6e1cebe29fa!2sStevenage!3b1!8m2!3d51.903761!4d-0.196612!3m4!1s0x487631e9e0c2fc27:0x57685c661e1d5880!8m2!3d51.9157403!4d-0.2073307

Zouk Delors said...

Also, don't know if any of them are plastered in Union Jacks, but https://www.thecircusdiaries.com/links-2/british-circuses/

Mike C. said...

Zouk,

No, hadn't noticed that: we're knee deep in conkers, here, so maybe it hasn't hit the south yet.

Nope, never collected conkers on the Unnamed Road: not really my patch, or on my way home from school, either.

Mike