Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Friday, 4 August 2017
I came, I saw, I conkered
This one is going to be a long one, so I am not expecting everyone to get to the end.
There is a disease affecting most of our Horse Chestnut trees in the South of England right now which makes the leaves go yellow and brown long before Autumn. I have only noticed it in the last couple of years, partly because the Horse Chestnut is the first to come into leaf and the first to go brown at end of Summer.
Actually, there are two diseases which have the same effect which we are warned by the Conker Tree association not to confuse with each other. One is caused by a grub and has spread from London in all directions, and the other is a fungus which has somehow found its way across the Atlantic from North America. Both are said to be non-fatal.
I personally think that the trees have been depressed by the decline in popularity of the game 'Conkers' as played by the children of my generation in favour of indoor, electrically-powered pursuits. Their immune systems have been damaged as all of our immune systems have been damaged due to modern life.
Long before any child over the age of 6 would - if invited to a game of conkers - look at the kid with the conkers and feel a strong sense of disgust, pity and disbelief, most schools banned conkers from being played on Health and Safety grounds. Because no padded gloves and safety goggles were offered, the game (I would call it 'harmless', but it wasn't) was forgotten in one generation, about three generations ago.
For all you young people reading this... oh hang on, there aren't any young people reading this. For all non-British people reading this, I will describe how you play conkers.
In its heyday, all boys between the ages of 7 and 13 would go out into the woods toward the end of Summer, searching for a prize specimen of the nut of the Horse Chestnut tree. If you lived in a town, then conkers were easy to find because they landed conveniently onto the tarmac in great quantities, waiting to be shucked with your shoes against the road. The choice could be overwhelming.
You picked what you hoped would be a champion amongst champions, in the same way you would choose a winner for the Grand National. Usually you would select two or three incase the first one let you down in a fight. Size was not necessarily a good thing. Most winners were usually average to small.
Once home, you drilled a hole through the conker from top to bottom, then threaded a length of string through with a knot at the bottom. You then let the nut dry out naturally. Drying in the oven meant instant disqualification and consequential shame and ignominy if discovered, and conkers were regularly sniffed for any trace of vinegar by suspicious stewards if they withstood more than about 10 matches unscathed.
In the school playground, the conkerers (as in William the Conkerer) would gather and the contest would begin with one boy holding his at arm's length while his opponent took an almighty swing at it with his. The object was to smash your opponent's to pieces until the lat bit fell from the string.
You could be left with a tiny fragment at the end of your string, but it would still be the noble winner.
Not all boys were very accurate with their aim, and some would deliberately aim for their opponent's knuckles, but you were not allowed to flinch, move out of the way or show more than a little concern over the excruciating pain whenever this happened, and it always happened at least one time per match.
By the end of term during my conker-playing days, my right hand would be blue with bruises, but I wore them with pride.