3 October 2015

Conker season

Conker season, way back in the last century, was one of the most exciting times in the school year. As far as I can tell the game is hardly played any more, and the chestnut-brown seeds lie undisturbed under the horse chestnut trees. In the early days of health and safety, though, one council was so worried about chestnut trees near a main road, they decided action must be taken. Apparently they hit upon the bizarre idea of collecting the conkers themselves and distributing them fairly to local youngsters, before settling for the unpopular but easy solution of putting up wire mesh barriers. A problem that has gone away of its own accord.

Before iPhones and Snapchat, the social life of schools was often a series of popular crazes that lasted a little while, one after another, until each in its turn became last week's thing. Conkers, of course, have a natural season when they appear on the trees. As soon as they looked big enough we would be out throwing sticks to dislodge them from the higher branches, until the glut later on when they fell of their own accord. But I think the demand was equal to the supply, so the conkers were snapped up as fast as they fell, and you would get a sense of achievement when you found a really good sized round one, took it home, bored a hole through the middle and threaded it on an old shoelace ready for battle in the playground.

The game, as even today's schoolkids know, consisted of taking turns to hold up your own conker while your opponent had one try to smash it by swinging his own as hard as he could. I say 'he' because it was almost exclusively a boy's game, the element of violence putting off most of the girls. The conker that won got a point added to its rating, one point for each opponent's conker split apart until it fell from the string. A strict honesty system operated. If someone told you theirs was a 'niner' you would never doubt that it had in fact achieved nine previous wins. And if you broke the niner, yours became a tenner.

At break times there would be several games in progress, each with a little ring of spectators. The games could become quite exciting as the stakes went up, and the hardened winners became more and more battered. Sometimes both conkers would be badly split, and it was just a matter of time before one or the other finally, satisfyingly shattered and fell to the floor. Unfortunately there was always someone who had a darkened year-old vintage number, not as heavy as a new one but rock hard - the real excitement coming when two of those met. Now and then the strings became tangled, and yanking the string to hasten your opponent's demise was considered bad form. This was at a perfectly ordinary, non-toff school, but the sense of fair play, like the game itself, now seems like something from the distant past.

Good conker-collecting places: near Whipps Cross roundabout, and by the car park at the end of Coppermill Lane.