Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ghoulies and ghosties...

When I was at primary school, we had a wonderful teacher called Mrs. Griffiths (sadly, no longer with us) who – among many other things – taught us the “Hallowe’en Prayer”…
From ghoulies and ghosties,
And long-legged beasties,
And things that go “bump!” in the night.
Good Lord, deliver us.

Now, the rhyme is of Scots origin, but it is forever imprinted on my mind in the musical lilt of the Welsh Valleys that was so apparent in Mrs. Griffiths’ voice.

I’ve been thinking about the Hallowe’ens of my youth over the past few days as I the In ternet goes creepy crazy in anticipation of this evening's antics. I've seen several people I thought I knew transformed into walking pumpkins, my normally benign nephew as a seriously scary looking serial killer bunny, and some of the more budget-minded planning to wrap themselves in toilet paper to play the mummy (which is fine unless it rains...).

At the risk of sounding like an old fart (again), when I was a lass (you have to imagine this in a Northern accent, in the style of the Monty Python '4 Yorkshiremen' sketch), we never had no trick-or-treat. We just had bobbing for apples – if we were lucky.

The whole imported American concept of Hallowe’en has really only taken hold in the UK since I left, so I find it really strange to think of gangs of 12-year-olds roaming the streets dressed as witches, ghosts, vampires… and fairy princesses (aren’t they s’posed to be scary?) to menace householders unless they dosh out enough goodies to give the kids a sugar rush that will have them bouncing off the walls until the Christmas onslaught.

Back in MY day, it was a far more enigmatic and creepy night. OK, we didn't exactly lock ourselves in the broom cupboard for the night (well, just that once) but I certainly remember hiding my head under the blankets after a Hallowe''en bedtime story.

Hallowe’en is a shortened form of All Hallows’ Eve (Hallows = Saints) as it's the night before All Saints’ Day on November 1. This was supposed to be one of the few times of the year when spirits can make contact with the physical world and when magic is at its most potent. It was the night when all the ghoulies, ghosties, witches and goblins et al would come out to play for one last blast before the goody-goodies from the Saints’ camp took over.

Not surprisingly, it's yet another example of Christianity absorbing a much earlier Pagan festival in order to win followers in the early years of the Church. Hallowe’en origins lie in an ancient Gaelic festival called Samhain, which celebrated the end of the harvest season. It was the time when the ancient pagans used to take stock of supplies and slaughter livestock for their winter stores. The ancient Gaels also believed that it was night when the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped, allowing the deceased to come back and cause havoc by spreading sickness and damaging crops. Costumes and masks were therefore worn in a bid to placate the spirits by mimicking them.

One year, I decided to conduct a Hallowe’en experiment. Tradition has it that if a young virgin peels an apple (symbol of fertility) anticlockwise, keeping the peel in one unbroken coil, in the front of a mirror at midnight on the night of October 31, her husband-to-be will appear to her. Mum must have wondered why I so enthusiastically offered to peel a couple of pounds of Bramleys for apple crumble during the day (well, I had to practice, didn’t I?) but come midnight, I managed to peel my apple in one intact snake of peel. And sure enough, a male figure appeared from the shadows behind me - but it was no tall, dark stranger from my future, just dear old dad coming to tell me that it was well past my bed-time and to go to sleep!

Growing up in England in the '70s and '80s, we were still relatively unsophisticated compared to today's children and Hallowe’en held a thrill of fright and anticipation (a bit like watching Dr Who from behind the sofa), but none of the pallaver we see these days.

It was a simple pleasure that came with the season – along with the scent of bonfires in the air as devoted gardeners burned off their garden waste, the joy of wading through fallen leaves in the park in search of conkers, and coming back to the house after a walk with your cheeks burning from the chill. And just around the corner was the promise of lighting up the skies for Bonfire Night.

Maybe I’m just getting nostalgic in my old age?
Oh well, 'Happy Hallowe'en ya'all!'

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

She stoops to conker?

Ah, autumn. Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, bringing back memories of shushing through piles of fallen leaves and playing conkers in the school playground. But did you know that the good old horse chestnut (a.k.a. the conker tree) is NOT a native to Britain, but a migrant from... Greece and Albania?

Yes, apparently it's true. But somehow I can't see the Greeks embarking on the annual orgy of smashing your opponents' nuts (in the nicest possible way) that generations of British schoolkids have enjoyed.

Time and time again, I have greeted the first hints of that gorgeous autumnal tang in the air with an attempt to explain the rules and reasoning of conkers to The Other Half.

He sits there patiently, giving me the indulgent look of one humouring a slightly dim but lovable child, while I try to convey my enthusiasm for scrabbling about in the wet grass to find the perfect shiny brown conker with which to annihilate my rivals' offerings.

His demeanour is one of "OK, that sounds like the sort of thing you Brits would do. But why?".

To be honest, I don't have an answer. It's just one of those things that is an integral part of growing up in the UK. No rhyme nor reason is required - it just IS. Just like he can't explain to me WHY Greeks traditionally fly kites on the first day of Lent, why Greek grannies put a red and white knotted string bracelet on their grandchildren's wrists every May Day, nor why taramosalata (made from fish eggs) is allowed during the Lenten fast which forbids both fish and eggs.

For the uninitiated, to play the game, you need to take a large, hard conker and carefully drill a hole through it. Then you thread a piece of string through the hole and knot it at one end. Next step is to find an opponent, with whom you will take turns to hit one another's conkers. This goes on until one of the conkers is smashed, and the status of the winning nut is enhanced according to how many rivals it has annihilated (one-er, two-er, six-er, etc.).

That's it, really. Nothing more, nothing less. But it used to keep us happy for hours on end.

Over the years, the World Conkers Championship held in the UK has raised thousands of pounds for charities for the blind - and, in a delicious twist, a few years back it was sponsored by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in a bid to counter the public's perception of its inspectors as killjoys.

Now, those of us who nurse fond memories of the annual search for the perfect shiny conker (perhaps still hidden in its spiny green outer casing) amid the dozens fallen at the feet of a spreading horse chestnut tree will also recall the tricks we used to employ to make our conker a champion. Baking it in the oven, soaking or boiling it in vinegar, coating it with clear nail varnish or rolling it in hand cream to make the impact softer (but be warned - conkers explode when microwaved).

Unfortunately, any 'artificial hardening' of your conker will immediately get you thrown out of the World Conker Championships as ex-Monty Python Michael Palin found out to his cost in 1993 (he was disqualified for baking and soaking his conker in vinegar).

I hope that despite Britain's increasingly enhanced fears of how every-day life can harm our offsping (Daily Mail-type stories of 'Elf & Safety gone mad' when schools ban playtime games of conkers, for fear of bits of smashed nuts flying into kids' eyes or even triggering nut allergies), the autumn air in my homeland is still filled with the sounds of horse chestnuts cracking against each other - and the occasional bashed knuckle.

As for me, I'm off in search of a conker tree in its native Greek habitat.

I may be some time...