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...


  1. Forgive an American for giggling hysterically about this. I mean, sounds fun, but... "conkers"??? HAHAHAHAHHAHAHAHHHH!

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