Sunday, November 03, 2002

Conkers. Kids don't play it anymore. To many hi-tech distractions I suppose. I wonder if they know what they're missing.

As schoolboys we knew every Horse Chestnut tree within a radius of ten miles from where we lived. We were never given points at school for arboreal recognition, but then again we didn't want them.. What we wanted was conkers. Loads if them.

Our version of combat, our need to satisfy our insatiable appetite for trials of strength and ingenuity didn't lie with computer generated images endowed with unbelievable fighting skills and out of this world weaponry, ours lay ( at this time of year at least) with the humble conker.

Gaggles of us would stand looking like refugees an untidy gaggle of bodies, bikes and dufflebags, as if in veneration beneath a chosen Horse Chestnut, armed with stones, lumps of mud, and sticks. These would be hurled into the branches in the hope of scoring a fall. If someone hit a spot laden with the desired objects, great tumblings of spiky green ball shaped objects would rattle-thud down to the ground. Heads had to be protected with hands and arms, but eyes would never leave the spots where they fell. There were no proprietorial rights of ownership dependent on the successful thrower, once down, they were anyones. It was an unspoken team effort. Ownership rights were determined once they were squirreled into bags or thrust into pockets or into jumpers.

Once they had been transported home the cases would be broken to reveal the sublime beautifully grained mahogany nuts which would be used for combat. They would be primed with a hole through the centre by means of a skewer (many a hand would be partial skewered at the same time) and a piece of string would be threaded through it and knotted at the conker end to allow it to be suspended where it would hang with its own weight providing the required tautness.

The game was simple. Two combatants, two conkers. Each conker in turn would be swung by its owner in the hope of making damaging contact to the other. This would continue until one or the other was cracked and by degrees shattered. The winning conker the conqueror (conkerer?) and its owner would then be hailed as champions and the conker bestowed a number relevant to the number of successes it had racked up using the prefix Billy as in Billy 1 Billy 2 etc.

Everyone would be involved, no one showed a lack of interest. Rules were drawn up to prevent cheats and to ensure fair play A sneaks charter of ruses was identified, a sort of conkery Queensbury Rules remembered by heart. Conkers would be banned from combat should they fail the olfactory test: a smell of vinegar (a sort of anabolic steroid for conkers - a nightly soak was said to harden the shell), or the aroma of the oven ( a baker was not a fair match against a natural.) Last years models - easily identified by their darkened hue and gnarled complexions; all were quickly banned from competition.

Hold conker between index and middle finger, release and flick downwards. No swinging - but allowable providing you understood the risks, a tangle of strings (tangle six) meant that the recipient had six free hits. Smack/Whack - Smack/Whack. Cracking conkers, cracking knuckles. Cracking fun.

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