Running alongside our house is an avenue of chestnut trees which, at this time of year, is a popular spot for conker hunters. Children arrive after school, often with their parents, to collect and extract the glossy brown nuts from their prickly capsules. Following windy nights, these lie, scattered and half-hidden beneath the autumn leaves, the equivalent I imagine of discovering the spilled contents of a pirate’s treasure chest.
When I was a child my mother made me Conkermen. She used matchsticks for limbs and match heads for eyes. I carried on the tradition with Polly and Lucy and last week I promised our granddaughter, who is approaching two, that I would make her a Conkerman. She listened, with interest and rolled the new word around in her mouth. The following morning, the figure was waiting for her at the breakfast table. Thea stared at him, picked him up and then put him down again. ‘No Conkerman’ she said politely.
In the 1970s we had conker fights at school. We would drive a nail or a small screwdriver into the heart of the conker, thread a piece of string through the hole and secure it with a knot. We then took turns hitting each other’s conkers until one of them broke open or got smashed. In 2004, conker fights were banned in school playgrounds in England, for reasons of health and safety and the possible risk of nut allergies. Some head teachers permitted them with the proviso that pupils wore protective goggles.
The simple beauty of conkers reminds me of the simplicity of the Crackerjack pencil. Crackerjack was a popular children’s television programme, broadcast on the BBC between 1955 and 1984. The live audience was comprised almost entirely of children, all dressed in their school uniforms. There were games, sketches, quizzes and music. Winners would receive prizes. Losers would be given a Crackerjack pencil. Supplies of the marbled, branded, propelling pencils were tightly controlled and, before each new season, the programme producers would order in the exact number required. They were kept under lock and key and no-one, not even the presenters or the backstage crew could access them. Only one exception was ever made when, in 1961, Her Majesty the Queen visited the set of Crackerjack and requested two pencils for Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
In 2022 children no longer play with conkers. Nor do they have much interest in pencils. Our culture’s ability to project preciousness onto something ordinary appears to be diminishing. And yet, every year, armies of small children return to the grass verge opposite our house to seek out something as common and as beautiful as an Autumn conker.