Saturday, 4 October 2008

heaven is a place

(something I wrote some years ago; I was reminded of it the other evening when we were out admiring the conkers...)

So the annual blitz on the conker trees is under way. Broken branches lie among the discarded husks all across the Downs, and Miserable Loony, who piles up dead branches for inscrutable reasons of his own, is looking more miserable than ever. It calls to mind the old saying, "A woman, a dog, and a walnut tree; the more you beat 'em, the better they be." This is the sort of thing trotted out by blokes with beards, over their tankards (always tankards) of real ale, who don't actually have women, but, hey. These men are probably also the only people left in Merrie England who actually play conkers these days. And experiment with vinegar and baking the in the oven to make them tougher.

So what does motivate these people who trog along with their Waitrose bags, the children stuffing them full of these inedible nuts, while Father imperils their young brains with ill-aimed hurlings of sticks, in attempts to dislodge more? -I think the idea of playing a game with them is just a front. We are impelled to do it, for the love of the thing. The beauty of conkers is more precious than that of pearls, because it is so transient. Take them home, and in a few days the marbled sheen has faded, the skin has begun to wrinkle, and that's that for another year. You can get strawberries all year round, if that sort of thing appeals to you; but conkers? -blink and you've missed them. I stood with my small daughter under one tree that was at the peak of fruitfulness, and the things were raining down around us. "It's heavened with conkers," she said. That was it. The nail had been hit, right on the head.

One autumn I was in Marseilles. The boulevards were lined with conker trees, and the gutters brimmed with conkers. They were entirely disregarded by the locals. My companions and I attracted some funny looks as we jubilantly stuffed our pockets. The French, you see. No poetry in their souls.

What of the squirrels, though? I see that they have taken to dashing around nibbling a bit off as many conkers as possible, thus rendering them useless to the discriminating gatherer. Presumably they will go around later, gathering them up and burying them for the winter. This is the sort of initiative that has got Grey Squirrels where they are today; all over the country. I used to shoot the damned things as vermin when I lived in Wales, but now I have surrendered to the inevitable.

And, when my daughter's conker collection has been laid aside and forgotten, I sneak them out in the dead of winter and scatter them for the squirrels. It's a sort of peace offering. And squirrels are useless at finding their own stashes.


  1. I did enjoy that. I tried to introduce conker fights to the children in the village a few years ago but it didn't take off.

    I was observing the leaves on the trees here and trying to remember how they change colour back home, but I can see from your painting they just go brown at the edges like they were diseased – very disappointing.

    I read my poem about conkers to a captured audience of parents one evening at school. It was romantic poetry I wanted to be remembered for.

  2. What a lovely piece of writing, it has certainly brightened up a gloomy afternoon. When I'm cycling I worry in case squirrels will get caught in the spokes; they tend to suddenly appear from the hedges. And, as for conkers; I've done the baking and vinegar bit - long time ago - happy days.

  3. I used to love collecting conkers with my girls. They certainly are a thing of beauty. I would often keep a few for myself, on my desk, and admire them.

    Apparently, this year is going to be a lousy year for them (I heard on the radio). The weather has meant they're all falling off too soon, and others have fallen prey to some nasty weevil-y thing. Or something.

  4. Conkers are beautiful... until they've shrivelled up... I got a whole bowl full a couple of weeks ago but had to throw them out today when I realised that they really are not looking good...

  5. We have a few "conker trees" where I work and you are right, they are beautiful.

    My most unusual experience with them though was in Galacia Spain where the locals DO appreciate them and you can find whole families out on the camino and other paths gathering them up, while they still in their bristly shells. They use either use a special device for picking them up or the old women use very thick gloves.

    They then shell them and roast them in a big barbecue style thingie and sell them in the plazas.

    I'm not all that fond of roasted chestnuts myself but they certainly are popular over there.

    Caroline x.

  6. I don't think my picture does them justice, Anji; the leaves are many shades of greens, russets and browns. There should be more poetry about conkers.

    Thank you, Neil. They seem to play chicken with the cars round here, too. One once jumped out in front of me as I pootled along on my moped, then panicked and ran ahead of me. It was actually faster than my moped.

    I used to think that the squirrels went around taking nibbles out of the conkers, Jo, to render them unusable for conker playing. Had it been true, it would have been a very smart move on their part. But I discovered the other day when they were falling in great numbers from the tree, that they were falling out of the tree already nibbled. I wonder if this is evidence of weevillyness?

    I've stopped bringing them home, Caroline, unless as subjects for painting.

    Hello, Caroline M!-it sounds like sweet chestnuts, what you're describing? -they're big in Italy too, apparently; they make (or used to make) flour out of them, and they were an important staple in some areas. The flavour is a bit cloying after a while, isn't it?

  7. You can buy them in tins in France and puréed. Like you say - cloying.