Monday, 2 November 2009

Autumn: Conkers

Autumn is, of course, the time of year when you can find conkers. A conker is the British English name for the fruit of the horse chestnut tree. When schoolchildren find a nice big shiny conker lying on the ground they drill a hole through it and thread it onto a string which they knot at the end. They then look for other people in the playground who have a conker and challenge them to a fight or contest. To play the game one person holds their conker out so that it hangs perpendicularly on its string. The other contestant then swings their conker on its string and tries to hit the conker of their opponent. The winner is the person whose conker survives; while the loser is left holding a rather sad-looking piece of string with half a chestnut still hanging off it.

A conker that has proved successful in a series of matches is referred to by the number of matches it has won: a sixer, for example, is a conker that has won half a dozen contests, while a twenty-three-er would be a truly formidable weapon. Some tricks are used to make a conker extra-hard, such as baking it in an oven or soaking it in vinegar. (These, however, are generally considered unsporting, if not downright cheating).

Photo of a conker by Sharonkcooper, available under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Since a conker being smashed to pieces can send small fragments of shell flying out at unpredictable angles there is a tiny chance that one of the contestants might receive an eye injury. Perhaps a more common danger would be a bruised knuckle from your opponent missing your conker and hitting your hand. If you read the British tabloid newspapers (such as The Sun) or rightwing middle-market paper The Daily Mail you will usually find a story about schools banning conkers (or other traditional playground activities, such as skipping or throwing snowballs) on the grounds of health and safety. These stories form part of a wider narrative usually referred to by phrases such as “health and safety gone mad” or “the nanny state”.

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