The long, dark nights are drawing in, the wind is whipping up a storm, the trees are abandoning their leaves like gnarled MPs and their beliefs and as we pick our merry way down the debris strewn lanes we are reminded once again of Julius Caesar’s immortal proclamation, “Veni, vidi, oneser” – I came, I saw, I won at conkers.
In actual fact, it is unlikely that Caesar ever uttered these words because the game of conkers appears not to have been invented until the mid 19th century. This is surprising, given the simplicity of the game and its equipment: two conkers, some sort of skewering tool, such as a skewer, and a length of twine. You wouldn’t have thought these rudimentary tools would have been beyond the reach of the average Celt, given the intricacy of their jewellery, so we can only assume the game did exist but under a different name.
The name conkers originally referred to a game played with snail shells and the first reference to it is from 1821. The name may be a derivation of conch, because that’s a type of shell, or perhaps an interpretation of the sound two snail shells make when you conk them together. We don’t know. There are precious few surviving documents from the 1820s explaining the nomenclature of games involving gastropods. In fact, there are none, possibly because they were never written.
The expression ‘to conk out’ was first recorded during WWI, when pilots started using it to describe a stalling engine. Like conkers, this may have been purely onomatopoeic or it could have evolved from the verb ‘to conk’, meaning to knock on the head, or originally to punch on the nose, also from 1821. Conk, as in nose, is first recorded in 1812 and once again the etymologists speculate that this may have come about due to the resemblance of the human nose to a conch shell.
I don’t know what your nose looks like but I like to think mine looks nothing like a conch shell. Nevertheless, the word conk clearly became de rigeur among the liberal-minded style-setters of the Regency period, and by 1848 they were all playing conkers with proper horse chestnuts.
If you’re in the vicinity of Southwick, Northants, on the second Sunday of October and the roads are jammed, that’ll be because you’ve stumbled into the World Conker Championships, which have taken place in this neck of the woods since 1965, originally down the road in Ashton. This celebration of nutty combat has all the bonkers behaviours you would expect from an English rural gathering and is notable for two things: 1. It currently has probably the oldest world champion of any sport in the world – 85-year-old John Riley; and 2. It is one of the only sports in the world that is susceptible to the harvest.
Back in 1976, when we last had a summer as dry as this one, there were not enough conkers to be found on the English mainland and auxiliaries had to be flown in from Jersey. And now there’s some moth attacking horse chestnut trees, which is throwing the future of the Conker World Championships into doubt. Contestants, you see, are not allowed to bring their own conkers. They have to use ‘neutral’ nuts, pre-drilled and laced by competition officials, so there can be no artificial hardening by soaking in vinegar or baking in the oven or painting with your mum’s nail varnish, or whatever you used to do at school.
And there are no stampsies. If a nut comes off its thread but remains intact, it may be rethreaded. Conker purists are unhappy about this ruling out of the traditional conkering code and I’m concerned, from personal experience, that it could lead to the erosion of fundamental decorating skills. I’ll explain.
Many moons ago, when the lads and I were in our early 20s, a group of us gathered at the house of Bignose* to do battle at conkers. The fact that he was called Bignose is purely coincidental. It may have been big but it looked nothing like a conch. Anyway, I was up against the mighty Bananaman and his wrecking ball of a nut, which had been aged and baked and looked like the left testicle of a mature water buffalo, as it dangled ominously on its string. But I had a particularly sharp-edged cheeser with which I reckoned I could crack the hide of that behemoth and I was feeling confident.
We locked horns for several minutes, tit for tat, conk after conk, with neither nut showing any sign of yielding, when, to my horror, he took a mighty swing, which missed my nut but resulted in stringsies. Yanking his conker free, Bananaman, strapping lad that he was, pulled my string from my grasp and the cheeser hit the deck. I knew what he was going to do next and I was ready. As the word “stampsies” burst from Bananaman’s lips, I charged at him and we became entangled in a frenzied wrestling match, which roped in various cooking utensils and resulted in the kitchen door being wrenched off its hinges and crashing into the hallway.
Silence. We looked at Bignose. Bignose looked at us. His parents were coming back the next day. Long story short, we learnt how to order glass, glaze a door, paint it and rehang it in six and a half hours. And Mr and Mrs Bignose were none the wiser.
Next week: How an accident with a home-made go-kart taught me philosophy.
*Names have been changed slightly to protect anonymity.