I used to play in an under 10s football squad once upon a time. I was pretty good, but I was easily distracted. I distinctly remember, during one important match against a rival town’s squad, my football coach (whose name was Graham, funnily enough) shouting at me to focus on the game and stop picking up conkers on the side of the pitch.
But I was fixated on a far more glorious sport. The most extreme sport of all, according to certain chestnut seeds. That sport is Conkers.
For those who don’t know, a “conker” is the name given to the seed of a horse chestnut tree. Crack open the spiky unpleasantness and you’re left with a wonderfully pleasing sight: a shiny brown round conker, perfect for dangling from a string and bashing against other conkers until one conker emerges the victor.
That’s the game in a nutshell (geddit?). Once you find a suitable conker, you drill a small hole through it from top to bottom, thread some string through it and tie a knot. Then you find a similarly enlightened prepubescent individual and challenge them to a game of conkers. Taking turns, one player must dangle their conker ready, while the other player winds up and swings their own conker in a devastating arc so that it crashes into its opponent. The game continues as long as both conkers remain attached to their string.
It got pretty competitive at our school. Some kids (including me, I’m not at all ashamed to admit) would attempt to coat their conker in various substances to improve their toughness. I can’t remember what those substances were, but I can only assume the methodology was not even remotely based in science. It was probably stuff like “two parts PVA glue, one part marmite… and if we have any glitter that would be ideal. If not, I guess we can do without it.”
Laugh all you like, but my conker was amazing. The glossy little demon remained stubborn in the face of immense kinetic energy (I know just how immense, because frequently the other player would miss and hit my fingers instead). My schoolyard reign of terror ended when, of all people, the school’s headteacher, an excellent human being called Mr Francis, emerged from his office with the legendary “Mr Francis’s Conker” swinging idly from his hand. That old conker was grizzled and battle-scarred after a thousand victories, a it swept through my conker like an ICBM through butter.
Looking back, it was probably made of titanium or something, and painted to look like an old conker. But I’ll forgive Mr Francis.