There’s a horse chestnut tree at the bottom of my front garden. A conker tree if you prefer. A hale, and hearty, horse chestnut that has been producing hale, and hearty, chestnuts, conkers if you prefer, for as long as I can remember. And for as long as I can remember, come this time of year, it was not unusual to see school kids on their way home, rummaging and rooting under that tree for what else but – conkers. Indeed one year I found not one, not two, but three of them climbing the tree, dangling from its branches, shaking those coveted conkers to the ground. Needless to say I had words with them. Not for ‘stealing’ the conkers, taking conkers, or apples, from someone else’s garden is not ‘stealing’ as we all well know. I had words with them regarding those god-awful words: Health & Safety. Their Health & Safety and the Health & Safety of the innocent, horse chestnut tree. Whatever wonderful words I spoke and whatever authoritarian tone I adopted – they didn’t work. Those kids continued to climb (behind my back) and kept ‘stealing.’ They’re only kids after all and sure we all know what it’s like to be kids. Well we do but they’re not going to be kids in my front garden. Let them be kids in their own front garden. Anyone’s front garden but mine. Akin to NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) I call it NIMFG (Not in My Front Garden)
And so I did the decent thing. I knocked down the conkers myself and left them on the wall for the kids to take. By the end of the day the conkers were gone and the kids, I like to think, were happy with their haul and the horse chestnut spared any abuse. And that little gesture of mine has been going on for years. Until this year. This autumn. This year I left the conkers out as usual. They haven’t been touched! Not one conker was taken! Days went by, the school kids passed by – the conkers remained. Sad. Sad because kids may be missing out on the joy of playing conkers. Do they play conkers anymore, a fun game that was part and parcel of my childhood? And I remember the rituals and myths that went with playing. I remember a classmate’s wizened, little conker, a tiny skeletal thing that had beaten off all competition (thirty successive wins, or so he said ) His secret formula? Not physical strength as you swiped down on your opponent’s conker - he’d ‘baked’ it in the oven. We tried the same. No luck. And maybe it was all down to luck, or skill, as big bruisers of conkers often succumbed to the swift, sharp swipe of a smaller one. And, of course, a lot depended on the hole you drilled in the conker to hang it on the string (a shoe lace usually) Too big and you were inviting disaster as a substantial amount of your conker was gone. Too small and you couldn’t get it on the bloody string. I do hope kids are still playing conkers. The only upside of my conkers not being taken is that the kids are wary of touching ‘stuff’ in these Covid infested days. And that’s good. But what’s not good is the possibility that Covid has conquered conkering – a simple, fun-filled, childhood game. And now I am thinking of those other childhood games that I played that are as dead as the dodo, or nearly: Jack, Jack Flash the Lamp, Kick the Can, Queenie, Queenie Who Has the Ball?, Marbles, Skittles, Trollies, Rounders, Giant Steps, Feet off the Ground Tig, Guards & Prisoners and good old Cowboys & Indians, our constant, our favourite. And Conkers. Always, come autumn, conkers.
Mick ‘Cittern’ Walsh
One of the things I miss most during this pandemic is the Monday night session in Cleere’s Bar. Miss the chat, the craic and, of course, the music and song. Miss Jimmy Rhatigan belting out On Raglan Road and Mick Walsh ensconced in the corner, playing away while quietly running the whole show. The music may have stopped but Mick plays on – check him out on Youtube: mickciternwalsh (one t) and check out Tandem Bike Tune a lovely instrumental Mick composed for his great friend Tom Kennedy. Good on you, Mick. Keep the music coming. PS Cittern is an old stringed musical instrument, one of the many that Mick plays.