Talking conkers

Today I am talking conkers. Yeah, yeah. I know. I’ve been talking conkers for years. Funny. But, seriously, I’m worried. Because things have changed at Strawberry How this autumn. And, for once, it’s nothing to do with Strawberry Swamp.

It was only a couple of weeks ago I remarked to the Gremlin, whilst taking a stroll round our front lawn (as you do, whilst surreptitiously checking out the progress across the way), how few conkers we had scattered around the place this year. And there were so many flowers on the spring tree, I’d expected a bumper harvest.

And now I learn that ‘Britain’s two million conker trees could disappear in the next fifteen years’, thanks to the European moth, whose leaf-mining caterpillars eat the leaves from the inside, causing them to drop before the conkers have fully grown. Not only that, these voracious pests spread a fungal disease called bleeding canker (which, if nothing else, has great ‘red top’ headline possibilities: Bleeding canker ate my conkers. Freddie would be proud).

In 2007, the Forestry Commission found that 70% of trees in some parts of England had the disease. An article in First News was concerned that a national conker crisis might threaten the World Conker Championships. Frankly, I’m more concerned that many kids these days don’t appear to know the joy of a ‘conker fight’. Soon after we became neighbours, I suggested to young Thomas (retrieving a ball from aforementioned front lawn at the time, with his dad), that he was welcome to raid our conker windfall, only to be met with a blank look. Time was when such an invitation would have been met with unbounded glee. No more throwing sticks up at trees!

I now know that, having then only recently moved from an area of Scotland bereft of horse chestnuts, Thomas had never seen a conker – and the opportunity to gather them continues to elude him. His mother, however, recalls breaking her heart at school when ‘some thug stamped on’ her conker! ‘I’m still traumatised by it,’ she says, ‘<sad face emoticon>’.

Clearly children do still gather conkers, despite the best efforts of their elders to prevent them doing so. A few years ago, South Tyneside council reduced six conker trees next to a main road to pollarded stumps because of fears that children throwing ‘planks, poles and bricks into branches’ would cause an accident. Or, worse, the little tykes might be tempted to climb them. God forbid! Three years before that, Norwich City Council chopped down seven horse chestnut trees it decided were ‘a threat to the safety of children’.

The first recorded game with horse chestnuts was in 1848, on the Isle of Wight. Before that, ‘conkers’ would be played with snail shells or hazelnuts. In fact, it’s not clear where the name came from: ‘conquer’ as in ‘knock out’, or the French ‘conch’ as in ‘shell’. Or maybe it’s simply onomatopoeic. Whatever, I failed to find any evidence that any child had died as a result of a conker game.

Time was when every kid in the playground – girls AND boys – might carry a well-strung conker in their pocket, armed and ready for combat come that break-time bell. The pride when your shiny new none-er cracked your attacker’s. The joy of achieving one-er status, let alone five-er. The constant threat of match rigging, as the bully boys sought the advantage, baking, soaking or boiling their conkers in vinegar – or painting them with their mum’s clear nail varnish (which must have gone down well). Country boys, I’m told, might take the time to ‘pass their conker through a pig’, from the back end of which it would eventually emerge, suitably hardened by the animal’s stomach juices. Nice.

Then there were the ‘conker sticks’ – which only I seem to recall. Have I imagined it? Left when all the leaves had departed the stem, and somewhat unreliable in their size to strength ratio, these would be grasped horizontally in both hands while your assailant chopped away at it with their own stick. Get a sturdy one of these and you could fend off title-challengers for days. Such simple pleasures.

Let’s hope our tree is simply (and temporarily) traumatised by the horrors currently unfolding under its sturdy gaze and that this time next year our crop will be bumper. And that Thomas – and his younger sister (who I feel sure would love this game) – will finally know the joy of conkers!

Conkers © Paul Mann.

Vodafone Story. Act three

Nowadays, sadly, the average school pocket is far more likely to be stuffed with an expensive piece of technology than a handful of conkers. According to Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report, Ofcom research published in October 2014, ‘Four in ten 5-15s own a mobile phone, rising to almost eight in ten children aged 12-15. Children in each age group are more likely than in 2013 to use a mobile phone to go online (36% vs. 27% for 5-15s)’, so goodness knows what the figures will be like now, two years later.

Such an upsurge in the younger end of the market may well herald a corresponding upsurge in the number of disgruntled parents, doing battle with telecommunications companies on their children’s behalf. For we are far from alone in our ongoing scuffles with Vodafone.

This week, Ofcom reported significant failings in the way the company handled complaints and delivered its services to pay-as-you-go (PAYG) customers, confirming Vodafone’s status as ‘the UK’s most complained-about mobile network’.

On Tuesday evening, a fine of £4.6m was awarded – which Sky News City Editor Mark Kleinman quipped was ‘loose change down the back of Vodafone’s sofa’, given that it has ‘a market capitalisation on the London Stock Exchange of nearly £60bn’.

Loose change it might be but I, for one, will be keeping a watchful eye over the next few months, in case they try sneaking that extra two squid back on my monthly bill.

Creating your own path

Speaking of loose change, I see Bill Gates is planning to deprive his two children of their inheritance, believing it’s ‘no favour to kids to have them have huge sums of wealth. It distorts anything they might do, creating their own path’. Instead, he has (commendably, I should add) pledged the majority of his estimated £70 billion fortune to charity.

He’ll now leave only a rumoured $10 million each to his offspring. That’s £8,194,706.30 at today’s rate. There’s nothing quite like starting out with nothing when ‘creating your own path’, is there?

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