Striding out through leafy Beckenham this morning, I spied a single, shiny conker on the grass verge – and it put me in a good mood.
Conkers are pretty much the only season-marker I have ever noticed. And they always come round earlier than I'm expecting, like the start of every new school year, amid a sentimental haze of being kitted out with rugby boots, a bad haircut, and blazers that my mother swore I'd soon 'grow into'.
My idyllic Kentish prep school was replete with conker trees, and I remember us legging it, pell mell, up to the games fields, only to spend ages stuffing conkers into our socks and tracksuit turn-ups, thinking somehow we might get away with this and/or be able to play some useful sport with a couple of pounds of wood around our ankles. We didn't and we couldn't, and we routinely got a telling-off for lateness.
If divested of my trophies, I could wait until I got home, and gather fresh ones from the trees right in our garden (at least before the '87 hurricane). This I would do, day after day, carting great pointless armfuls of the things up to my room, where they'd moulder in a plastic bag inside my cupboard.
In adulthood, I still pick up a few from time to time, and stick them in a jar, to admire like dark and glossy details in a Flemish painting – when the same thing happens.
But, back then, the real idea was to spend break smashing one another in the knuckles, yanking entangled strings out of each other's hands, and claiming victory based on a flagrantly mendacious ranking of whose conker had once trumped Alan Ritchie's conker, or Mr Williams's conker, or Flash bloody Gordon's conker, for that matter. A lot of rubbish was forever being talked, regarding how to treat them, drill them and string them, for the best results. We even ate a few once, not willing to accept they were not like non-horse chestnuts. There were half a dozen in my pockets on any day, along with cardboard library tickets, bits of twine, and fossil fragments from the shale around the playground. A halcyon time – not that we recognised it.
A fortnight or two of this all-consuming nonsense, and then it died down. Another conker season gone. Another gratuitous metaphor for life.