(No law at all, skip if you are busy)
I was walking my excitable (and occasionally rumbunctious) dog this morning and we came across our first conker of the year. It was nothing special, just a small brown sphere, but it took me back over twenty years (who am I kidding, nearly thirty) to a time when conkers were the most important thing in the world to me for a few short months.
I spent my autumns collecting conkers, getting out early at the weekends and spending hours either looking down at the leaves on the ground to see if amongst them lay the spikey green case that promised conkers, or up in the branches to see the ones gathered that offered promise of being a good one. I gently prised them open (if they are hard to open, they aren’t ready, so I would leave them) and hoped that they would open cleanly and produce a shiny glistening perfect conker, not the ones coated in sticky white goop. Then I would go home with my haul, usually a couple of carrier bags and sort through them, finding the best ones. By winter, it wouldn’t be unusual for me to have two hundred or more that had made it to the “keep” pile. Then they would harden and wizen like wooden balloons and my mum would throw them away.
I have never played a game of conkers in my life. Not once did I ever pierce one and hang it by a shoelace, or coat one in nail varnish, or bath one in vinegar or bake one in the oven.
Looking back now, I can recall the delight and sheer joy of finding the perfect conker – it has to be very round, a good size, the flat part has to be entirely on the bottom (I hated lop-sided conkers), no cracks along that base, the perfect deep shade of brown and the shiniest surface you could encounter. I remember that feeling very vividly, but I can’t find any recollection as to just why it brought me such joy – why I spent so many hours foraging for them and sorting through them every time I had a new batch to see if some of the previous “Keeps” were now overtaken by new ones. Why did I do it? Why did I bother? I honestly have no idea now, years later.
I spend my professional life now, trying to understand and predict people who are strangers to me, but I can’t perfectly understand the person I lived as for many years. There are limits to what all of the knowledge and information and documents will ever give you about another human being – I don’t even think we really get to know ourselves totally.
The writer Neil Gaiman speaks about the perfect story in your mind, when you first imagine it, being like a bubble – perfect and spherical and shiny and ever so fragile, and that almost all writing is about trying to get farther away from the lumpy flawed version that comes from your mind onto paper and closer and closer to the perfection you imagined it might be. That’s what I was searching for with my conkers, I suppose, the idyllic perfect one of my imagination.
Sorry for being all flowery and Pseud’s Corner on you, but the memories and recollections of what Chesterton called “numinous” – those times when you can just feel awe and wonder and delight in something which appears so simple are something dear to my heart. We get only flashes in adulthood of the wonder and delight that came to us so frequently when we were children.
(If you want to read a proper writer describing a numinous experience, G K Chesterton’s essay “On a Piece of Chalk” is linked here, and it is probably one of my favourite ever pieces of writing.