The polished mahogany of new conkers, just out of the case, stands out against fresh green grass, revived by recent rain and cool weather. I’ve never grown out of the impulse to pick up a shiny, new conker, to hold in my pocket, enjoying the cool smoothness of the skin, or to pile with others in a bowl on a table. Last autumn in Paris, I’d just picked up a particularly fine specimen when a kindly lady came to put me right. ‘Vous savez, elles ne sont pas comestibles?’ (You do know they’re not edible?).
I grew up in a place where all children collected conkers, as soon as they fell from the trees each autumn, and the impatient ones threw sticks to bring the nuts down before they were ready to fall. At school, other kids boasted of their champion conkers (surreptitiously baked or pickled in vinegar to make them harder) which smashed lesser nuts to smithereens. Lacking some essential competitive drive, I hoarded my conkers, polished them and only rarely threaded one on a string for a tentative game.
In Paris conkers lie uncollected on the grass in the park and all over the street under avenues of horse chestnut trees. Riding along a tree-lined cycle track today, I found myself crunching over a carpet of conkers. I parked the Velib against a tree to take this picture of conkers in the gutter and slipped one into my pocket. No one was watching.
There’s more of a live foraging tradition in France than in Britain and people readily collect sweet chestnuts and wild mushrooms. Collecting something inedible, however shiny and attractive, must seem like a waste of time. That’s fine for adults, but don’t French children have the magpie tendency to collect interesting, shiny objects? Maybe Parisian children are just well trained. Picking things up off the ground in a city street isn’t generally a good idea.
This afternoon in the park, I noticed a small child, holding on to her grandad’s hand and scuffing her feet in the fallen leaves. A shiny new conker caught her eye and she leant down to pick it up but her grandfather gently moved her on. I hope she gets the conker next time.