The conkering British

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan looks to the multifarious origins of that great symbol of Britishness – the conker – to argue for a national temperament which precludes exclusion.

The Forest Trees of Britain was the sort of book that I’d promised myself I’d stop buying. I wanted it only because it was beautiful, not because I planned to read it. Before opening the thick teal cover, I ran a finger over the golden tree embossed on the front. The price, penciled lightly, was £15. A few minutes later, I was guiltily carrying the book in a paper bag.

The book was published in 1889, one hundred years before I was born. It contains a hodgepodge of botanical science, folklore, history, and speculation. It describes the relationship between humans and trees as much as the trees themselves. The book tells of how the Scots believed the trembling poplar trembles because it was from poplar that the cross of Christ was cut. It describes farmers who tied bunches of wiggan (mountain ash) above a cow’s byre to keep the witches away.

I did not read the entries in order, instead picking trees that I was fond of, or ones with strange names, like wych elm and tamarack. When the book fell open on the page for chestnut, I smiled. As a child, I gathered up chestnuts in my coat pockets.

The entry begins with a question of origins – “it is necessary that I should examine somewhat minutely the grounds which have been urged in favour of its claims to be considered a native of Great Britain”. I tried to imagine that first chestnut unfurling its leaf buds under the great grey British sky. Its nut would have to have fallen from a not-quite-chestnut. What made it the first? Did delicately clawed velociraptors run beneath its branches? Or did the fat pads of mammoth feet step over that first sapling? Or did it only become a chestnut when a Briton, with British lips, spelled out the name? For six pages, the Reverend C.A. Johns debated the tree’s possible origin before finally concluding that no, the tree is not British.

The presence of towns named after the tree – Cheston, Chesthunte, and Cestrehunt was only further evidence that chestnuts were exotic, worthy of note. Johns decided that the trees must have been imported by the Romans. Contemporary belief traces the origins of the European chestnut to Asia Minor. The Japanese were cooking chestnuts 9000 years ago. Their charred remains have been found in prehistoric sites. So much for the Britishness of this tree.

A few pages on, I reached the entry for horse chestnut. I realised I’d confused the two. My fingers’ memory of a smooth brown nut and the chalky “scar” where the nut separated from its husk, was not of a chestnut (castanea vesca). This was a horse chestnut or conker (aesculus hippocastanum). Unrelated to the chestnut, they share a name because of their similarly spike-husked nuts. While chestnuts in Reverend John’s eyes had at least a tentative claim to a British origin, horse chestnuts never stood a chance. In his words, “The features presented by this tree are so decidedly different from the ordinary tenants of our woods and forest that a mere glance is sufficient to assure us that … the Horse Chestnut must be alien”.

The publication which you are reading marks the twentieth anniversary of Cool Britannia. Twenty years ago, I was in Britain but I was not cool. I was seven. Even for a seven-year-old, I was not cool. There were girls who knew the lyrics to the Spice Girls’ songs. They twitched new hips. They stamped their feet in semisync with the lyrics they belted into invisible microphones or cartons of juice. Pale straws bobbed in time to the rhythm clapped out by small palms.

In 1997, I was still collecting conkers. It may have been the last year I did. You can play conkers by smashing one against the other until the last to crack is the winner. It wasn’t a game I ever played. No, I hoarded them in coat pockets and at the bottom of my school bag. Then, squirrel-like, I’d forget where I’d hidden them and have to start again, prizing these dark marbles out of their spiky shells.

Years later, I tried to explain this to an American friend. The appeal had something to do with the colour. They’re the ambered brown of a dog’s eyes, of a mud after rain, of an old chair often polished. She laughed and said, “You’re so British”. Oh, I thought, this is British. As someone who has one British and one American parent, moved from place to place and read too many old books, I often struggle to know whether a word or idea is British, American or archaic. Are conkers British? Answer One – No, not really. The Horse Chestnut is the national tree of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The Woodland Trust traces the tree’s origins to Turkey. The Ohio Buckeye, a variety of horse chestnut, is the state tree of Ohio. Horse chestnuts line the boulevards of Paris. The British do not have an exclusive claim.

Answer Two – Maybe? The National Woodland Inventory of Woodland Trees estimates there are 470,000 horse chestnuts in Great Britain. The oldest horse chestnuts in Britain are 400 years old. Surely, that is enough to pass a citizenship test? After all, the horse chestnut made it into The Forest Trees of Britain.

Answer Three – Yes, yes, yes. After living in New York, I moved to Norwich. That first autumn back, I found myself reaching to the ground again for those glossy handfuls. Feeling the cool skin in my palm, I knew I was home. When I think of conkers, I do think of Britain. I think of long autumn afternoons in the parks of London. I think of my kindergarten classmates, some of whom had families from elsewhere, but who all congregated to hunt for the best and brightest specimens. My brother still remembers a falling out with another boy over the theft of a particularly fine conker. Friends who grew up in other parts of the island tell me stories of chestnut hunts. For so many, this tree is part of their country.

Do conkers become less British when a girl in the Balkans runs her small thumb over the smooth surface of a horse chestnut? Does being mixed-race and a dual-national make my love of the conker less British? The politics of Britishness is complicated. We use it to discuss treaties, economics, and security. Calling a tree British will not tell us how to govern our country. But it can help us define a version of Britishness that doesn’t mean exclusion and exclusivity. Britishness can encompass all the people, plants, and stories that we love on this small patch of land.