Conkers plonkers

First there was the sprinkler ban, which reduced grown gnomes - sorry, men - to tearful mourning for their raddled lawns. Then the car's weekly wash and polish had to go, turning Saturday morning into an empty wasteland of waiting for the start of Grandstand. Now the long hot summer of '95 has made a final assault on masculine pleasures: the nation's supply of conkers is in crisis.

"Because there was less water around during the summer the horse chestnut trees have had to ration supplies," explained a spokesman for the Forestry Commission. "The conkers have not had a chance to develop to their full potential before dropping. Not only are they smaller, they are also much less durable in combat."

Naturally, the nation is up in arms. "It has been a disaster," said Simon Dabell, who has been forced to cancel the annual Isle of Wight championships. Next weekend's World Conker Championship is also in jeopardy. John Hadman, secretary of Ashton Conker Club in Northamptonshire, host to the event, has issued an SOS appeal for 1,000 conkers of the right shape and size.

Where, then, are the freckly boys in caps and short trousers protesting outside town halls? Or begging grandpa for his veteran ninety-niner? Indoors, of course, practising their Power Rangers moves. For, like the lawn neurotics and car cleanliness fanatics, today's conker player is invariably a middle- aged man. John Hadman is a 63-year-old archeology teacher. The nation's most famous player is probably Michael Palin, aged 52, thrown out of the 1993 Isle of Wight championships for tampering with his conker (baking and dousing in vinegar, apparently, to make it harder). For what the Daily Mail has named the "great conker crisis" is in reality a panic about growing up.

Like the overgrown schoolboy Brandon Lee, like the sad world of balding trainspotters and stiff-boned model railway enthusiasts, these paunchy conker lovers want to stay pre-teen. Life as a modern man is just too complicated.

What makes the Peter Pan syndrome so ubiquitous is the nation's mist- eyed nostalgia for "innocent" pre-Bulger childhood, when little boys walked to school down leafy streets and country lanes, filling their pockets not with porn mags and violent videos but with sugar mice and bits of string and big, shiny brown conkers. We all mourn for September days filled not with fatigue and SAD (seasonal affective disorder, already here, thanks to an exceptionally rainy month), but with the thrilling crunch of autumn.

There is something doggedly nationalistic about this nostalgia - the same nostalgia that is currently powering the metrification panic. Oh, the sweet pleasure of breaking into private gardens to steal the shiny fruit - harmless fun, no worse than those traditional English pursuits, scrumping apples, poaching pheasants, robbing from the 'hood.

Oh, the joy of snapping green branches, vandalising growing trees! Boys will be boys, won't they, just like William. Sixteen ounces to a pound and 14 pounds to a stone? Only the bloody wops have 10 fingers and toes, don't you know?

However, this mourning a lost England is not without poignance. The vast majority of children are now driven to school and can tell a Rover from a Roller but not a chestnut from an oak.

But innocent pleasures? As my brother-in-law remembers it: "The appeal of conkers? Violence." Smashing things up. Fighting. Hitting. Hurting. In my school conkers were banned after flying chips maimed childish eyes. So the boys - and it was always the boys, already learning the importance of possessing the hardest phallic symbol - went and did something less disruptive, like attaching a firework to the tail of my friend's cat, or pulling the legs off spiders. Ah, old-fashioned pleasures!

David Aaronovitch is away.