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By Scriptorius



The last test match had finished and as the players not destined to go on the winter tour prepared for their hibernation, much-loved bats were receiving their special annual treatment. The reek of linseed oil was in the air. Wistful was the word uppermost in Judge Embert Wimple’s mind at this time of year. How many more test series could a man of well over eighty expect to see? No doubt that depended on the extent to which mind and body were kept active. Happily for his honour, this was not a problem. As to the body, he still managed a ninety-minute daily walk at a pace which would have left many of his juniors floundering in his wake, had they cared to try keeping company with him. The mind was also well placed, for the judge was still working on his Theory of Everything. Having done all he thought reasonable with regard to the infinite – the shape and extent of the universe – he was about to address the equally mysterious matter of the infinitesimal, by delving into particle physics.

All in all, there were few cobwebs in the judge’s cranium, though according to Mrs Wimple, there was at times a possible question of bats in his belfry. Esmeralda was matching her husband in her own way, being by now a considerable figure in the local art world. Her paintings were selling as fast as she could produce them and she had been prevailed upon to run a course for aspiring brush-wielders. Fortunately, she did so at night school – a relief to the judge, who had had glum forebodings of a domestic tiff when his wife had initially toyed with the idea of inviting her pupils to the Wimple residence.

With scant knowledge of what the day had in store, the judge arrived at court to find that he had been assigned the case of Bellamy versus Hall, which appeared to be yet another affair arising from the world of sports and games. This was becoming an epidemic. Also, the incident concerned had taken place far outside Judge Wimple’s normal jurisdiction. However, both parties lived within five miles of his court, so he was not disposed to make anything of the point. The plaintiff, Colin Bellamy, was represented by one of the judge’s most long-standing sparring partners, Desmond Oddley-Staggers, while another old stager, Daniel Pettigrew, appeared for the defendant, Philip Hall. With everyone in place, the judge addressed Oddley-Staggers. “Let’s get the show on the road, Mr Barstow.”

Thumbs in waistcoat pockets, Oddley-Staggers gave the slightest bow that decorum required. “May it please Your Honour, this is a case in which a simple sporting encounter, intended to be joyous, became quite the reverse. It took place on the eighteenth of December last, this hearing having been delayed owing to my client’s recent illness. Both parties here have high reputations in the field of conkers.”

“Conkers?” said the judge. “Do you mean as in horse chestnuts?”

“Yes. No doubt most of us, of our gender anyway, are familiar with the old school playground game. Over the years, this has developed into something of a sport, with regional, national and international adherents. The position was that my client and the defendant both had aspirations to reach the UK finals, from which position either might have become world champion. At the time in question, they were leading contenders for the county.”

“Just a moment,” the judge interjected. “You indicated a world championship. I have always thought of conker-playing as a peculiarly English activity.”

“That might have been the case at one time, Your Honour, but if it was, it is no longer so. Indeed, I believe a German gentleman has recently come to prominence.”

“Has he really?” said the judge. “You surprise me in two ways. First, I had no idea that this pastime had reached such a stage. No doubt we shall soon see it as an event in the Olympic Games, perhaps contemporaneously with tiddlywinks. Second, I once spent some time in a village in Germany. I recall that there were two horse-chestnut trees bracketing the door of a Wirtschaft – that is a public house. I well remember seeing conkers galore on the ground. None of the locals took any notice of them. In fact, my wife and I collected a hundred and twenty-seven fine specimens in less than an hour. We placed them in a basket and had great enjoyment from looking at them for some time. I find it gratifying that our Continental neighbours are getting the idea. However, I am interrupting you. Please continue.”

“Your Honour’s comments are as always most interesting and educational. The litigants here were convinced that the winner of their encounter would very likely have represented his county in the national play-off. It must be admitted that the rules are not always entirely clear. The local attitude is a traditional one, which is to say that when a particular conker succeeds against another, it takes the gains from the defeated one. For example, if one conker has, say, ten victories and prevails against another with fifteen successes, it becomes what is known as a twenty-fiver. If it then further defeats another twenty-fiver, it become a fiftyer, and so on. It is quite common for a conker to mark up several hundred points in this way.”

The judge knew the rules perfectly well. In fact, as a schoolboy, he had once had a seventy-sixer. “I understand,” he said. “Go on.”

“Thank you. On this occasion, the parties decided to make a day of it. They hired a coach to take them and their supporters to the coast, where everyone concerned was expected to have a good time, after which the match would take place on high ground abutting the sea. All proceeded as planned until three o’clock in the afternoon, when the contestants met. By all accounts, it was a gruelling battle. It is not unusual for spectators to count the blows and if necessary, we could produce a witness who would state that there were thirty-six strikes on each side before a result was reached.”

“I don’t think we need that,” said the judge, who was deeply engaged and wanted no interventions other than his own. “I know how the game is played. Proceed.”

“My client’s conker prevailed, fragmenting its opponent with the thirty-seventh blow. Normally, one would expect a handshake at such a juncture. However, on this occasion, the defendant became querulous and heated words were exchanged, including an allegation of victory being achieved by sharp practice. Mr Hall snatched my client’s conker and threw it into the sea. Some grappling ensued and, locked together, the two men rolled over the adjacent cliff, after which hostilities were discontinued. My client sustained injuries. He makes no claim in that respect, but contends that he was deprived of the chance of becoming the British and perhaps even the world champion. For this, he seeks compensation.

“Thank you, Mr Stairwell,” said the judge. “Now, I think it is time for us to hear from the defence.” He turned his eyes to Pettigrew. “Proceed, Mr Pettifog.”

Was that deleterious or a good try? Defending counsel was not sure, but he maintained his composure. “Thank you, Your Honour. My learned colleague’s comments are interesting, but leave much unsaid.”

“Then perhaps you would care to acquaint us with what is missing.”

“Certainly. First, we will make nothing of the fact that the contest was basically an unequal one. We –”

“One moment,” the judge broke in. What do you mean by unequal?”

“Only that my client’s conker was, so to speak, fighting beyond its weight.”

“Explain, please.”

“Your Honour will appreciate that conkers come in various sizes. In this case, my client’s entry was of the flattened, disc-like variety, whereas the plaintiff’s was an unusually large, almost spherical one.”

The judge was now totally enthralled. “Are you saying that your client was entering a middleweight against a heavyweight?”

“That describes it perfectly.”

“Hardly a defence, Mr Petticoat. I mean, As I understand it we are considering what seems to be a boxing analogy. In that sport, anyone may fight as a heavyweight, no matter what his normal category may be.”

“Quite true. That is why we do not wish to make an issue of the point. My comment concerning inequality was merely intended to . . . er . . . impart the flavour of the occasion. It is true that size is not necessarily all-important in conker fights. Condition is very significant. I could tell tales of oven-hardening, pickling and varnishing which do not reflect well upon the game.”

“Please don’t,” said the judge. “I am close to being overwhelmed. Carry on.”

“Thank you. My client admits that he threw the plaintiff’s conker into the sea. However, he did so only after suffering a string of insults from Mr Bellamy, who at a time when he should have been rejoicing, chose instead to be derogatory with respect to a gallant opponent.”

“That is saddening,” said the judge. “You imply that the plaintiff failed to observe the first part of Churchill’s dictum concerning magnanimity in victory and defiance in defeat.”

“In a nutshell, yes.”

“Well, I take the point, but I also note that anyone with as much to say as the great leader must be right about some things at some times. It does not follow that such a person is right about all things at all times. Continue.”

Slightly chastened, Pettigrew pressed on. “There is no argument about the physical contest mentioned by the prosecution. The two parties did indeed grapple, then fell over the cliff-edge. However, they did not fall into the sea, far below, but landed on a ledge only six feet under the cliff-top.”

“Ah, Reichenbach again,” said the judge.

“Beg pardon, Your Honour?”

“I was thinking of Holmes and Moriarty struggling above the famous waterfall. I believe the case was ‘The Final Problem’. You may recall that the dastardly professor plunged to his death, while the great detective escaped. There was some question of a ledge in that matter too, though I seem to remember that Holmes climbed up to it, rather than falling onto it. However, I digress. Please proceed.”

“Thank you. Both parties sustained minor injuries as a result of the fracas and the fall. However, we would point out that there are no counter-charges against the plaintiff. My client, Mr Hall, is first and foremost a sportsman. As such, he accepts that emotions tend to run high when the stakes are substantial. Following the skirmish, my client required medical treatment, but his view is that this represented the normal cut-and-thrust of these vigorous engagements. He considers it beneath his dignity to debate so minor a point. Further, he is perplexed by the plaintiff’s obsessive attitude with respect to the lost conker which was – after the incident we are discussing – merely a two-hundred and nineteener and therefore by no means an object of countrywide adulation. To put the matter into context, there is a gentleman in Gloucester who has a six-hundred and twenty-eighter, and another in Padstow with a four-hundred and ninety-twoer.”

The judge projected both palms. “Enough,” he wailed. “I believe you have said all I need to hear. Let us have a final word from the prosecution.” He shifted his eyes to Oddley-Staggers. “Mr Strange?”

“We would add only that there is a difference of opinion here. The defence seeks to make something of the fact that my client’s conker was not the most revered one in the land. However, it was all Mr Bellamy had, so represented his total resources within this particular frame of reference. The loss was one he could not take lightly. He had genuine pretensions to national – perhaps international – renown, which were dashed by the disgraceful behaviour of the defendant.”

Embert Wimple scribbled a last note, then subjected the contestants to his most penetrating stare. “I do not propose to request your acquiescence in the matter of my decision,” he said darkly. “Enough has been said. Indeed, I think perhaps more than enough. Learned counsels have demonstrated that they have the gift of the g . . . that is to say they have been most eloquent. There is no need for me to retire, as the position is clear. First, I must say that I am shocked and dismayed. I am well aware that with regard to the most popular international sporting activities, standards of behaviour are not what they were. Within the more parochial ambit, this case is the third of its kind I have been obliged to deal with recently. If I remember correctly, the others concerned chess and snooker. I don’t know what we are coming to.”

Both advocates were already fearing the worst, as the judge went on: “It seems to me that we are dealing here with a biathlon. Normally, such an event consists of skiing and shooting, or alternatively cycling and running. However, I see no reason why any two combined sporting activities should not qualify for the description, and in this case we had conkers and wrestling. I am disposed to ignore the David and Goliath nature of the first part of the proceedings. Perhaps the defendant’s decision to enter his apparently underweight contestant was too ambitious, but we can hardly regard that as reprehensible. Now, as to the wrestling, I believe it is usual for such bouts to be decided by the best of three falls, or a submission. On this occasion, it seems that neither condition was fulfilled, so we must regard the match as inconclusive.”

The judge paused for ten seconds before delivering his final thoughts. “I hope you will all forgive an old man’s doubtless silly notions concerning the meaning of sport and its concomitant implication of fair play, when I say that the plaintiff seems to have behaved without appropriate grace in his moment of triumph. As to the suggestion that he may have been deprived of his chance of fame in the world of conkers, this must be regarded as a matter for speculation. It seems to me that Mr Bellamy might have taken any possible petulance on Mr Hall’s part with greater sang-froid. I also note that the prosecution has made no attempt to quantify in financial terms, the alleged loss of status in conker circles. There is no counter-allegation, so I feel it incumbent upon me to dismiss the charge and to advise the litigants to let bygones be bygones. Proceedings concluded.”

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18 Jul, 2018
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