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Letter From America: To Ail Or Not To Ail,,,

Best watch what you say when barging along with an actor on board.

Ronnie Bray tells a splendidly theatrical tale - then muses on attitudes to illness.

For more of Ronnie's words please click on Letter From America in the menu on this page.

That there is any truth in the story is not vouchsafed, but it was told me in olden times by those whose years stretch back to distant times and habits. Industrial cargo was carried on barges that plied the network of canals that ran between town and cities in the industrial areas of old England. Progress was slow but sure, and the gentle swishing of the water – in days before the knocking of the not-yet-come diesel engines - was accompanied by the steady clopping of the horse’s hooves on the towpath.

Although part of their passage was between the canyon walls of mills, ironworks, and other occupational buildings, much of it was through uninhabited places where the scenic beauty of the English countryside could be most taken advantage of. Yet, despite the unhurried pace and the attractiveness of the ever-changing environment, bargees often felt lonely. There were their dogs, of course, but while dogs are great listeners, they contribute little to the conversation by way of verbal responses, and so bargees were inclined to provide free transport for would-be travellers who looked respectable had no other means of carriage, and no funds with which to purchase one.

These pleasant but humdrum journeys were broken by the placement of locks at various points to adjust the elevation of the canal to conform to the surrounding landscape. The locks provided welcome opportunities for dialogue with another human being, as lock keepers lived adjacent to their particular lock in small cottages provided by the waterway owners and operators. In addition to opening and closing the lock gates and sluices, they took the name of the barge, its owner, and a manifest of its cargo. This information was used for billing purposes so that correct payments could be made to pay wages, maintain equipment, and make a profit, and it is under the pellicle of these facts that the story unfolds.

A certain bargee was moving towards Leeds on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal when hard by Deighton lock he saw the imposing figure of a man, apparently an intending passenger. The stranger was tall, well dressed, and carried a large leather valise. His topcoat was of heavy tweed, such as is worn by dukes and above, having a full cape attached at the neck that covered the upper parts of his shoulders and chest. His hat was a wide-brimmed felt creation such as is worn by Europeans who are up to no good, and a generous light coloured woollen scarf thrown carelessly round his neck leaving a long streamer aft and forward. To the bargees practised eye, he looked peaceful.

"Wait on’t t’uther sahd o’t lock" directed the bargee, as the lock keeper closed the massive wooden doors. The stranger picked up his grip and moved beyond the second set of gates. The distance between the level the barge had just traversed and the next section was but a few feet, so filling up the lock did not take long. In the interval, the lock keeper opened his book and called to the bargee, "What are you carrying." "Ten tons of pig iron, and four tons of manure," hailed back the navigator. Having inscribed this with a pencil whose sharp end he kept sucking, the lock keeper opened the second gates, allowing the barge, with the passenger now sat atop a wooden box near the prow, was tugged back into motion to continue on its way by the patient horse that the commander called Dobbin.

"Where are you going?" asked the bargee.

"To Leeds," replied the newcomer in a voice that was redolent of Stentor himself. To say that he delivered his lines with dramatic overtones would be an understatement. Not only that, but his habit was that when he spoke, he rose to his feet, and was as eloquent with his gestures as he was with his vocabulary.

"What do you do?" inquired the helmsman, asking the stock question of the English who situate people precisely into that stratum of society associated with their employment.

The pilgrim rose, as was his wont, took in more breath than the Hindenberg, and with a full sweep of his outstretched arm and upturned hand as if appealing to the gods, intoned in a voice like rolling thunder, "I am an actor!" drawing out the last syllable as if he would never have the chance to speak again.

Captain Cook was impressed, but having little experience of the theatrical profession and its participants he hesitated before assigning him a place, that was deduced solely from the actor’s diction, somewhere between the second son of a mill owner and a Royal physician.

The artiste was an easy conversationalist, and once the pair had settled on a range of safe subjects, that ranked from roasting whole pigs to the best way to deal with those nasty Boers, they were like old friends.

In the course of time, made swifter by the details of mutually enjoyable conversation, another lock drew near. The lock keeper attended, supervised, did of the work, and while waiting on the lock emptying, demanded, "What is your cargo?"

The steersman called his manifest: "Ten tons of pig iron, and four tons of manure – AND AN ACTOR!" If the recorder was surprised by this pronouncement he failed to show it. The operation complete, the transport set off again, but there had fallen over the thespians a sea change. "Not got his sea legs," the bargee intoned to his dog sotto voce.

The next leg of their journey, while pleasant, was marked by the absence of effervescence in the exchanges between the two men. It was as if the performer was now preoccupied with something profound and disturbing. Yet, the weather was good, Dobbin maintained an even pace, the dog wagged his tail, and Leeds was becoming closer by the minute.

It was the commercial conversation at the next lock that provided the boatman with the answer to his question about what was troubling his new friend. After the obligatory exchange of salutations, and comments that the keeper casually made about the weather, and with which the bargee enthusiastically agreed, for no Englishman does other than fulsomely agree with nay remark made to him concerning the weather, even if it is directly contradicted by the facts, the question was raised, "What’s your manifest."

"Ten tons of pig iron, and four tons of manure – AND AN ACTOR!"

At his juncture the dramatiser leaped – not too strong a description – and looking his benefactor straight in the eyes proclaimed, "I would like a word about my billing!"

Although this story has nothing to do with anything in the foregoing, thinking about actors and acting led me to make a connection to another subject that fell into my mind last night. Gay and I frequently fall prey to one lergy or another. Those unacquainted with lergies will understand when I say that any vague somatic symptom, the enjoyment of which causes you to feel as if you ought to polish your coffin, falls under the general term lergy, and recently, we have both been lergificated.

Last night, as we lay on the bed after Bell had finished her bedtime romp all over us, I mused aloud that being ill was one thing, but I could not understand the need to feel ill in addition. That threw us into profound thinking, but all we could come up with was that seemed to be the way it had always been. But, the question hung requiring answer; "Does it have to be that way?" Why add insult to injury? Is it not sufficient to have some organ non-functioning or ganging agley ferociously without having to feel as if Death and his cronies had taken lodgings inside your insides?

I shared this thought with Charlotte and Laura in the Dog Park this morning. They reminded me that when you are ill you need to know that you are ill and so you feel ill so that you can take steps to get better. I know that is the way it has always been, "But," I wondered, "is that because we have been taught to act that way when we get the message that all is not well in the person’s person?" It is a ticklish point, but one that bears serious consideration.

Humans have a wide emotional range, and the way we feel is not limited to ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ for there are heights of joy and there are even greater heights of joy, and similarly, depression is multistratic, so that an articulate person can identify to himself and convey to others exactly how he or she is feeling at any given moment. There are subtle shades of variations in mood, tone, outlook, sanguinity, despair, etc., each one attended by an accumulation of feelings that are historically related to particular conditions, and are culturally accepted, and have passed into the psyche of those subscribed to the fellowship of suffering.

But – is it the result of acculturation, or is it constitutionally endogenous? If it is endogenous I have been wasting my time – and yours. However, if it is culturally imposed because "That’s how we’ve always done it!" then it needs to be cogently disputed, re-appraised, and the language of affliction must undergo correction from the ground up.

Based on the behaviourist axiom, ‘What a man learns he can unlearn,’ he have only to teach ourselves to stop acting when we feel pressure in the sinuses, or when a leg bone assumes an unnatural angle following a fall from a tree, and influence our feelings to produce a pleasant glow in which we know that we require attention, but we do not scream in agony until the learned emotional response has done its work and we settle down to repair ourselves.

Can you imagine if heart attacks lost the power to shock and horrify, and in their place was a positive sense of well being coupled with euphoria that made the victim explain, "My word! I feel jolly well. I have never felt this good before. I must be having a heart attack!" The benefits are obvious, and I would welcome the transformation, after having been brainwashed to believe that sickness and injury hurt, and that screaming and shouting about it and feeling grotty were appropriate and expected responses. How bad can it be to die happy?

The next time you see a dramatic production and you don’t feel well - oh, yes, people with nasty colds and influenza go to the theatre – ask yourself when you get that sick feeling whether the greatest actors are on the stage or sitting in your seat – F9!

T.S. Eliot penned, "Perhaps my life has only been a dream." Perhaps our pain is only the fruit of our acting the way we have been taught to act. Perhaps all that can be changed and we can enjoy sickness. Surely it is enough that some part of us is rendered non-functioning, curtailing our preferred activities, without us feeling utterly nauseated at the same time.

Let’s stop acting and start enjoying our miseries. Who’s with me?

Copyright © Ronnie Bray


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