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A Shout From The Attic: Acting The Part

Death was never fatal when Ronnie Bray and his friend Pete fought their imaginary battles, inspired by what they had just seen on the silver screen.

To read further chapters of Ronnie's evocative life story please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

A passing stranger would have difficulty determining the identities of the two characters cavorting on the steps of the public library unless, like the energetic duo, he had just left the Picturehouse lower down Ramsden Street. Their real names were Peter West and Ronnie Bray, but the identities they temporarily assumed depended on the night’s film.

The library was one of two structures in the town that retained the colour of natural sandstone, because they were reasonably new and had not suffered from the industrial effluvia of smoke and generalised grime mixed with assorted chemical escapees from dye and chemical works that were native to Huddersfield.

The other building was the beautiful War Memorial built on the hill in Greenhead Park. We didn’t play our games in its sacred precincts, because we honoured the dead in our childish ways, not understanding quite what was involved but sure in our understanding that the dead were not really dead, but survived not too distantly, and so their memory and haunts must be respected.

If we had had ten penno’rth of western, one of us would become Johnny Mack Brown, or the Cisco Kid, or the Man from Laramie, while the other adopted the persona and accent of Billy the Kid, or Jessie James, or some other notable and bullet-proof desperado. Our guns blazed away non-stop. Each of our six-shooters held several thousand rounds, so we were never at risk from being taken unawares out of bullets and forced to reload while our protagonist still had a live one in the chamber.

“Take that, yer dry-gulching hornswaddling varmint,” followed by several rapid, “Tchoo, tchoo, tchoos,” as we poured stream of lead from behind, or as far behind the two statues each side of the main steps as we could find for shelter.

“You got me, you darn pesky galoot! Tell Jim-Bob the farm is his’n, and tell ma that I … Uuuuuurgh.” And another one bit the dust.

But death was never fatal. In a peculiarly cinematic version of reincarnation, the dead man would rise invigorated in someone else’s role. I have seen Big John Wayne felled by a hail of bullets only to immediately rise as Wee Donald Meeks, with the big fellow’s pearl handled revolver resurrected as a shoot-from-the-hip hog’s leg to blow away a remarkably youthful Walter Brennan.

After a film feast under the greenwood trees with the Merrie Men of Robin Hood, we used invisible quarter staves to topple Little John from the top step, draw our long bows back to the nocks of immensely long arrows and let fly at short range at the Sheriff of Nottingham, King John, and other oddly clad denizens of Sherwood. It was the only time that King Richard was ever heard to speak anything resembling English when he bearded his brother John at Runnymede and forced him to sign the Magic Charter and hand over the keys to the family’s Austin Seven so he could head back to France and lead another Crusade.

The exterior facilities of the library were to us what big cardboard boxes were to younger children. Cartons, especially those big enough to hold bodies were anything the actors needed them to be. One minute a battleship, the next a castle, and soon afterwards the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber limping back full of flak holes after a daytime sortie over Dresden, an engine gone, and the rear gunner shot up by a Kamikaze pilot who had flown the wrong way after leaving his airfield. The library provided the same offices for Pete and me.

Although we were equally at home in Sherwood Forest, the plains of Montana, the merciless Nevada desert, and the battlefields of Agincourt or Crecy. Even as we treated on familiar terms with each of the knights of Arthur’s Round Table, and assumed the identities of Texas Rangers, German Unterseeboot Kapitans, the English Lord Greystoke with the German-American accent who was raised by apes, or the fierce tribesmen of India’s North West frontier, the European and Far East theatres of war were never far from our thoughts.

We ate and slept and played with war and warriors, and with death and suffering, however slim or unrealistic our understanding of them was. It did not take much for us to revert to playing war, with one of us being the Nazi and the other a brave British Tommy, captured and ill-treated by Hitler’s henchman. That Tommy could have been our father or brother, and Ramsden Street rang out with Eric von Stroheim- accented cries of “Ve haf vays off making you talk, Schweinhund!”

If the Theatre Royal that stood between the library and the Picturehouse was loosing at this time, patrons swung their heads round so fast that their Woodbines shot from their mouths into the gore-soggy gutter. When we knew we had an audience, we hammed it up the more so.

“Zo, you vill defy a Chairman officer, jah? Vell, you vill be zorry mein freund. You vill be vairy zorry indid!”

“You cannot beat us, Herr General. We are British, and we are not afraid of you Hun and your evil ways. Your days are numbered, Winnie is coming for you himself, and if he doesn’t shoot you, he will smoke you to death with his big cigar!”

However inept we were at acting, we understood the fundamental proposition of drama, which is to tell the story any way you wanted to, but to make it come out right at the end. That meant that right had to triumph over might, that crime didn’t pay, and that we were right and good, and the Germans were wrong and bad. We took it in turns at being baddies and enjoyed it utterly.

It was not as well developed as Manichaeism but it filled the need of children to believe that they were on the side that played the game squarely and fairly, and that the outcome was, therefore, assuredly in their favour. That we never doubted.

Just as the wart dictated who and what we were, so the cinema’s programme determined who we pretended to be in our thirst for more release than the glittering images on the screen had provided. The reality of a nation on a war footing, with almost daily reports of the death by enemy action of someone we knew, or who was related to someone we knew, chastened and sobered us for most of our young lives.

I was not afraid of what might come even on nights when the Luftwaffe paid us their courtesy visits and left munitions behind them. If my boyhood companions went in fear, it was unspoken and unrecognisable. It is likely that the case was that our ignorance allowed us our bliss. Children were largely shielded from war’s major anxieties, whilst not altogether ignorant of the appalling events that plunged the world into this grievous conflict.

Our play on the broad steps of the lending library helped to distance us from some of war’s realities at the same time as it provided us with amusement and the opportunity to entertain others, then it was useful. Its usefulness was limited by the fact that we did not learn first-hand how much war hurt people physically, emotionally, and spiritually, because whenever we were shot or tortured we were immediately raised to life and healed as surely as if we were in Valhalla rather than Camelot.

Regardless of the numbers of cowboys, Indians, knights, Saxons, Normans, cavaliers, and other men at war who withered in our skirmishes, however crimson-soaked the stone stairway grew with blood, no matter how deep ran the gore in the gutters of Ramsden Street, when the irresistible aroma of our favourite chip shop sounded itsbugle call for us to buy three penno’rth of chips, we lay down our arms heaping them up against the mounds of the slain, and turned towards home sucking salty vinegared fingers, the battlefield and its neighbouring streets became as clean and clear as if nothing at all had happened in that place that night.

That was the best thing about our comic wars: we could stop them whenever we felt like it, and, win or lose, no one was the worse for it. What a pity that sometimes we are not brave enough to end our wars and assume the roles of peacemakers and binders of wounds. How sad that sometimes we coerce rather than amuse. How tragic that those we kill do not rise at the end of play and return to their families, but are left to lie in the silence of death on blood soaked soil as a testimonies to our failure.

During the War, newspapers carried a specialty called the “Watchbird.” The Watchbird was meant to steer us away from anything that could damage morale or give succour to our enemies. A typical one was, “This is a watchbird watching a squanderer, this is a watchbird watching you. Were you a squanderer today?”

The little creature’s invitation to self-examination was an echo of the Beatitudes where the characteristics of agreeable social and spiritual responsibilities were plainly presented. Most of us didn’t realise that we could do or say anything detrimental to our whole society, but the watchbird made us consider that possibility.

Shakespeare said,

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.”

When duty sounds the call to arms we must act as sturdy resisters of corrupt forces and as protectors of individual and collective liberties. Wordsworth called duty the, “stern daughter of the voice of God,” and so it must be irresistible. But the same voice calls us to spread peace abroad wherever and whenever we can.

It is one thing to accept the categories that have been historically and socially determined for us, but it is much preferred that we continually question the tenor of our lives and contributions to the common good. We can change our lives when we realise that what we are is often at odds with the best interests of family, community, nation, the wide world, and the humanity with whom we share it.

The mewing excuse, “That’s just the way I am,” falls short of taking responsibility as adults for the parts we play, and exposes wrong-headed selfishness that cares nothing about others. As my good friend once remarked, “I cannot save the whole world,” and none of us can, but if we lift where we stand, and reform ourselves from selfish habits and pursuits, we can make meaningful contributions that will benefit others, and help us fulfil one of life’s major aims, that of playing the best part we can for as long as we strut our stuff.

Young David O McKay was impressed when he read inscribed in the wall of a house in Scotland, "What-e'er Thou Art, Act Well Thy Part." He made them the watchwords of his life, remembering always that the part he played was of his own choosing. And this holds true whether our stage is international politics, big business, the field of education, the factory, the office, at home, in a cardboard box, or on the steps of Huddersfield’s magnificent Public Library.

Although passing strangers might have difficulty determining the identity of our characters as we pass by them in stately or cavorting fashion, we should never be in doubt as to who we are, the temper of our characters, the impeccable quality of our core principles, and the demands of our vocations. Nor should we ever act or speak as if we have forgotten them.

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