Names to the nameless

“More than 300,000 people in Britain – equivalent to one in every 200 – are officially recorded as homeless or living in inadequate homes, according to figures released by the charity Shelter… London, where one in every 59 people are homeless, remains Britain’s homelessness centre… Shelter’s figures show that as of April this year 281,000 people were living in temporary accommodation in Britain. A further 21,300 were in single homeless hostels or social services housing, while 4,500 were rough sleeping.”

I was staggered and horrified to read these figures (The Guardian, 8/11/17). I had no idea they were so high. To me it beggars belief that homelessness on such a vast scale can be an issue in a first-world country in 2017. How can our society be that broken and that unjust?

These headlines particularly jumped out at me because only a matter of days earlier I had been visiting The Choir With No Name, often known as ‘the homeless choir’. Conductor of the South London choir Sam Chaplin clarifies, “We usually say that the choir is for people whose lives have been affected by homelessness – so people tend not to be actually homeless, although sometimes they are… There’s one guy who was not here this week because he’d put his name down for the night-shelters which the churches start this week; if he turns up late he loses the place. They’re all massively over-subscribed. I was surprised – he’s quite well turned-out – but recently he turned up with his bicycle and loads of pillows and duvets and told me he was on the streets at the moment. I feel like offering these people a space in my house! I’ve got a spare mattress!”

I’m embarrassed to say I was nervous about coming to this rehearsal. I always try to say hi to rough sleepers on the street, and to offer them a cup of tea, but I had no idea what to expect of this choir rehearsal. I felt a clichéd sense of guilt as I got on a bus in Westminster to hop down to Elephant & Castle; I had a luxuriously warm coat on, a Tesco meal deal to munch on the bus. I was surrounded by civil servants from smart offices, was admiring the bright lights of the South Bank. I could casually check the directions on my phone to the rehearsal, because I have a phone and know that I can afford the data to look (it took me a double-take to realise that this is why on the choir’s website the directions are spelled out so clearly, rather than just giving a postcode for copying into Googlemaps).

What I was struck by when I entered the room was the sheer normalness of it. I could have been in any choir practice anywhere. There were a couple of rows of chairs in a semi-circle in a church hall, with about thirty people all doing physical and vocal warm-ups led from the front by a conductor who has a music stand in front of him and an accompanist at the piano to his right. They’re laughing, they’re singing, they’re preparing for a concert. And immediately the obvious clicks into place for me: this very normality is one of the most important things to many of the singers in the room.

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South London choir warming up

Sam tells me that many of them have had some sort of spell of homelessness. Several of them have mental health problems; these two things are often linked, as mental health problems can make it harder to hold down work. “If enough things conspire against you, you end up with nowhere to go,” Sam shrugs. Alcoholism is another factor. I learn that one of the ladies we were talking to after the rehearsal wasn’t in the choir for six months as she took herself off to rehab. Her daughter told her she couldn’t look after the kids if she didn’t go; she’d been filling Fruit Shoot juice drink bottles with brandy and taking them to the park with the kids. “She’s been doing pretty well. I know she had a bit of a fall off the wagon recently. But she sang solos in St Martin in the Fields on Thursday – from not really singing at all, to singing with no microphone in front of a filled church, making a good sound.” I’m left wondering how often these sentences go side by side? This kind of achievement and focus is such a positive step in any kind of recovery or healing process.

The service Sam refers to is the annual commemoration service organized by the homeless project The Connection at St Martin in the Fields, in which they read out the names of everyone who’s died on the streets that year. They number 166 this year. In a pause in the rehearsal, Sam brokered a discussion with the choir about their experience of the service, just a few days earlier. Some of the feedback was not what I expected (“they should put the short people at the front!” was the first comment! – to be fair, as someone who’s vertically challenged, I see their point….). But it quickly became clear that for some of these singers this was a tough and important occasion. “That service is the highlight of the year for me.” “It means something every year.” They knew some of the names being read out – they were from their community. Some didn’t know their own family would be on the list until they got there. The service always features some form of active participational remembrance. One year they had 167 lilies down the aisle, for the number of people who’d died that year, for everyone to pick one up and add it to a massive display at the front. Rev Richard Carter writes: “This year’s service focuses on the theme of ‘Invitation’. A home is not a luxury for the rich – it’s something every single human being should have. Everyone should be invited inside and no one should have to sleep outside on the streets or on buses or simply be walking all night to keep warm.” Sam expands, “They had a long table down the aisle with a lot of fruit bowls and invitations, with names of everyone who’d died on them, and a table cloth which someone had painted with vines – it must have taken ages! Everyone took an invitation to take home to remember that person this year, and took a piece of fruit, so the whole church was full of people sitting eating fruit – it looked like a massive picnic! It was beautiful, it was amazing. This service is my favourite thing of the year; it’s so powerful. It earths you in what it’s really about.”

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Sam conducting the choirs at St Martin in the Fields

Sam is proud of how the choir performed that day. “The North and South London choirs came together and sang Sit Down Next To Me [hear a separate recording of them singing it here]. It’s effectively one of our theme tunes, we know it really well, and we had both choirs together; it was an epic sound, with fifty members. When we finished, the whole church gave a massive standing ovation. And the choir were proud of themselves. They knew they’d sung brilliantly, and done an amazing job. That kind of stuff is good for people. For me, quite a lot of the therapy happens in the gigs. Richard Stilgoe, who I work with in other contexts, says that one of the things you get in performance is the opportunity for people to say ‘well done’ to you. Some people have never really had that said to them. Whereas we get applauded very regularly, and we’ve probably grown up with our parents saying ‘that’s brilliant’, these people rarely get told ‘well done’, and the chance to stand up and earn that is amazing. Lou sang that solo, no microphone, just her in front of the whole church, totally getting it. For her to think ‘I did nail it – it wasn’t just the choir, it was me, stepping up and doing it’ – that’s real. We know what that feels like, when we go out on a limb as a performer, and to nail it, and for people to come up afterwards and say ‘that was amazing’ – it affirms something deep inside you. If that deep down thing is really broken, I think it starts to put it back together again.”

This sense of doing things well is present in the rehearsal too. They’re working on a Santa medley today for a big combined Christmas concert with the Liverpool, Birmingham and North London groups (have a look at some Christmas footage from last year). This is an efficient session and I’m surprised (catching myself making unfounded assumptions again) that it’s so focused. I think occasionally Sam chooses his language carefully to be particularly clear, but there is never any patronising. The singers have lyric sheets but not sheet music; everything is taught by ear, and they catch on quickly. Each phrase is sung to them, and they mimic not only the pitches but also the character and vocal quality of the phrase; there’s no need to instruct on how it should be sung: they just copy and get it! Then they add the piano and sing through the verse. WOW, the sound! I am unashamed to have completely welled up. There’s a lot of swaying to the music as they sing and there are some great voices here. Sam is effortlessly charismatic (well, actually, it’s probably very effortful at the end of a long day), and is doing an incredible one-man-show up front, singing all the parts in all the octaves, singing in all the parts the other choirs will sing too, conducting their part, all with a suave swing and boundless energy. And a lot of patience where it’s needed….

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The Choir With No Name at Christmas

I’m curious about how Sam got into this work. My previous encounters with him were either when he’s leading his brilliant band Jazzbomb, or at stupid o’clock in the morning putting the recycling out (we used to be neighbours). When he and his now wife Rachel met, Rachel was sharing a flat with Isabelle Adams, one of the most respected and in-demand animateurs around. “When I was new on the scene with Rachel, Issy asked me to go and play the piano for her choir of pensioners in Bethnal Green. I wanted to impress Rachel so said, “yeah, sure, I can do that!”. And she had some kind of magic! I accompanied her community choir in Harrow Road for two years, watched everything she did, wrote it all down. Then I did Spitalfields training for a year. Rachel and I set up Sing Hammersmith, and after two years of that, this came up, so I was well into my community choir leading. I was ready for it. And I wanted to take on something a bit grittier!”

Sam’s obviously got the bug; he’s just started a choir for women who have had multiple children taken into care, in conjunction with the charity Pause, which aims to help women hit pause on the cycle of having kids (perhaps five or six), and then having them all taken away. I’m astonished to learn that the NHS is funding this choir for its first year. Sam points out that the cost to the authorities of supporting children in care is vast, so if paying mere conductor and accompanist fees can help break the cycle it’s considered worth trying! (I subsequently find statistics citing that the average annual spend on a foster place for a child is £29,000– £33,000 and the average annual spend on a residential place for a child (ie in a children’s home) is £131,000– £135,000. With upwards of 68,000 children in care on 31 March 2013, this is a lot of money.) The next project in the pipeline for him is a choir in the Grenfell Tower community.

One of the interesting things to me about this is that some of Sam’s regular singers from the Choir with No Name are coming along and helping him with the new women’s choir. He talks again about the former alcoholic, Lou: “she’s massively supporting me. She’s got two or three other women from this choir coming along and being peer support to the new women, saying ‘we know choir, we love choir, we’re not in charge, but we’re here because we get it and we want you to get it.’ That’s amazing. That’s part of that woman’s story. She’s gone to rehab and now she’s here helping as a volunteer.”

Christmas music is so evocative, and during the rehearsal something in me stirred uncomfortably at the idea of these people – who mostly don’t have anything remotely resembling an idyllic celebration of Christmas awaiting them – singing these songs. Isn’t it rubbing their faces in it? Melancholic lonely film scenes come to mind – the person on the outside looking in. But I come to realise it’s so wonderful that these guys get an opportunity to have the cheesy heartwarming Christmas music experience, and make it their own! And with some of their closest friends! They’re on the inside, here, not the outside.

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Volunteers in the kitchen

After the rehearsal everyone stays for food, prepared by a team of volunteers on a rota; I’d assumed this was in order to provide a free hot meal to those who might not otherwise have one, and of course that is part of the purpose, but far more striking is the community aspect of this, the development of friendships. One person asks me what the football score is. (I’m mocked for not even knowing what football match is on, let alone who’s winning.) Another tells me about her relationship difficulties. One of the singers tells me, “choir is my solid rock every week.” One of the volunteers says, “it’s my favourite night of the week, no question.” Sam tells me that one of the regulars is currently in hospital after a stroke (“in fact we had to do CPR on him once before at the venue before a gig! It was a big fundrasiser at the Guildhall and he collapsed backstage! Our choir manager basically saved his life….”). Several of the other choir members will go and visit him in hospital; they really look out for each other. Once a month the local WI group provides cake, and fortuitously I’ve chosen that week to visit! As it’s passed round we sing happy birthday to everyone whose birthday falls in the next month. Everyone deserves to have happy birthday sung to them.

The volunteer team of half a dozen debrief afterwards; as a matter of course they share the ways in which situations were handled and what could be done better or differently another time (anything from arrangements for food collections at Lidl, to who’s messaging the team WhatsApp group, to how to diffuse the argument between two members of the choir which erupted quite unpleasantly at the start of the rehearsal). Most of these guys sing in the choir too, and I get the sense they lead from within when it comes to the atmosphere in the room. There is such a warm welcome. I was worried that I was a bit late arriving, but several people dribble in after me and no one bats an eyelid; someone gets up to let them in when they buzz at the door; someone else gets them a chair; people make space for them. When there are mistakes in the singing, there’s no judgement and no telling off, just suggestions of ways of approaching it next time. When there are copies to sort out, there’s not the impatience you often get with other choirs. I guess some of these people don’t have pressures on their time – in fact, just being here, warm and companionable, is positive.

The choir was founded by Marie Benton ten years ago, who at the time was working in the homeless sector with St Mungo’s. A gospel singer herself, she could see the potential for music making a positive change in people’s lives, so resigned from her job in order to set up The Choir with No Name. Five years later, the South London choir began, and now there are also choirs in Birmingham and Liverpool.

The choirs have done some extraordinary things. Chris Martin invited the North London choir to be the support act for Coldplay, in huge arenas in Newcastle and Liverpool. The choir featured on ITV’s This Morning, singing for Philip and Fearn (watch the clip here). They do a big Christmas bonanza every year, drawing together all the choirs, and two years ago this was at the Royal Festival Hall. Over supper one of singers tells me how the choir has lined her up with Streetwise Opera and ENO Baylis; it’s been a springboard into all sorts of opportunities.

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The Choir With No Name

The North and South London choirs will be merging into one in the new year, because of funding constraints, so the current task is to find a new rehearsal venue. Sam points out that a lot of trusts give for three years – they like new things. Actually with a choir, if it’s working, it’s keeps going! It occurs to me that for a lot of these people that’s one of the important things: it’s a constant – it’s settled – it’s dependable. They only take two or three weeks off a year, as they’re not off on long school holidays or trips away, so it generates real routine and trust, friendship and camaraderie. “We mostly do the same warm-ups every week. I’m a man who likes going on holiday to the same place, ordering the same pizza. I’m always disappointed if I go off-piste. I think that works well for choirs, and for people who need stability,” laughs Sam. “All the silly things in warm-ups are about getting out of your inhibitions. Instead of being so turned in on yourself, singing is about something coming out of you! All those warm-ups are about slowly uncurling, slowly coming out of yourself. We do a lot of breathing stuff, which is so important…. I was talking to a friend who’s a professional singer. She teaches at a posh boys’ school, and she says the boys often get quite emotional when she does these deep breathing exercises – it’s a sort of release, when so much has been held in emotionally. She says she thinks that’s one of the most powerful things – teaching people to breathe. So really this is a great big old wellbeing package!”

Sam concludes, “Within the choir I’m always trying to think ‘what’s your next step’. For some people it’s just managing to come to choir at all, for some people it’s coming regularly, for some it’s managing to sit through a whole rehearsal without kicking off. For some people it’s singing, for some it’s singing in tune, for some it’s singing in harmony. For some it’s singing a solo in a rehearsal, for some it’s singing a solo in a gig. I’m always trying to see those things and applaud those things, and I’m trying to pull people on. I just love it and have a great time! It’s become a massive part of my life.”

Solving the homelessness crisis in the UK is a huge undertaking; it’s going to require big changes at everything from government level to societal attitudes. But The Choir With No Name doesn’t aim to resolve this; it aims to have an impact on individual people’s lives, where music and friendship and confidence and achievement make daily life better than it would otherwise have been. I’m sold.

All stories are told with the individuals’ permission.

To read more about the Choir With No Name, see their website, YouTube channel, Facebook page, or Twitter feed.

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