At St Joseph’s Hospice Choir
“Sometimes in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow,
But, if we are wise, we know that there’s always tomorrow.”
“Lean on Me,” the pop song by Bill Withers, is an old favourite with the St Joseph’s Hospice Community Choir. Solemn lyrics containing the seeds of hope are countered by a measured yet upbeat tune. You can see why it is so popular.
The Choir have been gathering to sing every Thursday night for the past two years. Around twenty-five singers congregate in the Finding Space Club – an area devoted to alternative treatment and care, such as yoga, acupuncture, Tai Ji Quan – overlooking a small courtyard garden, prettily laid out with a stone fountain at its centre.
Simon Robey, manager of complementary therapies at the Hospice, describes how he wanted the space to be filled with life-affirming activities, rather than simply offering treatment. To that end, he had the idea of starting up the choir. He contacted Gina Fergione, a professional singer and music teacher who had taught his daughter piano. She leapt at the idea with great enthusiasm and the choir was born.
The choir is open to the public, as well as the staff, volunteers, patients and their families at St Joseph’s. About forty have signed up, and around a core group of twenty-five show up to sing every week. They represent a wide range of ages and backgrounds, from all over the world – that is, the East End of London.
It is a foggy, dank and wintry evening when I go to the Hospice to meet the Choir and hear them sing. Yet nobody is deterred. The singers arrive in good time, well in advance of Gina, so there is time for socializing and chit chat around the coffee and tea making area.
The first to arrive is Paul, poet and songwriter, who has been singing with the Choir since its inception two years ago. Tall, with a silvery mane of hair, Paul explains that his wife, Tersia, died here in the Hospice two and a half years ago, on St Valentine’s Day, leaving Paul to care for their young son, Otis.
“My partner didn’t know me as a poet,” he muses, falling silent. She died before he published. Nowadays, Paul goes out and about in Newham, volunteering as a bereavement befriender.
The cluster of singers grows. Heike, a German lady, Janice, a young podiatrist, and Daisy, an East Ender via the Carribean, arrive one after the other. All are keen volunteers.
As Paul tinkers with a music recording he has brought along to play, complete with poetry offerings from Benjanmin Zephaniah, more members of the choir gather round the coffee tables. Terry arrives, slightly breathless, but perky. He is a pensioner, with wispy grey hair, and a broad white toothed grin. A true cockney, he tells me, born in Shoreditch, now living in Bethnal Green. We swap London Transport tales – the buses up the Cambridge Heath Rd are on diversion thanks to the massive excavation around Mile End for Cross Rail.
“Ruined London, it ‘as,” he tells me, when I am enthusing about the increased train links. Have I seen Tottenham Court Rd? he asks. I have not, but promise him I shall. He is been treated for cancer here, but now he is back at home. “I’ve still got cancer,” he admits. Small scarlet bruises pepper his forearms.
Tony, a retired bus conductor from Barbados, now living in Stoke Newington, tells me that his brother-in-law fell sick and died recently in the Hospice. The man’s wife died there too, in 2008.
“The last thing my brother in law wanted was a priest, and so he got that, and then he did die happily,” he says. Tony’s own Methodist minister came, and gave his brother in law the last rites.
Terry interrupts. “Cuppa tea? One sugar, Two sugars?”
Does he miss Barbados at this time of year?
“I’m so active, I don’t miss it. I love it, but since I’ve retired I don’t have a vacant life, I don’t miss it. I go to Barbados every two years for two weeks.”
He and his wife love going back. But he cannot swim, he says, so he stays out of the sea and the sun.
Carol, a middle aged local woman, who lives a bus ride away, is scribbling something on a piece of paper. A friend’s eightieth, she explains, and she is making a note to drop her a birthday card. Dressed smartly in pink skirt and top, Carol is amiable and sweet natured, cheerfully looking out for her friends. The note done, she is delving into a plastic bag and fishing out a pair of embroidered kid gloves for fellow singer, Doreen, who needs to borrow them for a music hall number she is performing. Doreen is a pensioner studying at the University of the Third Age.
“Sounds posh, but it ain’t,” she reassures me. They offer an opera group, music appreciation, and a book group. “For the Christmas party, the fellah that does the singing wants to do “I Remember It Well” as a duet – in costume. But all I lack is the gloves. “
“Just up your street,” says Daisy, who is a leading light in the annual St Joseph’s jumble sale, a key event in the Hospice’s calendar. People line up round the block to snag a bargain.
Carol smiles happily that the gloves fit her friend. She admires Doreen’s big sparkly necklace, offset by her lilac knit top.
Sam ambles over. An elderly man, born in Antigua, he emigrated to England at the age of twenty-four. The choir was recommended to him by a friend from his men’s group, he says. He exudes buried suffering, speaking haltingly at first.
“I like singing. It’s one of my bad habits,” he chuckles, relaxing a little. “I’m just greedy about it.”
“Cuppa tea, Sam?” cries Carol, and Sam says, “Oh yes please!”
“My kids are all grown up,” Sam explains, “but I don’t see them.” He sinks into reverie for a moment, as if he is trying to make sense of the estrangement.
“Everything is different now, you know? Kids don’t want to see you when you get on in age. They want to be in different … groups, and if you tell them anything, they don’t want to listen.”
In the background, the pianist is practising the opening bars of Lean On Me, on the digital Yamaha.
“Everything in this world is so changed. It’s an upside down world,” Sam declares. It is hard to disagree with him.
These days, he lives alone in Stepney Green, having separated from his wife who moved out of London. Years ago, when they lived together, they were forever arguing. Now they are close friends. “She’s a very nice person, a good woman. She calls me,” he says. “I still really love her.”
Carol sets down a cup of tea, and a Kit Kat, for Sam. He smiles appreciatively. “Sam’s always good to me,” Carol says. “Gives me sweets and things.”
“People are so good mannered here,” Sam exclaims, suddenly animated. “Everybody, everyone! I like that. I like everyone here. There is nobody that is not nice.”
Gina has arrived and is busy getting organized: looking through the music, adjusting the chairs, saying hello to everyone. She gives Terry a hug.
“The lady that .. “ Sam is overcome. “Oh, Gina, she is such a nice person,” he manages to say. “It’s a lovely place, it gives me joy in my heart when I come here.”
Meanwhile, Terry is moaning about the exorbitant cost of cars. “You’d get a Ford for five hundred quid in Dagenham, or get it unpainted for three hundred quid.” I am surprised and for a moment tempted myself, until he adds: “Oh but that was in 1945.”
Gina, the choir leader, is a petite, pretty woman in polka dot dress and scarlet cardigan. She wears her long, dark hair loose, and in between dashing around, she sips from a mug, a gift from Sam, which says: Best Teacher Ever. She is clearly adored by the choir. Gathering the singers together, she guides them with warm up exercises, swinging their arms, feeling the tips of their toes, limbering up.
“We sing with our whole bodies,” she says. Her words chime somehow with what the Hospice movement is about: treating and nurturing the body, the heart and mind, life to the very end.
The choir give a heartfelt and tuneful rendition of “Lean On Me.” The line up that evening features an eclectic range of songs; Gina likes a good mix. There is a Jamaican song, “Banyan Tree,” a Nigerian acopella, a contemporary piece by the pianist, Chris Scobie, based on the Song of Solomon, and the round “Oh How lovely is the evening.”
The singing is indeed lovely. Still, Gina does not coddle the choir; she is kind but firm when she tells them that something needs work and very enthusiastic when a piece is sung well.
That evening, they visit the wards and sing four songs.
“Make it beautiful,” says Gina, before they leave, and you know that they will.
The choir move upstairs in a phalanx, upbeat and determined, and Gina assembles them in a corridor. A nurse helps along an elderly gentleman in suit trousers and braces, on a zimmer frame; he is been waiting eagerly for the choir all evening.
Everyone is focused on Gina who raises her hand to conduct. A deep breath is inhaled in unison, and the singing begins. Richly textured voices, high and low, old and young, flow through the hallways and into the wards. As we move upstairs, we pass a room, and glimpse an extended family gathering around a bed for a night’s vigil. Someone is nearing the end of life.
Founded in 1905, St Joseph’s Hospice is under the auspices of the Religious Sisters of Charity, and cares for people from all backgrounds with serious, life threatening illnesses – such as cancer, Motor Neuron Disease, heart failure, Parkinson’s Disease. It covers primarily the City of London, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets, and beyond. All services are provided free.
Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven
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