Tuning up for Christmas!

“Rocking All Over World! I like a bit of Status Quo – and Elvis.”

The comment is made as a table of friends discuss their tastes in music.
“I like Billy Fury,” says another, “but look, I think we’re starting.”

We are at the weekly meeting of the Memory Lane Choir, just one of the many activities that charity Friendship At Home holds.

St Hugh’s Hospital is a long-time supporter of the organisation that aims to tackle isolation and loneliness among older people in North East Lincolnshire. As part of this support, we provide funding for two dementia specialists, Mandy Sparkes and Clare Mills, and it’s Mandy who runs the choir sessions – fun singalongs to a variety of music from different eras.

In fact, we’re proud to have had a hand in establishing the choir, too; a suggestion from our hospital director, Ashley, Brown, to take a look at a choir in Swansea, funded by our sister hospital HMT Sancta Maria. We brought up the Swansea choir leader to visit Friendship At Home and deliver a taster session, and this led to the formation of Memory Lane, with a helping hand from us. There’s much proven research into the health benefits of music for people with dementia, and we were delighted to get involved.

“It’s the perfect group to lift the spirits and reminisce, for those who have dementia and equally loved by those that don’t!” she whispers, as the event begins.

The room settles as Joan Gorry, a well-known local singer who gives up her time for free to lead the choir at the weekly meetings and all of its public events (and won an award for doing so), starts with simple exercises – stretching and deep breathing – to prepare the singers.

“Three sniffs in and out through the mouth to get the oxygen in,” says Joan. “And now we will warm up our mouths and throats with ‘va vas and ‘vee bees’.”

And with that, the choir is off, the vocal exercises followed quickly by Any Dream Will Do, from the Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Within the first bar, toes are tapping, bodies swaying, and hands conduct imaginary orchestras.

The mood is high, uplifting, and it’s agreed the choir will perform this at the late-night shopping event. The next song – Secret Love from Calamity Jane – although a ballad, is rousing. And the next, I Dreamed A Dream from Les Misérables, comes with instructions from Joan.

“Don’t just sing it, I want to hear the words,” she says. “Lots of light and shade.”

As the music begins, Carol – whom we’ve previously met through the St Hugh’s Triobike rides – says, approvingly, “What a professional.”

A few more songs from the musicals follow but it’s not all about singing. We pause to reminisce about Grimsby’s fishing industry at its height, and this is essentially what it’s about: bringing people together.

It’s the third or fourth time that Brian, 75, born and bred in Grimsby, has been to the choir. He was pointed in the direction of Friendship At Home by his son’s partner a few months ago. He attends three other weekly activities and said it’s “changed my life from being down to being up”.

“We really go for it and sing our hearts out,” he says. “It makes me feel good and happy. It builds me up – it does everything. It’s great to be able to get together in a group and make new friends.

“Music makes me tick. My favourite guy forever is Billy Fury, when he sings a song called I’d Never Find Another You. He’s brilliant. I also like Elvis – I Can’t Help Falling In Love is my favourite. To go a bit faster and more upbeat, I listen to the Rolling Stones.”

Brian, a father of three and grandfather of three, sings a little of (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction before continuing. “I love the musicals, too. It’s a different type of music. We sing everything here and get to try all sorts. You can’t go wrong.”

Brian worked as a bus driver in Grimsby and Cleethorpes for 40 years before retiring. In fact, he’s only ever had four jobs throughout his entire working life.

“I came across every walk of life on the buses,” he says. “I could tell you a few funny stories… no, I’d better not say that one! One we can talk about… right, so… when there were crews – the conductor or conductress, and the driver – there was me, Mick, and Nancy. Before you take the bus out or go anywhere, you’d always have a discussion about what the plan was and what to do if something went wrong.

“Anyway, this guy, one of the passengers, played Nancy up and Mick was having none of it. Our bus had a door at the front and another half-way down. We opened both doors and Mick told the guy, ‘you have two ways of getting off this bus – walk off it or I throw you off it’. That was in the 1970s; we didn’t mess about then. I’m not kidding you, everything happened on those buses. I could go on and on and on.”

Brian tells us about a famous incident in Grimsby’s past. In March 1991, four lions escaped from the visiting Chipperfield’s Circus after their cage was sabotaged, stalking the town centre’s streets for more than an hour, and terrorising the public. One man was mauled and needed 24 stitches.

“I was in the canteen in the depot at Victoria Street,” recalls Brian, “and Dave Parker, the inspector, came over the annoy and told us that there was a lion in the nearby alleyway and that we weren’t to go outside. We thought he was having a right laugh. Fred Hill, who I also worked with, his wife was standing at the bus stop near our depot when a lion walked past her! I didn’t see anything because when we realised it wasn’t a joke, we all had to stay put until the incident was dealt with, but I heard the commotion.

“Everything seemed to happen to us! The television comedy On The Buses was so true to life… the character of Blakey, the inspector, in particular. They got it spot-on. We had an inspector just like Blakey, who used to splutter when he spoke. He was a fantastic guy.

“I never intended to stay as a bus driver. I thought I’d only last about four years and find something else. Well, 40 years later I was still there!”

Talk in the room turns to this week’s upcoming public performance of the choir at Freshney Place Shopping Centre, marking the launch of late-night opening in the run-up to Christmas; today is the first choir meeting of the year featuring Christmas songs. “We are really looking forward to it,” one member turns around and says.

And again, they are off… hit after festive hit, from Cliff and Bing to Shakin’ Stevens. The time literally speeds by in a rush of fun, smiles and laughter.

“Can you see why I have the best job in the world?” grins Mandy. “It’s just brilliant.”

The Memory Lane Choir meets on Tuesdays between 10am and noon at the Annie Chapple Centre, Cleethorpes. It costs £2.50 to participate, which includes refreshments.

And see the choir perform at Freshney Place, in Friargate Square, this Thursday (November 25) between 5.15pm and 5.45pm.

For more information about Friendship At Home, and the other activities available, visit www.friendshipathome.org.uk