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The Dispossessed: Singing the praises of a choir

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  • John Neal
    LONDON EVENING STANDARD: At first glance, the group around the piano belting out I m still standing look like a typical eccentric amateur choral group. One
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 13, 2010

      At first glance, the group around the piano belting out "I'm still standing" look like a typical eccentric amateur choral group. One woman has a shaved head, a few have no socks, some wear short pants despite the autumn chill, and one man has a suit jacket over a worn T-shirt.

      Yet the three dozen choristers (otherwise neatly turned out) who assemble in this former church hall in King's Cross every Monday evening are in fact exceptional. Not for their virtuoso individual voices — though thanks to their inspirational leader, Marie Benton, they sing like angels — but because of who they are and the transformative role this choir plays in their lives.

      The Choir With No Name is for homeless people or, as some say, "for people who have hit rock bottom". Their ages range from 24 to 62; most have slept rough and now live in homeless shelters across the capital, though each story is poignantly unique.

      For Richard Threlfall, the trigger was being left by his wife and the sale of the family home. For Dean Johnson it was relationship breakdown and a descent into alcoholism. For Adel Tuzani it was drug addiction. For Mada a foreign war. And for Carole Wardell cancer — and the side-effects of medication that led to her being too tired to function and precipitated her slide into homelessness.

      Marie, 35, founded the choir in 2008. She is a St Mungo's charity worker with a passion for music who wanted to give the homeless something more to look forward to than a hot meal. With her team of volunteers she has created an ensemble with 35 members for whom the choir is "the highlight" of their week — and much more.

      "People arrive with low expectations, but they enjoy themselves and after a few weeks you see them start to blossom," says Marie. "It's about creating a safe environment for them to build confidence and develop a supportive community."

      Now, with the help of a £4,650 grant from the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund — one of more than 200 grants totalling £700,000 we've disbursed to similarly deserving community groups so far — the choir have been recording their first album to showcase their work. "The boost to the group is tremendous," says Marie. "For these people to go into a recording studio and know that your readers have dug deep to pay for them to put together something professional has huge ramifications for their self-esteem — and for the way London knits together as a city."

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