We are walking back to our car, lugging our conductor’s wooden platform between us and cheerfully singing “Sussex by the Sea”. We have been asked to return the platform to the community
centre from whence it came. It’s the least we can do for our friend, Terry, who did most of the organising for today’s Choir Concert.
we did it! About thirty of us, all dressed in our red shirts and black trousers or skirts, turned up at the Queen Alexandra’s Home for Retired Ex Service Men and Women (aka Gifford House) this afternoon, prepared to sing our hearts out. We looked like
a Proper Choir. As we make for the entrance, a couple of nurses emerge and look at us in puzzlement. “What’s with all the people turning up?” we distinctly hear one of them ask the other. It seems we are not universally expected.
Mr B and I had spent a fair bit of the morning preparing our red files. Between us we had typed out the words of all the songs we would be singing in a large font and
put them in order in our distinctive red files. We had been through each song carefully, marking the lines which were to be sung by the men, those to be trilled by the women and those where we would join our voices in joyful song. Or something similar.
I had to warn Mr B that our conductor, the Redoubtable Muriel, is inclined to change important aspects of the programme in the middle of proceedings. We must be prepared for her to decide we will only sing two verses rather than three of a particular
ditty or even to drop a song altogether. This does not go down too well with Mr B who likes to know where he is, what he’s doing and when he is doing it. I tell him there’s not much I can do about it – Muriel will do what Muriel will
do. She is the conductor, after all, and we are Merely Singers.
The audience is much larger than I remember from last year so the Social Room is quite packed.
Last year, I seem to recall, the choir outnumbered the audience though what the Old Soldiers lacked in numbers, they made up for in appreciation. Hopefully, we tell each other, as we settle into our seats, we will please them again this year.
After a quick Round the World in song, we embark on a medley of songs from Oliver – I’d do Anything, As Long as He Needs Me and Consider Yourself. When
we sing I’d Do Anything, we women ask the questions and the men provide the answers. Muriel has exhorted us to sing this with conviction, turning towards each other as we sing. I would have liked to have put on a performance with Mr B, which would
have been fun, but at the last minute a late-comer sat down between us, rather spoiling the effect. Still, you can’t go wrong with good old Oliver, can you?
best response of all is to our spirited rendition of Sussex by the Sea. I love that song – and even more so since I read the following passage in the Sussex & Surrey Courier of February 1917:
“There must have been something of Sussex tenacity in the battalion that earned the name of “The Iron Regiment” in the Expeditionary Force which crossed the Channel in 1914 and in no regiment did local feeling
run higher. The men sang their song “Sussex by the Sea” in the trenches and moved into action “steady as on parade” through the smoke and haze of that September morning at Loos to the same song:
“For we’re the men from Sussex
Sussex by the Sea
We plough and sow and reap and mow,
And useful men are
And when you go from Sussex,
Whoever you may be
You tell them all that we stand or fall
For Sussex by the Sea.”
The article ends: “Surely the strangest words that have ever carried men into battle.”
The Social Room at Gifford House is warm and cosy. Not a hint of smoke or haze, no sound of gunfire or exploding shells. But the men and women at Gifford House have known the terrors of war and
conflict. They understand, so much more than I do, the simple power of a stirring song to inspire the “useful men” of Sussex and carry them into battle in a foreign land, far from home.
I am singing my heart out for them - and for those brave, shadowy figures of almost a century ago.