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Positive benefits

Sick children and primary pupils have been cyberjammin' with Jarvis Cocker to produce a musical extravaganza which will feature in a webcast on October 8 to mark the first World Hospice and Palliative Care Day. Nic Barnard reports

Being bored isn't usually this much fun. On stage at a small theatre in west London a group of children are whirling tubes round their heads, others are crashing out electronic sounds on a keyboard and a choir is singing. And Jarvis Cocker is jumping about somewhere in the middle.

The songs they're singing are the result of an unusual collaboration between Year 5 from Brixton's Sudbourne Primary School and children in Great Ormond Street Hospital - with a link to a children's hospice in South Africa thrown in for good measure.

The songs are inspired by illness, boredom, flies, friendship, sick pets and imagination. And they bounce like anything.

"Bored of silence, tired of pain, think I might explode," Year 5 sing.

"Dreams of travelling, dreams are real, music makes me free," they sing.

And then: "Sometimes I feel insane, and sometimes I feel bad ... crazy's what I feel when I'm allowed to be mad."

As the last notes die away, disembodied voices echo the song back through loudspeakers in a coda supplied by the children of Great Ormond Street. The event, staged before a small invited audience, is intended to be a simultaneous webcast, a live jam in cyberspace, though technology has rather let the side down. It hardly matters - the good work has all taken place beforehand.

The collaboration has been one strand of the Rosetta Requiem, an initiative involving a dozen projects around the country organised by charity Rosetta Life to give people in hospitals, hospices and palliative care the chance to express themselves. It has attracted government support and involvement from the likes of composer Michael Nyman and songwriter Billy Bragg.

In the case of Sudbourne Primary, where Rosetta Life's founder, Lucinda Jarrett, is a parent, pupils have been learning something of what it means to be ill, collaborating in song with children at Great Ormond Street Hospital school. Excerpts from the concert, held in July, will be included in a webcast on October 8 to mark the first World Hospice and Palliative Care Day.

"We wanted to change the way we think about illness," says Lucinda. "We wanted to say illness isn't something where we're always lying flat on our backs and not able to participate and be active and dynamic. Even when we're sick we can do really exciting things like making up a song."

Initial plans for Sudbourne pupils to visit the hospital school had to be shelved - hospital regulations wouldn't allow healthy and ill children to mix. So they turned to the internet and allowed pupils to talk to each other by email.

Fellow Sudbourne parent Jo Unwin, a children's writer, led sessions with Lucinda in the Brixton school and they regularly visited the hospital school to work with children there.

The use of the internet prompted them to look further afield. Through the international charity, Help the Hospices, they contacted St Nicholas Children's Hospice in Bloemfontein, South Africa, which cares for children with HIVAids. Many of the children there are pre-school age, so communication involved swapping nursery rhymes.

The exchanges provided fertile material for songs. Inevitably, much focused on how boring it can be to be ill. "The children in Great Ormond Street wrote and said, 'I am unimaginably bored', and someone from Sudbourne wrote back saying: 'When I'm bored I lie on my bed and flick stuff at flies'," says Lucinda.

Musician Chris Hoban worked up some lively salsa and ska-influenced arrangements. Former Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker also spent time at both Sudbourne Primary and Great Ormond Street.

"I just took some equipment in and tried some ideas out and made some noise and everybody enjoyed it," he says. "I thought it was important that the kids had a hand in writing the stuff, rather than me going there and saying I've written this great song and you can all clap along. Kids aren't hidebound by all the rules about how music is supposed to be."

Hospital school teacher Louise Hough says the project had provided a real boost for her pupils. "The children have quite severe problems and it just really built up their confidence. They worked as a team to finalise the lyrics and then sing the songs. And then to have them performed, they were really chuffed."

For some children, the project was entwined with personal landmarks. Emma, who has autoimmune disease, helped write a song about her albino rat. A video about her had to be shot from behind glass. But when she returned to the hospital to watch the webcast she was well enough to travel by tube for the first time.

The South Africa link, although not as prominent, also provided insights.

One verse, inspired by the St Nicholas children's favourite things, ran:

"Sunflower songs are positive, chocolate makes me smile." The word "positive", of course, has a double meaning.

"We've been able to talk to the children in the school about Aids," Unwin says. "In the song we used the pun about being positive. We've explained that and they really understood that. We used the classes in quite a cross-curricular way. We'd talk about puns and music and health all in one session."


World Hospice and Palliative Care Day:

Lesson plans are available from Help the Hospices Tel: 020 7520 8200

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