‘I try to get the people around me to enjoy each day. I think I’ve been very blessed.’
Flora Bradley-Watson interviews the pioneer of inspiring quotes at Tube stations, Anthony Gentles
I hate the Tube – it’s cramped, impersonal and you can’t look out the window. Give me any other transport mode: bus, bike, taxi, pedalo. But for this interview, I’ve ventured Underground to meet Oval station Customer Service Manager Anthony Gentles, who started writing inspirational quotes on a whiteboard 14 years ago. Now his thought of the day has been featured in a documentary and won thousands of fans worldwide.
Classical music greets me as I ascend. There are pot plants all around, a book exchange and the famous noticeboard, which has turned Anthony into a minor celebrity, hangs on the wall. Today’s wisdom? ‘Perhaps the butterfly is proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness yet become something beautiful.’ Maybe the Tube isn’t so bad.
‘The initial idea was a simple one’, Anthony, dressed impeccably smart in a suit and tie, tells me over coffee. ‘It was to answer the question: How do you engage with your customers? In an environment like a station customers are just walking through minding their own business. There’s a disconnect. The staff become inhuman. They are just standing there.’ I look down guiltily. I’ve always been one to rush through, tearing my hair out at tourists walking slowly. ‘These are individuals who you need to engage with, even if it’s just to say good morning’ Anthony says earnestly.
The whiteboard became the vehicle for communication. Anthony, who has been interested in philosophy since he was a teenager, started writing quotes from his favourite book, Tao Te Ching, the key text in the Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism. ‘The noticeboard used to be a way of telling people when there was something wrong with the network. Customers became immune to reading it,’ he explains. ‘But that same noticeboard, if you were to put something inspiring on it, they would want to read.’
And they do. I watch as commuters’ eyes drift to see the day’s quote. Some stop to take a picture. Two Polish students, Marcelina and Evie, come through every day. ‘It’s always nice to see something like that. Even if you are in a bad mood, it cheers you up’ they tell me. ‘There’s nothing like this in Poland.’ An Italian visitor, Enrico Dow agrees. ‘It’s uplifting, particularly today’s quote.’ One commuter lives closer to Stockwell but has changed his route so he can see ‘Thought of the Day’.
Anthony makes sure the quote is updated every day with the help of his colleague Glen Sutherland who runs the @ovalstation Twitter account which has 24,000 followers. Other stations including Clapham North, Kennington and Covent Garden have started doing their own quotes. ‘They don’t get updated as regularly as our one,’ says Anthony. ‘Even when I am on annual leave I might come in to update the whiteboard.’
Does he ever get lost for words? ‘Any time there’s an incident that affects all Londoners, there is still a convergence of people on the Tube,’ he says. ‘We know the quote has to be inspiring and reflect the true nature of Londoners and that London is open to everyone. That is what Oval is all about. It is your station and our responsibility to remind you that you are welcome.’ Anthony thinks that the station plays an important role bringing people together. ’Londoners, if we’re not careful, have the tendency to want to stay in their own cocoon.’
To avoid offense, Oval doesn’t allow religious and political texts at the book exchange. Is this a cautious step too far? ‘We don’t want anything that’s going to cause controversy,’ Anthony explains. ‘We have people of different nationalities with different beliefs walking through. We are not a library. There needs to be some governance.’
At 59, he’s not far off retirement, which he speaks about philosophically. ‘I live each day as my last. I’m serious, I really do,’ he says. ‘I try to get the people around me to enjoy each day. I think I’ve been very blessed.’ It seems like Anthony could be a life coach, but he tells me if he hadn’t worked for TFL he would have been a writer. ‘Words rekindle the spirit,’ he says smiling ‘The pen can influence people’s lives in such a positive way.’
Anthony’s Top Quotes:
- The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Lao Tzu
- How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. Anne Frank
- Happiness depends upon ourselves. Aristotle.