The mysterious poets of the London Underground drop their masks
All on the Board. Yellow Kite; 288 pages; £14.99
IT WAS MARCH 2017 and fans were streaming out of a concert by Craig David at the O2 Arena in London and into North Greenwich Tube station. As they jovially belted out their favourite tunes, an ode to the pop star, crammed with song titles and catchy rhymes, appeared on a whiteboard in the ticket hall. A crowd soon surrounded the board, giggling and taking selfies.
Hundreds of rhymes have since been posted mysteriously around London’s Underground network, each signed “@allontheboard”. The poems—written, it transpires, by two Tube workers—range from life lessons to dad jokes. A ditty tackling men’s mental-health problems is dedicated to “sad lads, broken blokes, unhappy chappies”. A “Fruit & Veg Guide to Life” urges: “Don’t be bananas, give peas a chance, we can turnip around.”
In their day jobs, the two subterranean poets usher people through turnstiles and control crowds. But even before turning to verse, they confide in an interview, they sought ways to add a flicker of fun to their shifts, for instance challenging one another to drop pop-song titles into responses to customers’ inquiries. A request for directions could be met with a hand cupped behind an ear and “Hit me baby one more time?” After the night of the concert, they realised that they could lift commuters’ spirits with their poems. They began wheeling spare whiteboards into quiet tunnels to write. To maintain their anonymity they donned masks, long before those became mandatory on public transport because of covid-19.
And to cultivate mystique, they adopted the noms de plume N1 and E1, a play on London’s system of postcodes and shorthand for “No one” and “Everyone”. Referring to the feted street artist, N1 explains that they “quite liked the idea of being like the Banksys of the Underground”.
First they needed permission to display their poems on spare boards where passengers could see them. The city’s transport authority previously had tight rules for the use of its whiteboards: only service messages, no underlining, just a handful of regulation coloured pens. But managers were persuaded to make an exception, and before long station bosses began asking the men to brighten up ticket halls with a poem. Supportive colleagues juggle shifts to make sure they are on duty together. They are best-known for their tributes to celebrities, especially those appearing at the O2, which they pack with song and film titles, puns and quotes.
Looking on the bright side
Less than four years after their debut, they have more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Fans include a young woman in Turkey who reads the poems online to practise her English, an Iranian girl seeking positivity as she battles suicidal thoughts, Brits abroad who crave a taste of home, and assorted stars. A poem studded with quotes from Michelle Obama was spotted by her staff during a book tour in London; the former First Lady posted a picture of the board on Instagram. Performing in the city, Katy Perry, a singer, put on a baseball cap and dark glasses and rode the Tube to snap a photo with a board dedicated to her. “You know you’ve made it once you’re on one of those boards,” N1 says.
In November the pair finally discarded their masks (metaphorically, at least) and revealed their true identities when they published an anthology of their writing, also called “All on the Board”. N1 is a former train driver named Ian Redpath; E1 is his pal, Jeremy Chopra. One reason they are so good at cheering up commuters, they reveal, is that they have sometimes needed cheering up themselves. Their sympathy for health problems such as tinnitus and colitis derives from personal experience.
In a harrowing recollection, for instance, Mr Redpath tells of the day a woman threw herself in front of his train, leaving him with post-traumatic stress disorder that ended his career as a driver. “When she jumped, our eyes connected, and she smiled just before the train hit her,” he remembers. “I was scared of the dark for ages. I was scared of seeing her face in my dreams.” Sharp-elbowed Londoners tend to spare little thought for the harried staff on the Tube; this poignant anthology humanises them.
The pandemic is an eerie time for both the rhymesters and their normally teeming workplace. At the moment there may be more mice in Tube stations than there are passengers; ridership sank to just 4% of normal levels in April and May, during London’s first full lockdown, and it remains low. But All on the Board think their mission to boost morale is as important as ever. The duo have continued to put up poems throughout the year, writing sonnets to thank doctors, congratulate people celebrating lonely birthdays and reminisce about the forbidden joys of hugging. “Life is a journey,” one board reflects, “and at the moment/the train we are all on is in a tunnel,/But, one day we will see the light.”
Some of these pandemic-themed offerings feature in the book, rhyming “alive” with “survive” and “friends” with “ends”. But the best parts of the anthology involve the simplest British humour, which will raise a smile whether readers are hunkering down at home or negotiating a desolate commute. Take one poem called “The Beauty of Tea”:
Put the kettle on and make a cuppa,
It’s the perfect lifter upper;
Do you risk it with your biscuits
And dunk them far too long?
Do you prefer your tea with sugar?
Do you like it weak or strong?
A nice brew can make things better
And can also quench your thirst,
Are you one of those
Who put the milk in first?
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline "Tunnels of love"
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