Tube 'thought of the day': The station where it started

By Alice Evans
BBC News

image copyright@Oval_station

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity. Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.

These aphorisms do not come from the inedible innards of a fortune cookie, but are instead the food for thought served up to Tube passengers at Oval station in south London.

It's been 14 years since customer services manager Anthony Gentles was inspired to perk up the "blank faces" of commuters with a daily dose of wisdom from his favourite book, Tao Te Ching, the key text in the ancient Chinese philosophical tradition of Taoism.

The baton has since been taken on by his colleague Glen Sutherland, whose posts on the station information board have won him fans from around the world and spawned a bevy of imitators across the capital.

image copyright@Oval_station

Mr Gentles said offering up pearls of wisdom from ancient China was his way of trying to make people feel more welcome as they braved the Underground.

Explaining his motivation, the east Londoner said: "If it's inspirational for me, perhaps when customers see it it will allow them to stop for a moment and could distract them from whatever was going through their mind.

"Stations need not be sterile places."

The board - which would go on to draw inspiration from wider source material than Tao Te Ching - began to catch the eye of even the weariest travellers, with thoughts such as: "Whoever is happy will make others happy too" (Anne Frank) and "There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour" (Charles Dickens).

And then something interesting happened.

image copyright@Oval_station
image copyrightLinda Studd
image copyrightNeil Kiteley

In a departure from the stereotype of the silent Tube user, passengers actually began chatting to staff.

Some would stop to thank Mr Gentles for writing the messages, while others started going out of their way to visit the station.

Lunch clubs were even formed at workplaces to discuss the meaning behind the day's thought.

Mr Gentles recalls how one man wandered about on the platform for 20 minutes before heading back to the atrium to pronounce that he'd worked out "what the thought was saying to me".

image captionAnthony Gentles believes stations need not be "sterile places"

"I'm glad that it's had an impact - we all need something to inspire and encourage us every now and again," 59-year-old Mr Gentles said.

"Words resonate. Even just one sentence can bring all sorts of emotion."

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In 2007, he passed the baton on to colleague Glen Sutherland.

Since then the customer services assistant has written more than 3,000 thoughts - and says he's only repeated himself four times.

Top tweets: Oval station's most retweeted Thoughts

1. After the death of Dr Kate Granger, who helped change the face of doctor-patient relations and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for cancer charities

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

2. The tweet that made Glen's work famous in Argentina

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

3. Oval station's message of resilience after the Westminster terror attack

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

The 47-year-old south Londoner also looks after the station's Twitter account, which saw a surge in popularity last year.

It now has more than 20,000 followers from as far away as France, Spain, Malaysia and Australia.

image captionGlen Sutherland says he finds it "bizarre" that the station has so many followers on Twitter

"Lately, it's Argentina," he said.

An Argentine family asked Mr Sutherland to put up a quote by Mirtha Legrand, a famous actress and television presenter in the South American country.

He did so and, before he knew it, his work was being admired on her chat show.

Mr Sutherland said: "If it's helping people, and giving people pleasure, then it's good.

"But I'm really baffled at 20,000 followers on Twitter for a Thought of the Day - I can't get my head around it.

"It's bizarre."

image copyright@Oval_station

But with soaring popularity comes responsibility.

Last year London was rocked by the Grenfell Tower fire, as well as a string of terrorist attacks.

The team at Oval was faced with the task of writing thoughts that were defiant and inspirational, as well as sensitive.

"It's really hard, especially things like Grenfell," Mr Sutherland said.

"What do you say?"

image copyrightOval Tube Station
image captionThis message was written after the Westminster terror attack in March
image copyrightOval Tube Station
image captionThe day's thought after the London Bridge attack in June
image copyrightOval Tube Station
image captionAfter the Grenfell Tower fire, this thought was tweeted along with the hashtag #999Heroes

After the London Bridge attack in June Mr Sutherland's board bore words of defiance for three consecutive days.

He said: "We choose our thoughts carefully anyway, but when we have something like that, I feel that London and the rest of the country needs to pull together.

"We have to try and bounce back and get on with it."

image captionIn a bid to make the station a pleasant place to be, Oval staff have installed plant life and even a book exchange

It certainly seems the efforts of staff to try to make the station a more pleasant and mentally stimulating environment have been welcomed by passengers.

Theo Nikolaou, who often passes through the station while visiting friends in the area, said: "It's nice to see something in the corner of your eye that you can read. It really makes you think."

Marlon Burton passes through Oval every day for work.

"I don't always read it, but I did today because it's a really good one, " he said.

"It's real."

Sophie Hall, from Oxford, who comes through the station once a week to visit her boyfriend, said: "I think it adds a personal touch to taking public transport.

"I look for it every time I come through here."

The Oval's daily ritual has proved popular enough that it has caught on elsewhere.

Covent Garden, Kensal Green, Tower Hill, Plaistow, Kennington, Clapham North, Tufnell Park and Clapham South stations have all embarked on similar initiatives.

Mr Gentles isn't surprised.

"When [Tube] staff come to a station like this and see the plants, the book exchange, the classical music, and the reaction of the customers, they want to export it."

Fourteen years and thousands of quotes later, Mr Gentles' favourite message remains the first one he wrote: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step".

"It's my favourite because it's fundamentally true," he said.

"No matter what you do in life, regardless of your situation, you have got to take the first step."

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