You may have passed by the boards yourself, or seen them going viral online, but now we talk to the duo responsible for the inspirational messages left on London Underground customer information boards, to discover the story behind their iconic verses
It was March 2017, and crowds of people were surging into North Greenwich tube station for a Craig David concert at the O2 Arena. While singing some of his songs to themselves, two TFL employees working on the platform came up with a poem using well-known Craig David titles and lyrics. They decided to share it with the excited crowd, so they wrote it on the platform’s customer information board.
The board was an instant hit – it made people happy and that, in turn, made the two poets happy. They began covering more events, before eventually reaching out to offer words of wisdom, hope, and inspiration on a plethora of topics. Photos of the boards went viral online – garnering millions of ‘likes’ – shared under the name All on the Board.
The mysterious poets behind the emotive boards are Ian Redpath and Jeremy Chopra, who are finally stepping into the spotlight after four years of letting their work do the talking. In that time, they have given us laughs, made touching tributes, and offered accessible information on – and support for – serious topics. Whether it’s mental health, a national tragedy, or a celebration of Michelle Obama (the former First Lady herself adored the board dedicated to her and her story), it seems the pair’s repertoire has no bounds. And so, I ask them, when reflecting on everything they’ve achieved so far, have they reached a point where it’s started to sink in yet?
“It doesn’t always seem real. Or it almost feels like you’re talking about someone else,” Jeremy tells me – fresh off a night-shift when we catch up. “I’m thinking: ‘Oh, yes, Ian did really, really good with that. Wow. I’m so chuffed for him.’ And he’s probably thinking the same about me – actually, I don’t know, are you?”
“No, not really mate, to be honest,” Ian chimes in, laughing. “No, of course. But you know what, we’ve got that much material, and then we look through it it’s like: ‘Oh, do you remember that time Michelle Obama shared her board?’ It’s still a very pinch-yourself moment, you know?”
I can only imagine.
“If it was making the concertgoers happier, then maybe we can make those lonely people on their tube journeys stop and see that they’re not alone”
Along the right lines
Of course, it was only in November 2020 that Ian and Jeremy officially stepped into the spotlight – removing the face-covering masks they wore when writing on the boards up until this point (while donning the appropriate facewear for the current era). Before this, they were known as N1 and E1 (standing for ‘no one’ and ‘everyone’), and going public wasn’t an easy choice.
“People who knew who we were said: ‘Don’t do it, because you’ll just get surrounded by people.’” Jeremy explains. “But, we were like: it’s time to do it now, really.” And so, they did.
“I’ve had one person want a selfie with me,” Jeremy reflects.
“I’ve had two,” Ian says. “I’ve had someone at work, and then my neighbour recognised me from TV. I was rushing for the train, he goes, ‘Ian, Ian.’ I was like, ‘Yes?’ He said, ‘I saw you on TV.’ I was like, ‘Oh, good. I’ll chat to you later.’ He goes, ‘Ian, Ian. What were you doing on TV?’ And then I missed my train.”
It’s evident that their work has always had very clear intentions – to spread messages and to get people thinking, and talking – effortlessly tapping into the pulse of the capital, and the nation. And so, as the pair see it, when they began to take on more serious topics with their board, the transition was only natural.
“We were doing the concerts, and people were getting excited, and we realised how many people we were reaching,” says Ian. “We thought, if it was making the concertgoers happier, then maybe we can make those lonely people on their tube journeys stop and see that they’re not alone.”
Ian explains that they began writing about their own experiences and conditions, putting the poems out into the world, and seeing if anyone felt the same way. Very quickly, it became clear that they did.
In their book, both Ian and Jeremy lay bare their experiences – Ian covering anxiety and PTSD, Jeremy speaking to depression and an eating disorder. This kind of candour is powerful in any circumstances, but the fact they’re two men adds another dimension to the move.
When reflecting on this, both Jeremy and Ian say they’ve always been sensitive, but the fact that they’ve lost friends to suicide – as well as talked people out of suicide while working at the station – means that they see first-hand the power of their words, awareness, and compassion.
Considering a moment that became clear, Jeremy tells me about a message they received recently from someone who explained how their poem ‘Don’t Give Up’ had saved their life.
“It was incredible to read that, because it just confirmed to us that we’d done the right thing,” Jeremy reflects.
Write this way
As Jeremy sees it, it’s the simplicity with which they make their points that opens up mental health topics, but their poetic medium is something they’re also keen to unlock.
“We’re not polished speakers or anything, we just say things as we do usually,” he says. “Poetry has become quite closed off to a lot of people. We’ve simplified it, and made it a bit more bouncy, in the way that people usually talk in the streets, or just to their neighbours. We used that way of talking, and people get it.”
On the flip side, the creative process is also cathartic for them, and they note how expressing themselves has had a positive effect on their own wellbeing. For Ian, this is particularly relevant when considering how he deals with anxiety attacks.
“They can last about 27 minutes, but if I can stop and think, ‘I’ll try to rhyme this word with that word, and that word with that word,’ I can work myself out of it.”
“For me, it’s also like you’re searching for a solution for things,” adds Jeremy. “Even if it’s not whatever you’re feeling, you feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
We’re about to wrap up our call, so I ask the pair a difficult question. Do they have a favourite board?
“That’s cruel,” Ian scolds. “Imagine they’re children and you’re picking your favourite!”
“In our book, there is an exclusive poem in the ‘In It Together’ chapter – which is about the pandemic – and it’s a poem that my daughter wrote,” says Jeremy. “So if we had to choose between children, in terms of the poems, I’m going to pick that one, because it was written by my actual child.”
A sign of the times
Since All on the Board began in 2017, we have faced many hardships. In 2021, after an incredibly difficult year, words of comfort and hope, like those the duo specialise in, couldn’t be more important. So often, it’s the simplest actions that speak the loudest, and join us together, instilling the optimism and unity that we need to carry on. Now, more than ever, Ian and Jeremy are just the ticket.
“We’ve been wearing masks for the last three years, so we thought we’d take those masks off, and then put on the other masks that everyone is supposed to be wearing. So, it’s a little bit of a statement without being a statement,” says Ian.
“That’s us though, isn’t it?” Adds Jeremy.
Ian nods. “Yeah. Yeah, it is.”
All On the Board: Inspirational Quotes From The TFL Underground Duo is out now (Yellow Kite, £14.99).
To speak or connect with a counsellor to discuss your own mental health, visit counselling-directory.org.uk