Manners are often said to maketh the man, but can the man maketh manners? Ben Lazarus meets James Allen, who can put a smile on even the most hardened commuter’s face
“A gentleman is one who puts more into the world than he takes out.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
Very early on the morning of October 7, 2013, James Allen walked along Platform Three of St. Albans train station. For most of the commuters waiting, the day was not looking promising: it was Monday, it was cold, the sky was grey, and it was beginning to rain. Smiling graciously, he lifted his speaker and in a soft and quintessentially English voice, said:
“Hello, my name is James. It is lovely to see you all here this morning. I understand that Monday mornings are a difficult time for you all, but can I just say how happy I am to see you today. I truly mean that. I wouldn’t do this job if it wasn’t for all of you.”
Various nameless faces grinned at one another and after a few seconds some began to clap; soon most of the platform joined in.
Ever since that morning I like to stand and listen to James before I head to work. Sometimes I get a slower train into central London so I can watch him for a while. After a few minutes I normally get to thinking about my old grandfather and something he used to say: “Manners maketh the man,” he’d tell me in his gentlemanly manner, before adding: “manners don’t cost you anything.”
I often take out my notebook and record what James says. He always open with: “Hello my name is James. I just want to say how lovely it is to see you all here today”. Sometimes he goes on to say: “I am terribly sorry to announce the next train is running a minute late. It jolly well matters and I’m not going to be complacent about it”. Other times, he will say: “I tell you this today because I care. You are all very important to me”. After these announcements he often gets a round of applause and many thank him for brightening their day.
In person, he is endearing and effortlessly charming. His face is round and clean-shaven and he has a gentle smile. His hair is short and mousy coloured, with a grey patch on the left side, and when he works he wears a train driver’s hat. At the end of his nose hang a pair of small round frame glasses, which allow his watchful, green eyes to peer over.
James was born in Reading in 1961, the son of a distinguished Geology professor. He believes that being a gentleman is about being kind to people. This is what he strives for on a daily basis in his job.
“One of the things life has taught me is that we have to be noble in what we do,” he says. “I have no religion, and I don’t want it, but intellectually, we have to try and strive for the best and the best means looking after the people around us.”
Before becoming a station announcer, James worked as a butler for a Private Members Club in Inverness, Scotland. It was here that he honed his sense of gentlemanly service.
“Being a butler is about getting there first every time. If somebody said ‘James may I have a whisky’ that was failure; words from a customer were failure. My job was to anticipate, so I would have whisky ready for people if I knew that is what they liked. And I would watch their glasses, and as soon as they started to empty, I would refill them.”
He worked as butler for fifteen years but left when new management came in. “They wanted to do things their own way,” he says. “I failed to change. I wanted to stay with the old. It is a very classic conundrum.” Afterwards, James looked after people with learning difficulties for three years, before joining First Capital connect as a station announcer and train dispatcher 14 months ago.
“I regard it as a privilege to be a railwayman,” says James, who brings a butler’s mentality to St. Albans’s platforms. “I look at the weather forecast before my shift; if it is raining I give people umbrellas from lost property. And whenever I’ve got them, as trains come or depart, I’ll say ‘I’ve got a big pile of brollies, help yourself.’ It is touches like that that really matter.”
However, there was a period when being kind and noble wasn’t so easy for James.
“I can assure you I am a profound failure in life,” he says softly. “I spent much of my life as an alcoholic. But I haven’t had a drink for 15 years. The hard knocks have taught me that you have to strive to lead a good life. I can’t emphasise that enough. It’s so important. My life is meaningless if I am not being nice to the people around me. Now I am well aware that human nature is thoroughly flawed. Mine in particular. But that’s not the point; the point is I have to be happy being me.
“Being a butler allowed me to put on a mask. It allowed me to hide the real me. It suited me very well because I could pretend to be a very stiff and reserved English butler.”
When discussing alcohol addiction, James becomes reflective, even philosophical.
“I drank because of life experience,” he says. “We do try and learn, don’t we? But we all learn very badly and slowly. And most of us probably don’t learn that much, but we do try.” Evoking Socrates, he adds: “Real wisdom is knowing that we don’t know anything.
“Life teaches us a sort of wisdom, if we are willing to listen. Most of the time we are not willing, really. I mean we look at the people around us and think they have settled lives and they look calm and wise. But inside people are always different.
“There is an interesting line in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I am great fan of. It correctly points out that the very last thing that human beings need is a genuine sense of perspective because we will see how minuscule we all are.”
Does his gentlemanly approach to people stem from this awareness of human insignificance?”
“Absolutely, it gives my minuscule life just a little bit of meaning, and I think that’s worth hanging on to. We are all going to turn to dust and our vanity is so often just in vain, but being kind is actually one of the things that has a little bit of meaning, isn’t it? Being nice to the people around you. That is one of the things that is really worth fighting for. Everything else is vanity.”
“What does being noble and gentlemanly in your job mean to you, James?”
“Just to go home at the end of the day happy,” he says softly, smiling. “That’s all. What is the point in going home with a knot in my tummy? Is there any basis for being alive if you live like that? It’s so easy to do a good job, and so hard to a bad job, isn’t it? If I was confrontational with my customers, it’d be jolly hard work, wouldn’t it? I’d go home feeling wretched. What’s the point in that?”
Source: Ben Lazarus via telegraph.co.uk