So, where's the oldest advert on the Underground? Not a preserved heritage poster somewhere. Not a ripped scrap of fading colour, half-forgotten on a wall. I mean the oldest advert in a proper frame in a proper station masquerading as a proper advert.
I think I may have found it.
It's at Canning Town station, on the Jubilee line. It's about halfway along the subway linking the ticket hall to the bus station. And it's this.
The advert is for one of a series of full colour leaflets that TfL brought out in conjunction with BBC Radio London. "Real Arts", it was called, "Your guide to viewing & doing the arts in London". A 36-pager, you could pick up a copy from leaflet racks like the one on the opposite wall. Forty diverse arts venues got the nod within, from across the capital, complete with what's on and transport access details. There were three special offers too, including a free poster giveaway from selected London theatres. And the smallprint on page 3 says "Offers valid only during October and November 2002, unless otherwise stated." Which, by my calculations, makes this poster advert at Canning Town 11 years out of date. And I think that's a record.
At first glance the advert looks perfectly current. The Polka Theatre still exists, and still puts on fine plays (with and without puppets) for children. There are no years or dates on the poster to give the game away. But look carefully at the web address. TfL's website is no longer called www.thetube.com, and hasn't been for ten years now, although the URL still works. TfL no longer publicise 020 telephone numbers, they use 0343 and 0870 these days. BBC Radio London no longer abbreviates itself to LDN. And on the cover of the booklet "Mayor of London" has its ON written in red, which is a typographic flourish changed to blue when Boris Johnson entered office. There's no mistaking, this is an advert from at least a decade ago.
I wonder why it's survived. Is it that staff haven't noticed the poster's long out of date? Is it because Frame 74 isn't listed in TfL's database. Is it that nobody wants to advertise at Canning Town? I was tempted to go up to a member of staff and ask why nobody had taken it down. I was even more tempted to go up to the ticket office and ask for a copy of the booklet, but I didn't want to draw attention to the existence of the advert before I'd told you about it. Plus I'd probably have looked a complete idiot. Plus I've already got a copy. Don't say you're surprised.
It's been interesting to look inside my 'Real Arts' leaflet to see 2002 was like. At Tate Modern Anish Kapoor's big red sculpture filled the Turbine Hall. Wendy Craig and Tom Conti were about to appear at the Greenwich Theatre. The cheapest seats at Sadlers Wells cost £5, whereas today it's more like £22. Only one wheelchair-accessible bus passed the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn High Road. Stratford Circus in E15 had only just opened. And there was a nostalgic section at the back of the leaflet encouraging families to buy paper travelcards, this being the pre-Oyster era, including a One Day Bus Pass for the fantastically low price of £2. London changes, but this poor lost advert at Canning Town remains.
I wonder if you've seen anything older than this out there? Perhaps on a platform on some distant branch of the Central line, or perhaps lurking in an ill-frequented side passage in a station in the centre of town. Again, I'm not talking about a preserved heritage poster, or a ripped scrap of fading colour half-forgotten on a wall. I mean the oldest advert in a proper frame in a proper station masquerading as a proper advert. Because when the staff at Canning Town finally go out and take this 11 year-old down, we'll need to know where the tube's new oldest advert is.