I-Spy books were small paperback books that were popular in the 1950s and 1960s. Each book covered a subject such as I-SPY Cars, I-SPY on the Pavement, I-SPY on a Train Journey, and so on and so on and so on.
The object was to be vigilant and spot objects such as animals, trees, policemen, fire engines, sea shells etc. etc. a bit like train spotting and they were recorded in the relevant book, and the more things you spotted this gained points. More points were available for the more difficult spots. Once you had spotted everything and the book was complete, it could be sent to Big Chief I-SPY for a feather and order of merit.
No, I kid you not!
The books and the challenges were supposedly written by a Red Indian chief called Big Chief I-Spy who turned out to be a man called Charles Warrell who was a former school teacher and headmaster who came up with the idea of I-Spy in 1948. He retired in 1956, but lived on until 26th November 1995 when he died at the age of 106. For part of this time he also worked as an antiques dealer in Islington.
Those who played the I-Spy game became members of the I-Spy Tribe and were called Redskins. The head office was variously known as the Wigwam by the Water or the Wigwam-by-the-Green. Neither of these exotic sounding places were situated on the American Plains or in the Black Hills of Dakota, the former was located next to the Mermaid Theatre at Blackfriars and the latter was in London’s Edgware Road.
I had quite a collection of I-Spy books but to be honest I never finished any of them because some of the items were absurdly difficult to track down (how, for example, do you I-Spy fish unless you are a deep-sea fisherman working on a trawler or a scuba diver?) and I never got a single feather although I did join the club and had an I-Spy badge that I used to wear on the lapel of my school blazer.
The original first thirty-two I-Spy books were in black and white only and cost sixpence each and the titles were:
|At the Seaside||The Army|
|On the Farm||The Wheel|
|On a Train Journey||People and Places|
|In the Country||Men at Work|
|At the Zoo- Animals||Antique Furniture|
|At the Zoo – Birds and Reptiles||The Universe|
|In the Street||Road Transport|
|On the Road||Town Crafts|
|The Sights of London||Country Crafts|
|Horses and Ponies||The Sky|
|Ships and Harbours||People in Uniform|
|Boats and Waterways||Motorcycles and Cycles|
Some of these books were extremely useful for parents, especially on long journeys. For a very small cash investment there would be short periods of peace while children were preoccupied with spotting things – ‘On a Train Journey’, ‘Road Transport’ and ‘Cars’ were good for this sort of thing.
On a long car journey my dad would invent his own I-spy games and challenge us to spot a red lorry, spot a black cow, spot a petrol station, in fact spot pretty much anything he could think of if it successfully kept us all quiet. When he got desperate he would tell us to look out for the sea and when we were on the way to Cornwall or Wales he usually started this little distraction roughly at about Oxford which is of course just about as far from the coast as you can possibly get! This was very optimistic because if you are familiar with the geography of England this is the equivalent of trying to spot the Caribbean Sea from Kansas City, the Hudson Bay from Calgary or the Pacific Ocean from Alice Springs.
When you finally got there, ‘At the Seaside’ was very useful for parents because they could send you off for hours at a time staring into rock pools and poking around at the shoreline to find things while they sat and enjoyed the sunshine. I suppose some would be frowned upon today because they encouraged kids to go off to places that parents today would consider dangerous such as ‘In the Street’, ‘Boats and Waterways’, ‘Bridges’ and especially, probably the most dangerous of all, ‘Wild Fruits and Funghi’!
Some were useless of course and we didn’t buy them, I mean what chance was there of completing ‘The Army’ I-Spy book unless your dad was a squaddie? And how were most normal kids supposed to spot ‘Aircraft’? I never went near an airport until I was twenty-two and neither did most of my pals.
Some people took this all a bit too seriously and here is an entry that I have found on www.doyouremember.co.uk : “Glad to know that others remember the I-SPY Books. I used the books regularly as a child in the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), was a member of the I-SPY Tribe and won various prizes, including a wigwam (or tent!) I led my own local “patrol” and we met the second Big Chief I-SPY, Arnold Cawthrow, on a number of occasions. He visited my home in Barking twice and mentioned me and my Red Arrow Patrol in a number of his Daily Mail columns. I kept in touch until he retired in 1978 and remember the whole I-SPY experience with much affection.”
I-Spy a sad man!
What sad games do you remember playing as children? How did you keep kids amused on long car journeys?