Wednesday, 12 September 2018

I-Spy

The charity shop that keeps returning my boyhood to me – in the form of Ladybird bookscigarette card albums, etc – has done it again. Yesterday it had a window display devoted to another staple of my childhood – I-Spy Books. These were little illustrated books that encouraged children to look about them and score points for the things they spotted, graded according to rarity value. Titles – a dozen or so of which were lined up in the window – included such categories as 'At the Seaside', 'On the Farm', 'Cars', 'Churches' and even 'People'. I restricted myself to buying one title – 'Butterflies and Moths', one of the 'I-Spy Colour Series' (only a third of which, the middle 16 pages, is in colour). This edition was published in 1964 by The Dickens Press, a publishing offshoot of the News Chronicle newspaper, and priced at one shilling.
  The introduction does not inspire a lot of confidence, with its bold statement that there are 700 species of butterflies in the UK (the actual figure is 59, with around two and a half thousand moth species), but the illustrations are competent, and about as useful as they can be when two-thirds of them are in black-and-white. Of the 63 species shown, 30 are moths – 'you need only leave your light on, your window open, and on a summer evening they'll come to you!', the introduction breezily declares. My copy was apparently owned by a child living in the Coulsdon area in the late Sixties, who doesn't seem to have put much effort into his/her I-Spying – a couple of moths spotted 'at the shops', a few common butterflies 'on the downs' and, on 26 June 1967, also 'on the downs', a Swallowtail, scoring a maximum 50 points and entirely shattering the credibility of this particular I-Spyer.
  For the serious butterfly-and-moth I-Spyer, the aim would have been to spot everything in the book, send it in, and score the maximum 1,500 points, thereby earning the 'Tribal Rank of LEPIDOPTERIST – First Class'. Failing that, 1,250 points would earn 'Second Class Honours'. The duly filled-in book had to be sent to this address:
Big Chief I-SPY
Wigwam-by-the-Water
4 Upper Thames St
London, E.C.4.
  Big Chief I-Spy (originally a former headmaster called Charles Warrell) was the head of the I-Spy Tribe of 'Red-skins'*, who wore a badge, used secret signs to make themselves know to fellow tribe members, and had a code book to decipher messages from the Big Chief. At its peak in the Fifties, the I-Spy Tribe numbered a million and a half young Red-skins. (I was not of their number.)
  In the words of Big Chief I-Spy, 'Odhu/intinngo, Redskin!' Anyone out there got a code book?

* Cultural appropriation alert.

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