Tuesday 11 March 2008
These little pocket-size paper covered books were part of the mid-century project to improve young minds at every opportunity. From the seaside to the zoo, from the army to the church, from town and country, train and plane, youngsters were expected to seek out and record all the items that were illustrated. The accumulation of points was their only reward. There was no escape – even the sick child was catered for with volume 36, “In Hospital”. These exercises were designed to encourage a healthy curiosity about the world on the part of the young readership and perhaps guide them towards a sensible career in something like auditing or accountancy where the ability to complete checklists would be valued. An ambitious member of the I-SPY Tribe would have little time for leisure as almost everything that fell within their field of vision could be converted into points. Ball bearings and wheel flanges, kerbstones and lamp posts, shock absorbers and soakaways, nothing was too humble to be without some value. Some things featured in more than one book which must have presented a challenge to the dedicated I-SPY Redskin.
Not being a country boy, the volumes that appealed to me were those dealing with the world of transport and street life and a selection are illustrated here. The environment described in their pages has been transformed and many of the items have disappeared for ever. There might be some fun in devising a contemporary version where the knife-grinder gives way to the crack dealer, the pavement artist gives way to the chainsaw jockey and points are awarded for spying hoodies, binge drinkers, Community Support Officers, bandwidth thieves, tattoo parlours and security cameras. There is more to be read on these fascinating books at Wikipedia and a memoir of Big Chief I-Spy.