‘Spies’ on the top deck

More memories of booklets in the famous I-Spy series, with subjects ranging from In the Street and On the Road to the Sky, The Land, In the Country and the Unusual.

More memories of booklets in the famous I-Spy series, with subjects ranging from In the Street and On the Road to the Sky, The Land, In the Country and the Unusual.

Judith Clarke’s article about the 1-Spy Tribe (Best of British, April) reminded me of my early enrolment, along with my older brother, in the News Chronicle ‘Tribe’ which almost certainly sparked by continuing interest in the curious and the unusual.

Travelling by bus in the late 1950s was a slow, tedious, bone-shaking experience. As we weren’t great travellers, my parents attempted to avert disaster by diverting our attention, and the i-Spy books were a godsend. The simple formula involved a series of pocket-sized, pocket money-priced booklets on a range of subjects. Points were awarded for recording sightings of the 100 or so items illustrated dependent on rarity value. The early books, costing 6d, had black and white drawings. Later larger booklets containing coloured illustrations were added, costing a whole shilling.

Prizes were awarded for filling an entire book (an unlikely scenario), with a certificate, and feather for your head-dress awarded for a slightly lower target. We achieved this for several topics.

‘Bagging’ the front seat upstairs on long journeys gave a splendid view. The frequent stops allowed ‘finds’ to be recorded and booklets searched for missing items. In winter, trains were a warmer option than buses, and fortunately the I-Spy booklets included On a Railway Journey. I wonder how many budding train enthusiasts started their careers with that one?

Living in the Farnborough/Aldershot area of Hampshire, we were uniquely placed for tackling Aircraft and The Army – I must be one of few girls completing those titles! having relatives on the South Coast enabled us to seek all things nautical, from beaches to battleships. A trip to London Zoo achieved certificate standard for At the Zoo -Animals and At the Zoo – Birds and Reptiles with good inroads into the Sights of London too.

As well as the booklets there were newspaper features with items to spot. In 1955 an appeal was launched with daily pictures of items to be recorded, along with tokens to send accompanying sightings. The aim was to produce a survey of the curious and unusual throughout Britain. The appeal ran throughout the year. By the summer we’d recorded around 70 items. I was still only five years old but very good at ‘spying’. My 12-year-old brother had the task of writing out and submitting our records.

That summer, staying in Portsmouth, we read that Big Chief l-Spy was to visit Ryde, Isle of Wight, and Redskins (as l-Spy tribe members were known) were invited to meet him. It was a cold and wet day – not a sea crossing, seaside day at all. We caught up with Big Chief in a cafe. Me spotted our badges, invited us over and, upon learning our names, told us he had a prize for us. My parents were less than delighted when handed a two-man tent emblazoned with ‘News Chronicle
l-Spy Tribe’. Carrying that, along with all the picnic and beach paraphernalia, was almost the last straw, but we were delighted. I don’t think my brother felt it quite fair that he had to share. I was a good ‘spy’, but he had done all the writing!

Soon after that my booklets ceased to contain entries. However, I have never lost my ‘eye’ for unusual buildings, customs and features. Today I enjoy recording them on camera. There may not be feathers of certificates, but there is still the thrill of spotting another find.

I never found out if the proposed book was published – maybe another reader will know. Today it would have great value as a social document. So many things were disregarded and removed, particularly in the 1960s before

‘heritage’ became an ‘in’ word. It would be interesting to repeat the exercise for the new century.

Ann Williams.