Monday, 5 December 2011


Some things you remember from childhood so clearly. Others fade with time. Some things stay with you for ever, but you can't remember their names. I remember a gorgeous illustrated book about a family living in a lighthouse on the north-east coast of America, full of icy blue sea and wild cranberries; I've completely forgotten the title, but that for me is what Maine should be (if I ever go there, will it be different?)

I-Spy books though remain a readily identifiable part of my childhood. I'm slightly perturbed that they've been relaunched - I rather liked the venerable distance that I'd established.

What was the attraction of the I-Spy books? I don't think I ever actually completed one or sent one off to Big Chief I-Spy for my Indian feather. But the books did something no other books did; they made you read the book and then go back and look at the world differently. (I know, that's supposed to be what great art does. I-Spy isn't great art; but it still showed me that a book is something that isn't escapism, that doesn't just get read and then put back on a shelf - that a book is a way of looking at the world. Evehalf-decent book is a pair of binoculars.)

And like another favourite format of mine, the Shire paperbacks, the I-Spy book was just big enough, and not too big. There was just enough in it to set you off, and enough for it to seem complete - but it wasn't daunting to a youngster.

Then there was also the enjoyable fiction of the secret codes, the secret words, OD HUNATINGO, the wig-wam, the badges. All my love I've rather loved in-jokes, romans à clef; when I was at Cambridge I made an eighteenth-century pastiche notice for my door stating that 'the honble Scholler is not now receiving' (in retrospect that feels rather childish, if well executed). A meretricious pleasure, I suppose, given that way we so often use shibboleths to exclude (by class, by race, by politics)...  but it got into my blood early on.

And I-Spy explained some marvellous secrets. It actually told you what the track signs on British railways meant; something that continues to fascinate me to this day (almost as much as the 'ghost stations' of the London Underground).

I suppose the Red Indian concept wouldn't work any more. I don't remember an I-Spy book of Native Americans... But there was an English fascination with the American native; I read all of Grey Owl's books as a child, too, never realising that Grey Owl of the Canadian wilderness was actually an Englishman. (Though not a fake; he married an Ojibway woman and lived with the Ojibway people, and his concern for the environment was real, too.)

So no wonder I remember the I-Spy books. Well, even if there's no Big Chief I-Spy, and even if writing away to Hawkeye has now been replaced by getting a downloadable certificate, I'm glad they're being given to another generation of children. But I think I may not want to see the new books myself. Let's keep my memories undisturbed.

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