In England there was once, and perhaps still is, an I-SPY Tribe. It was an organisation innocently insulting of North American aboriginal peoples in that it had, at its head, Big Chief I-SPY, a plump, very pale, very gay white man who donned, on suitable occasions, "Red Indian" gear.
The tribe was based on the I-SPY Books, 40-odd small volumes that sold in hundreds of thousands. They still exist, but now sponsored by Michelin. Each book covered a subject such as I-SPY Cars, I-SPY on the Pavement, I-SPY Churches, I-SPY on the Railway etc. As you spotted objects such as coalhole covers, oak trees, semaphore signals, fire engines, whelks and so on you recorded the event in the relevant book, and gained points. Once the book was complete, you sent it to Big Chief I-SPY for his seal of achievement.
Founded by Charles Warrell and published by the long-defunct News Chronicle, the tribe had been hugely successful at its peak in the 1950s and early 60s, but as children came under the influence of television its popularity waned. Still, when I joined the tribe, print runs for several of the titles were still in six figures.
For a couple of years in the early 70s I was Big Chief I-SPY's assistant "Hawkeye". Red haired, already balding, I didn't look particularly authentic in fake Red Indian feathers, but otherwise I had great fun.
My boss was Arnold Cawthrow, a frightfully camp antiques trader with a shop in Camden Passage and a love of pork chops, Italian food and the London theatre and film world. He smoked and coughed continuously, and would regularly drop inches of cigarette ash onto any papers I had on my desk.
Overgenerous, kindhearted, intolerant, Arnold was constantly, eyebrow-archingly astonished by me, the company for which we worked, everyone we came into contact with. His favourite (repeatable) expletive was "Chaaarming"... He was converting a chapel in Reach, Cambridgeshire, into a home. It had but a single grave in its garden. It amused him tremendously that this was of the chapel's founder...
My job was to keep the I-SPY books up to date and in print, as well as providing material for a little column that ran in the Daily Mail newspaper. I took photographs and created illustrations, as well as researching facts and dealing with enquiries from the Tribe (which seemed to include a lot of adults who had had a bet the previous night in the pub that the biggest x in the world was y and could we confirm it?).
I worked in the Wigwam By The Green Paddington Green that was actually a dull office above a hardware store in Church Street. The office walls were hung with battered stuffed alligators, African spears and other objects of doubtful origin, all of which were taken down and rehung onto Big Chief's teepee when he took part in events such as the annual Cat Show at Olympia. We were joined by Lewis Peake as illustrator. The office was run very efficiently, and Arnold's life controlled just as effectively, by Fatima Sonji. It was a major catastrophe when she left to move to Toronto.
Eventually I went on to other things, Arnold retired and the I-SPY tribe continued to fade. But talk to anyone who was a child in the 1950s and 60s and they'll probably remember I-SPY with affection.
Since I first posted my reminiscences of my days as Hawkeye I've received a very welcome and steady trickle of e-mails from one-time I-SPY "Redskins", sharing with me their remembered pleasures and adding information about Big Chief I-SPY, Arnold Cawthrow.
Gordon Cawthrow (Arnold Cawthrow's nephew) writes:
"Up until the mid seventies, [Arnold] used to return to Yorkshire once or twice a year, where he was born, to see his mother (my grandmother) and the rest of the family.He always used to stay with us for the few days of his visit and bring small gifts as a way of saying thank you. These consisted mainly of old shoes and other items of unwanted clothing, which I assumed were never his! I don't believe my father ever mentioned to him that we could always afford to be properly dressed without his help. In the years before, the gifts were quite predictable, i.e. more I-Spy books than you could shake a stick at. I remember one year that he brought a small, green tent with the words 'NEWS CHRONICLE I-SPY TRIBE' printed on both sides. This was quite novel at the time and made us very popular with the other kids for a while. As a young child, I never thought that his camp behaviour and matching vocabulary were anything out of the ordinary. I always assumed that this was due to him spending too much time in London, but what does a young lad from a Yorkshire pit village know? His mother died in 1975 and his visits became less frequent, although he did come to see us from time to time."
I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Michael Coles of BBC Radio 4, along with former redskin Stephen Challis, as part of series on children's clubs of the 50s and 60s. We revisited Church Street, Paddington, just off Edgware Road, where the Wigwam by the Green was located in the early 70s. Our rather seedy offices have been transformed into a smart, open-plan architect's studio. But outside, the Church Street market was just as it was 30-odd years ago.