Does anyone else remember the old I SPY books?

I have recently taken to collecting old I SPY books via ebay and I must confess to having become mildly obsessed. There are several reasons for this. I SPY books are immensely well-designed objects. The clear instructions, unfussy typefaces and excellent illustrations are genuinely useful for identifying plants, animals and objects. And there is something pleasingly utilitarian in the construction and size of I SPY books; they are small enough to fit inside a pocket and hardwearing enough to be taken outdoors, and they contain pithy explanations which mean that minimal amounts of time are spent looking at them, leaving maximum time for experiencing the things they refer to.

I have spent years wandering about in both the UK and Ireland, frustrated by the inscrutable nature of places and the things, creatures and plants that inhabit them. I’ve been haunted by questions about why things appear and feel as they do from one location to the next and am now keen – as I hope my recent activities on this blog reflect – to understand places and our relationship to them in more depth. But while I am always delighted to read about places in lengthy, historic, text-only tomes, I find that the exuberant design of the I SPY books perfectly captures the excitement of discovery that attends a journey into an unknown territory and can also, conversely, make the familiar seem suddenly strange or exotic. While I am not going to compare SPYING some random countryside items with conducting an indepth historical research project into a specific landscape, I am going to say that sometimes the little bit of information you can glean from an I SPY book is enough to make you feel more connected to your surroundings; I think this is a good thing.

For instance these are Black Bryony berries, trailing redolently across some far less ostentatious Hawthorn. I know this because yesterday, whilst eating my lunch in the middle of a gorgeous forest, I idly flicked through I SPY wild fruits and fungi and matched up the picture of the Bryony berries with the real thing. I was very excited to have a name for this plant and a sense of what this plant has been to people in the past. I like that now I have a route into information about its cultivation and historic associations.

My copy of I SPY wild fruits and fungi has got quite a lot of writing in it, which adds another layer of meaning or context to the book and is almost as fascinating as its officially-published content. I am interested, for instance, in what motivated Malcom A Woollas to fill out this little book so carefully and to bring it with him on numerous adventures in rural places; I am especially interested in finding out where exactly it was in Caythorpe that he spotted Deadly Nightshade plants.

Similarly, in my version of I SPY in the country, a keen-eyed spotter has enthusiastically recorded sightings of many small creatures including a weasel. The childhood home of the I SPY book-owner was clearly situated in a thriving centre of English wildlife since many small mammals were spotted in ‘my garden’ ‘next door’s garden’ and ‘next door but one,’ and all the reptiles (including an Adder) are reported to have been SPIED. I am very jealous of this last point, as I remember distinctly that when myself and my brother had this very copy of I SPY, we quizzed our Father relentlessly on the potential whereabouts of Adders in the UK and were overcome with excitement at the prospect of SPYING one. Perhaps even within the concise I SPY style the writers for the series may have stated which behaviours may be conducive to finding Adders; in my adulthood it is possible to see that bellowing 8 year olds in boots with sticks are not likely to find any Adders (or indeed any healthy creatures) alive but I took the lack of Adders on our childhood rambles very personally and began to resent that unticked box in the I SPY series, along with the boxes beside bee skeps, salmon ladders and clapper stiles.

So I’ve been wondering about the I SPY books. First of all, I am wondering if it runs counter to the aims of I SPY to google the rarer items in the book and organise I SPY roadtrips to go and find them. Would this approach represent a desecration and debasement of the marvellous I SPY books, or does it represent a brilliant synthesis of information technology with the series’ original, enterprising spirit? Secondly, I am wondering if the trophy-hunting mentality of the I SPY books detracts in some way from my engagement with landscape and replaces it with my collecting instincts, and thirdly, I am curious about how I could develop a sonic equivalent to the I SPY series; something along the lines of I HEAR.

All thoughts appreciated.

7 Responses to I SPY / I HEAR

  1. Pingback: The Domestic Soundscape » Blog Archive » I SPY / I HEAR

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