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. Rachael says:

    I love the way you are collecting the I spy books because do you remember when Vivienne Westwood was ranting about the end of humanity on Jonathan Ross, she said something like ‘ You’ve got to understand the world you live in, go to a gallery and put something in and take something out, and when you’re in the country learn all the names of the flowers, and then you’ll stop buying all this crap, it could be so brilliant” So yes! Every consumer should be given the I spy series

  2. Kate says:

    Felix, you are a genius. I love this post, and your sonic equivalent of the I SPY topos will be amazing. I am already dreaming of I HEAR AUTUMN.

    There have been a couple of walks I have been on recently when I’ve wished that you were there for plant identification purposes (as well as for other reasons) “Felix would know what this is.. . . “&c With the trusty I SPY in your pocket you are clearly unstoppable.

    And what’s wrong with integrating your collecting instincts into your investigatory approach to landscape? Surely its all about curiosity?

    Love the detail of the marginalia in those books — a weasel in ones garden! What could be better!

  3. Felix says:

    I love the Vivenne Westwood quote!

    I think with my thoughts on the collecting instinct/landscape appreciation dilemma, I have taken the words of Mike Parker to heart rather deeply! In his amazing Map Addict book, he rounds up with some reflection on how his addiction to OS Maps sometimes means he is too busy looking at the maps to experience the landscape itself, and he says some good things about how sometimes the representation of land (a map, an I SPY illustration) can supplant the land itself, in one’s imagination.

    All good points maybe, but I like your exuberant support for being an unselfconscious collector/landscape investigator too!

    I can’t believe I managed to write this whole post without using the word PLAYFUL anywhere, as playfulness is clearly one of the best features of the I SPY books and collecting is part of that fun.

  4. lara says:

    I *heart* i spy books because it appeals to my inner list-making obsessive compulsive nature! Something so satisfying ticking things off (I also own up to having quite an active birdwatching tick list still) but like you I used to get the arse when I couldn’t find quite the thing I needed and would have much rows on occasion with the sister about such things. I also think there could be something in the Richard Long exhibition where he recorded the same things in the same order on walks in Devon and in Japan – it was like a sophisticated I Spy list. (I was imagining an I spy style pull out for the biodiversity feature of The Knitting Forecast with little line drawers for species found on sheep grazed land!)

  5. Rachael says:

    I’ve been wanting something just like that since I’ve just moved to an entirely new landscape. I particularly want a guide to the geology of places. I HEAR would be super cool.

  6. colleen says:

    What a brilliant idea – I HEAR. Reading this blog over the last however long has made me much more conscious of what I hear and in a marshy walk this weekend my jpourney was as much about the way the sounds changed as the landscape. So thank you. My own childhood was not populated with I SPY – in fact I was always deeply disappointed that the only autumn leaves I could find came from plane trees and the only birds I saw were pigeons and sparrows. Never too late though to score.

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

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