Spend any time in traffic these days and you’ll see a profusion of seatback-mounted screens, both of the factory-fitted persuasion and aftermarket accessory type. While some of these systems might be employed to nourish the mind of some king of industry as they relax in coddling limousine luxury, the majority are used to hypnotize back seat children into a comatose trance to prevent world war three breaking out on a long journey. Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
Having not yet sired offspring of my own, I can only hope that today’s family voyages haven’t abandoned all the traditional in-flight entertainment of old, where we’d make up ‘amusing’ games to help us while away the miles. Games that involved license plate letters, for example, or perhaps a good session of “I-Spy” – although the latter could grow a bit tiresome if one passenger was a bit more pedantic and nerdy than the others. I should imagine.
Fortunately, to try and keep I-Spy challenges on a fair and level playing field, a chap called Charles Warrell offered help in the form of his I-Spy books. Let’s take a look at one from 1964.
“What fun it is! You never know what fascinating vehicle might come round the corner next. It’s good, too, for you to become “traffic conscious” — it may save save your life one day”
Charles Warrell could be said to have a pretty sound understanding of kids in the late 1940s when the first of his little spotting guides was published. He was a school headteacher at the time, and Wikipedia cites the BBC as saying that Warrell ‘originally created the books as a method of keeping children entertained and stimulated on long car journeys’. The books were seized upon by the former News Chronicle newspaper, and published to a hungry and appreciative audience that lapped them up for decades to come.
There were numerous titles, some as precise as ‘Cars’, ‘Aircraft’, ‘Bridges’ and ‘Dogs’, others as all-encompassing as ‘The Sights of London’, ‘On the road’ and this little volume ‘Road transport’. I found it in a local charity bookshop, and for £1, thought it deserved to be given a home.
At some point in time, somebody, presumably a child, loved this little book. In fact, the name ‘J Godfrey’ is written inside the front cover, and the same ink appears on the pages where mobile libraries, ventilated vans and many besides have been excitedly recorded. The dates span between late ’66 and mid ’67, so its ninepenny price clearly afforded entertainment for at least a little while. And now, 51 years later, it does the same for me, too.
There’s so much joy to be found among its unnumbered pages, not just from nostalgia for a bygone age (this was published 15 years before I was born), but from the beautifully drawn plates that illustrate it. And, of course, the vehicles detailed herein, which seem far more varied than the anonymous parade of vans and trucks that patrol our tedious motorways in the 21st century. I had little comprehension that there had ever been a ‘mobile coal office’, for example.
More distressing still is the thought that this kind of clean, cerebral in-car entertainment is likely to prove rather tame to anybody old enough to think of things aside from eating, sleeping and pooping. I fear that, not only is a pre-formed list of things to look out for on the road — no matter how artfully presented — likely to prove far too regimented to distract kids from whatever high-octane action is unfolding on the screen, phone or tablet in front of them, but those kids of an age where image matters might anticipate being outed as a a geek or nerd by their peers.
It’s a great tragedy that, in any circumstance other than for shopping list purposes, the act of producing a special little book from your pocket is a deeply unfashionable thing to do, made even more offensive should you jot little notes in it in the manner of our hero Godfrey in the 1960s. Such a shame. Were trains potting to regain popular appeal, for example, I’d be there to support my offspring with no shame whatsoever.
Still, though perhaps they’re not quite the popular phenomenon they once were, you can still find a generation of I-Spy books around today. Michelin travel publications took the series over in 1991, then kind of lost interest before rekindling it 2009. While they maintain a similar pocket-friendly format, the former monochrome drawings have been replaced with colour photographs that aren’t nearly as charming. What hasn’t survived, though, is the competitive element and the reward that waits for those who spot every vehicle listed in their I-Spy book.
Should you amass 1,500 points, you could gain an ‘Order of Merit’ if you submitted your book for inspection by Big Chief I-Spy, who gave his unlikely professional address as Wigwam-by-the-water, 4 Upper Thames Street, London EC4. Alas, a look on Google Maps reveals a disappointing lack of conical canvas tents with smoke billowing from the top, and rather more in the way of sleek glass-fronted offices with Victoran pastiche engineered into the stonework. The ‘red indian’ theme was quietly shelved some decades ago, which seems eminently sensible but a bit of a shame.
(All images are of an actual, physical 1964 I-Spy book of Road Transport, owned and photographed by me, who will cherish it forever. And possibly continue the good work of one I Godfrey.)