Fires of Prometheus

When I was "Hawkeye"

My leading role in the I-SPY Tribe

In Britain there was once 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 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 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 was waning. 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 too good 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 young men, pork chops, Italian food and the theatre. He smoked and coughed continuously, and would regularly drop inches of cigarette ash onto any papers I had on my desk.

Overgenerous, kindhearted, intolerant, grumpy, 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... He also had a tiny, neglected cabin cruiser moored on Reach Lode, which I borrowed once for a short journey marked mostly by the propeller repeatedly becoming choked by weed.

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, a rag that Arnold hated with a vengeance, the main freason being that the sub editors were scottish and he was convinced that they regularly positioned his column where it would be overshadowed by the bridge column. 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 ratgther dull office above a hardware store in Church Street, alongside talented illustrator Lewis Peake. The office walls were hung with battered stuffed alligators, African spears and other objects of doubtful origin, all of which were hung onto Big Chief's wigwam when he took part in events such as the annual Cat Show at Olympia. 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.

Arnold's love of the theatre and films meant that occasionally I got to rub shoulders with celebrities: for example I remember briefly meeting a teenage Emma Thompson at her mother Phyllida Law's home, taking photographs of a grumpy Charlie Drake, and meeting various members of the Carry On cast.

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.

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."

Man wearing a replica feather headdress
Arnold Cawthrow (Big Chief I-SPY) wearing his headdress. For informal events he abandoned most of his costume!

Arnold Cawthrow
Arnold Cawthrow in contemplative mood.

Family group
A photograph taken in c.1936 showing all the members of Arnold Cawthrow's family. Arnold was then 23, second from left, back row, standing next to his uncle wearing his new army uniform. (Photograph copyright Gordon Cawthrow)

A group of people outside a church door.
Arnold Cawthrow pictured attending a family wedding.

A small chapel in Deal, Kent
For a while Cawthrow owned the Boatmen's Rooms, in Deal, Kent, though I'm not sure if he ever lived there.

Covers of two I-SPY books, Archaeology and In the Street
Two I-SPY book covers — the super series I-SPY Archaeology and the regular sized I-SPY in the Street. I took the cover photograph of the latter in Faversham, Kent, having borrowed several children from the nearest primary school. The larger sized books were soon abandoned.

a spread of two pages from I-SPY in the street
A typical spread of two pages from I-SPY in the Street