For another project I was recently asked to write something that in a way would introduce me to people I hadn’t previously met. Having sweated over the keyboard for a while, and having produced the following garbled copy just in time to meet the deadline, I’ve decided to squeeze as much use out of it as I can and so am reproducing it here!

“The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

R.L. Stevenson

I dislike writing about myself. Handicapped as I am by my rugged good looks, my many talents, my incredible record of successes, my 20-page-long curriculum vitae and my glittering intelligence, I always risk unwittingly displaying an off-putting level of immodesty, so I tend to hide the light of these collective encumbrances beneath the bushel of shy reticence. Rather than producing a tedious biography, I shall instead share an episode from my distant past that might shine a light on who I am today.

I was once a member of a Red Indian tribe. Not the Cherokee, or the Apache, or the Cree, but an even more formidable group, The I SPY Tribe of youthful redskins. Indeed, not only was I a member, but I was second-in-command to Big Chief I SPY himself, and my job title was “Hawkeye.”

The Big Chief was one Arnold Cawthrow, an extravagantly camp bon-viveur in his sixties, who combined the taxing role of leading a tribe of about a million youngsters, writing I SPY Books and a daily column in the Daily Mail (an organ he hated with a vengeance) with running an antique shop in London’s Camden Passage. Arnold moved in the impossibly glamorous (to me) “dahling” world of film and theatre, and I would occasionally get to meet someone then-famous but since forgotten, who, I have to say, would usually be much less god- or goddess-like in the flesh.

Arnold chain-smoked absent-mindedly, lighting each cigarette from its predecessor, then forgetting it, leaving it smouldering in an ashtray, or he would smoke while leaning over your shoulder, the cigarette dangling between his languorous fingers burning forgotten until its column of ash fell into the typewriter or onto the artwork or photograph you were working on, to be brushed aside with an “oh fuck!” The walls of his office, the nucleus of “The Wigwam By The Green” (a nondescript two-storey office block in Paddington that looked out on the bustle of Church Street market) were decorated with various battered “ethnic” objects he presumably couldn’t sell in his shop. There were some blunt spears, a few worn-out bows and arrows, a faded shield or two, a couple of clubs, all of them African, most of them probably fakes. There was also a small menagerie of badly-stuffed animals, many of which were leaking their sawdusty contents. All these objects were regularly taken to publicity events, where we would erect a tepee and embellish it with a mixture of artefacts that no North American indigenous person would recognise. This of course was before the advent of our present sensitivity towards other cultures, a time when Red Indians were still either the stuff of comic strips or were those impassive folk who appeared on the horizon in western movies before attacking wagon trains and abducting cowgirls.

Though his vocabulary of expletives matched his youthful career in the navy (later he became, of all things, a social worker) Arnold’s favourite exclamation on hearing or seeing anything out of the ordinary, was a long-drawn-out “chaarming!” accompanied by archly raised eyebrows, a wave of his cigarette and another shower of ash. He drove his dented blue Renault (registration SPY 999) with utter disregard for every other road user. Apart from a few actresses, Arnold didn’t get on comfortably with women (I won’t insert his expletives). He didn’t like baptists or Scotsmen either (more expletives) which was difficult because our Managing Director was a baptist and the Daily Mail seemed to be staffed entirely by men from north of the border. I’m not sure that he liked children all that much, which added another level of irritation to his working life.

Hawkeye’s job was to communicate with tribe members in ISPY code, to fact-check, update and edit the I SPY books, to make sure that accurate copy was supplied to the Daily Mail (this entailed a weekly trip to Fleet Street, and handing our sheaf of text and illustrations to a Scots sub editor in a vast room filled with smoke and chip paper in a building that was shaken by the great rumbling printing presses in the basement). I also had to source photographs, which in those pre-Internet days involved many hours spent in badly-catalogued photo libraries, either peering at 35mm slides or tugging dog-eared prints from dusty manila envelopes. I once even used the Izvestia photo library. I drew a few graphics and answered the enquiries of adults – who we defined as “palefaces” and who were usually calling or writing to resolve bets on which was the longest river in England, or the coldest day ever, or how to spell Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. I often cheated by in turn phoning up one of the quality newspapers, which in those days had know-all libraries, and spent much happy time in the Science Museum and Commonwealth Institute libraries, pulling books from the shelves at random.

I would also on occasion have to put on an Indian feathered headdress to help staff the I SPY tepee at shows. As a prematurely balding, freckled, red-bearded Englishman I presented an unconvincing brave, but the little redskins didn’t seem to mind.

The best part of my job, however, was simply being curious, being free to look at the world of places and things, of castles and canals, of streets and seashores, through the gaze of Hawkeye, spotting stuff that I could draw to the attention of the I SPY tribe: coal hole covers, mounting blocks, mileposts, crinkum crankum fences, ha has, voles, Whip Ma Whop Ma Gate, tadpoles, cruck cottages, transporter bridges, lichens, coracles, garderobes, Victorian pillar boxes, thrips, semaphore signals, follies, pargetting, steam engines, dolls houses, Devil’s Toenails and flint axes. All of them worth 10 points or so to an I SPY redskin, but to me, adding rich detail and fascination to daily life.

Today I still read the lettering on manhole covers, still spot fire insurance plaques, still peer into garderobes, still look underneath stones, still follow long-abandoned tramways, still take photographs of toadstools, still smile at ha has and crinkum crankum fences, still explore green lanes and hollow ways, still enthuse over liverworts, still jump on trig points.

Except that I’ve never since worn a red indian headdress, I guess I’ve never stopped being Hawkeye.