I-Spy an activity that will thrill 21st Century Boy. Not

“I’M bored, Dad,” moans James, worrying at the Velcro strap on his shoes. “Well, you’re in luck! I’ve got just the things,” I trill – rather too enthusiastically, for I raise his suspicions. But too late – he’s wandered into his own bear-trap.

I spotted them by the till the other day. I-Spy books! Hadn’t seen those since, well, petrol was about 35p a gallon, I should think (1972-ish). Actually, I’m a bit slow on the uptake, since a new incarnation of a dozen new I-Spy titles hit the stores in time for Christmas 2009, published by Michelin, the maps-and-tyres people.

For those who have been on a desert island for 60-odd years (like the NHS, the iconic series was born in 1948) the point of the books is that you tick off versions of different things as you spot them – cars, flags, creepy crawlies and so on – and score points for your efforts.

Until relatively recently, the books had been absent from our lives for a decade and were brought back by popular demand. You can understand why there was a clamour. Parents driven to distraction by the stay-indoors PlayStation/Xbox/Wii era ensnaring their offspring have been yearning for an antidote – and recalled the simplicity of their own childhood, when imagination, curiosity and a pencil were all one needed to have fun. And batteries didn’t run out.

It was all a bit Secret Seven and Famous Five-ish, admittedly – lashings of ginger beer and stale cake the perfect accompaniment to a hard day’s searching for 25 types of seaside shells or wildflowers – but there’s nothing wrong in that. With the world bent on going to Hell in a handcart, wallowing in nostalgia is balm enough to nurse me through the day . . . or at least several depressing news bulletins.

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I can’t remember precisely the titles I had as a child (probably they were about number-plates or the seashore) but I never amassed enough points to post off the book to Wigwam-by-the-Water so Big Chief I-Spy could send me a badge. I’ve now bought a couple of the modern editions but James doesn’t seem taken with the idea of going to the park to seek dunnocks, dippers, buzzards or barn owls. “Have they got one with Manchester United players?” he asks, listlessly.

“Come on!” I cajole. “I need only to tick a Corsican pine, turkey oak and a crack willow in my Trees book and I’ll have 1,000 points – enough to persuade the Big Chief to email me a certificate. Send off tokens from five books, and a quid, and I’ll get a badge. OK, it’s 40 years too late, but doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun? James . . . ? James . . . ?”

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