Usborne’s ‘The KnowHow Book of Spycraft’, 1975

Exhibit / July 5, 2018

Object Name: The KnowHow Book of Spycraft
Maker and Year: Usborne Books, 1975
Object Type: Children’s book
Image Source: The author
Description: (Richard McKenna)

During the Cold War, a new archetypal establishment role joined the pantheon of soldiers, cowboys, and cops that often peopled children’s games: the spy. Equipped with false identities, given to using hidden surveillance devices, and communicating in strange codes, this newcomer was perfectly suited to the duplicitous, mistrustful mood that was the constant background noise of the times.

The bloody colonial jostling of the 1800s had given birth to a large-scale espionage culture, the existence of which impressed itself indelibly upon European public consciousness with the antisemitic miscarriage of justice known as the Dreyfus Affair: the 1894 sentencing of French artillery officer Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment on charges of spying. Dreyfus was eventually given a full pardon in 1906, and spies—real and fictional—infested the popular culture of the twentieth century right from its earliest moments. The first decade alone saw the release of three seminal spy books: Rudyard Kipling’s 1901 Kim, Erskine Childers’ 1903 The Riddle of the Sands, and Joseph Conrad’s 1907 The Secret Agent. The espionage entailed by two World Wars made the spy an increasingly ubiquitous figure, and the standoff between opposing blocs that followed ensured that the cold war spy—epitomized by the titular Third Man in Carol Reed’s 1949 thriller—would hover in the background of popular culture for decades more.

In books like 1955’s The Quiet American and 1978’s The Human FactorThe Third Man‘s author Graham Greene came to be associated with a certain type of spy “entertainment,” which helped spawn an espionage genre: unglamorous bureaucrats working for a faceless, class-based bureaucracy riddled with moles and inefficiency and charged with grimly maintaining the prevailing order, as subsequently embodied to varying degrees by British author John le Carré’s George Smiley, Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer (most memorably brought to cinematic life in Ken Russell’s 1967 Billion Dollar Brain), and David Callan, protagonist of the British TV series Callan, which ran from 1967 to 1972.

It was the other face of popular culture espionage that was the real driving force behind spy popularity, of course: the decidedly glamorous film adaptations of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and their imitators, like The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s Napoleon Solo. TV shows, films, and books depicting the adventures of suave, womanizing secret agents working for sleek, hi-tech organizations proliferated. With them came spy toys designed for juvenile espionage fun: code sets, disguise kits, invisible ink, and briefcases containing false passport, hidden weapons, and coding devices. Anyone who has spent time with children knows just how much deviousness, dissembling, and withholding information are part of the toolkit they employ to cope with the surveillance state enforced by nosey grown-ups. It’s therefore no surprise that the figure of the spy resonated so forcefully with them. Released the same year that the Vietnam War ended and the the joint U.S.–Soviet Apollo–Soyuz space flights began, The KnowHow Book of Spycraft was an incongruous addition to the KnowHow series, most of which was made up of less worrying titles, like The KnowHow Book of Puppets and The KnowHow Book of Jokes and Tricks.

Usborne books had been founded a couple of years earlier by Peter Usborne, who had previously co-founded the long-running political satire magazine Private Eye in 1961 while training as an account executive in an advertising agency. After entering children’s publishing with a job in Macdonald Educational, where he devised the format of the company’s popular Starters books, he decided to launch his own children’s book company. Usborne’s approach differed from that of other publishers: most of its books were conceived, written, and designed by an in-house staff, with the company investing lavishly in their creation and in the eye-catching artwork. The result was a series of colorful, modern-feeling, memorable books—-the company’s wonderful World of the Future trilogy being just one example—that made a lasting impact upon the minds of the children who read them.

Seemingly set in an unspecified, vaguely Mitteleuropean locale, The KnowHow Book of Spycraft took as its template not the Bonds but the unprepossessing agents of le Carré’s Circus. Clad in a raincoat, black hat, and sunglasses, with mustache and sideburns lending a touch of contemporary ’70s brio, the KnowHow spy eschews seduction and murder, concentrating his (only male spies are shown) energies on surveillance, disguise, and the secret communication of information, all shown in the book’s wonderfully evocative art by Colin King, who would go on to provide many more illustrations for the company. Despite its cheery mien and brightly-colored illustrations, however, there is an oddly lugubrious undertone to the book. No hint of what secrets are being exchanged is given, nor of what forces the agents represent—but spies implicitly inhabit a dangerous world of subterfuge and deceit, and so constant threat must be presumed.

It’s instructive to compare The KnowHow Book of Spycraft with another, more recent publication: Simon Menner’s 2013 book Top Secret: Images from the Stasi Archives. In it, Menner collects photographs found in the archives of the East German State Security Service. What is most surprising about the images, apart from how absurd and amateurish many of them appear, is how often they parallel those in The KnowHow Book of Spycraft. The photos of the same awkward-looking operative adopting various forms of facial disguise are almost too similar to the Usborne version to credit, as is the image of the raincoated, bespectacled operative who could almost have stepped directly from the pages of Spycraft. Comparison of the two leaves one with the disconcerting sensation that the line between childish game and oppressive surveillance culture is strangely indistinct.

3 thoughts on “Usborne’s ‘The KnowHow Book of Spycraft’, 1975

  1. I loved the KnowHow series and was always borrowing them from the school library. There was also a KnowHow Book of Detection that made a nice companion volume to Spycraft.

  2. Pingback: Usborne’s ‘World of the Unknown: UFO’s’, 1977

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