I was a speccy
My nephew Edward has just been given a Harry Potter outfit which he wears on top of his Spiderman costume so that he can quickly put on his glasses and turn from warrior to wizard in a trice. The specs are important, because specs are now rad, wicked, bad, barry, and definitely not sad. Small boys around the country are donning the horn rims and calling their parents Ron and Hermione. Nicole Kidman, Natalie Appleton, and Posh Spice, all make glasses cool, serious, and distinct. Any fashion designer worth their maldon sea salt is working in tortoiseshell, lightweight aluminium, and titanium to create the sleekest of looks. Forget the handbag and shoes girl, it’s getting the frames to match the laptop that counts!
Spectacles were always supposed to be an optical aid rather than an upmarket piece of facial furniture. But now they are almost as important as babies as fashion accessories. There’s been a seismic shift in the technology from something that helps you see better to something that now just makes you look good. The availability of thinner lenses, or the fact that so many people have contacts or laser correction have allowed glasses to develop a bizarre almost retro style. You can wear them even if you don't need them! But I resent the fact that I was born thirty years too early. Before Harry Potter the fact that you needed to wear a pair of glasses was a positive embarrassment; the preserve of wimpy swots who were good at science and useless at games. Brains wore spectacles; Captain Scarlet, indestructible, did not. The brother of my first ever girlfriend remarked: ‘I bet he’s no good. I bet he’s got red hair and glasses.’ This was indeed the case.
For in the sixties there were only two choices of NHS spectacles; black for boys and pink for girls. Neither looked good. They also broke with regularity and ease. Football could sometimes be played with your glasses on; rugby never, and so, inevitably, they snapped either at the bridge or on the sides. I tried everything- elastoplast, sellotape, u-hue, araldite, even blue tack but even the most supreme meccano addict could not help with the mending. It was what Anthony Powell might call a Widmerpool moment. As soon as a pair of glasses snapped I was condemned by my failure in optical engineering to live amidst that lower level of school society, beneath even the swots. These were the shy, the gangly, the awkward; people whose voices had not yet broken; the pyromaniacs, the mummy missers, and worst of all, the people who actually liked classical music. Here, cooking cheese on toast on a lethal piece of asbestos over a Bunsen burner, I would live in a Dantesque limbo, surrounded by wonkily bandaged spectacle wearing acquaintances (who are probably now making millions by genetically engineering onions). Only the works of John Betjeman and his teddy bear stood as solace. It was hopeless. Even joining the Christian society in a last desperate attempt to meet girls bore no fruit. I was a speccy.
Throughout adolescence I wanted straight black hair, blue eyes and no specs at all. Because when Dorothy Parker observed that ‘ men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses’ she must have known that the reverse was also true, My optician once tried to encourage me by saying that I could turn my astigmatism into an advantage by using short-sight as a chat up line. ‘ Just say to them; ‘I have lemon shaped eyeballs.’’’ It never worked. I might as well have said I was a gynaecologist.
But, with advancing middle age I have learned that there is a curious advantage to myopia. To have the choice of between two different ways of seeing the world is a strange luxury. Without glasses the business of living is a softer affair. The shortsighted person has to guess at shape and form, filling in details from either memory or dream. But as soon as spectacles are worn everything becomes clearer, sharper, larger, rounder and louder. Distance is thrown into focus, and sometimes unbearably so. This may sound precious, but there is a strange paradox about the condition. A short sighted person wants to examine things close to, to look at life with all its flaws, and yet, at the same time, to hold it at a distance. If I was making a film about the condition it would be filled with close ups without glasses, and long shots with spectacles. There would be no mid shots or middle distance like a photographer only using a wide angle or a close up lens. For we shortsighted people do not like to see the world normally. We look in a concentrated manner or not at all, for we cannot bear very much reality; and then, when night falls and we take our spectacles off, we look with softer eyes and the world becomes young again. A familiar haze descends and life becomes less threatening. Some people prefer it this way. I once heard of a man with perfect vision who went to his optician and asked for a pair of prescription spectacles one diopter down so that he could see the world less clearly: for it was all too sharp. He too wanted to look at the world with softer eyes.
Perhaps this is why Monet’s water lilies and other impressionist paintings are so popular; they reflect the shortsighted way of viewing the world, through a mist, darkly, as if our lives are no more than dreams. When the painter Cezanne was offered a pair of spectacles to correct his ailing sight he is said to have replied: ‘Take those vulgar things away.’ Perhaps flawed sight makes the worlds imperfections easier to bear. If only I had known that when I was a child.