“Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips” – Laurence Olivier. (Quote taken from a wonderful New Yorker piece by Roger Angell.)
My eyesight’s never been good, but it was never bad either. When I was a kid, I guessed it might be bad (my dad was four-eyed all through my childhood, until the 90s when he started forcing the primitive contact lenses of the day into his battered orbs) but the reason I pestered my mum for eye-tests wasn’t that.
I wanted to have glasses because intellectuals wore glasses. It’s like I was psychically connected to Pol Pot but had come to different conclusions – instead of wanting to murder all the intelligentsia, I wanted to be them. I was much younger than him, of course, and much less bitter. So the first time I sat in that big leather chair and the man slipped the glass discs into the metal frame with a “better or worse” each time, I was nervous and happy.
And it turned out I needed glasses – not much, but enough to get some cheap NHS plastic specs that looked like they were extruded from the husks of iridescent insects. They didn’t suit me – for years they wouldn’t suit me – but my dad has pictures of this hairy-headed stick insect with the fat head and the chitin eyes.
The glasses helped, a touch. But the weird thing is that they just twisted everything slightly better into focus. Without them, I can see detail at distance and up close equally well – but it’s just blurred. It’s not like it gets more blurred further away, it’s just that closer than a certain point it’s sharp, like a camera lens with a broken focus ring. I suspect I’ve misunderstood something fundamental about the operation of eyes and this is just how everyone experiences the world. But until someone tells me so, I’ll just say that I can see imperfectly better without glasses than I really should be able to.
Perhaps connected to that twist, my eyes have always been odd. Not merely the short-sightedness, nor the colour-blindness, but the interpolation of elements into the world. It would be fairer to say that my brain is odd, to be fair – the interpretative bit is somewhat out of whack, being certain about things it has no right to be. Anything man-height on the street – parking meters, cable boxes – is interpreted as a person, even with my glasses on.
But with my glasses off, ach, it’s a whole nother world. Larger objects get that interpretation, mountains become bent giants, trees become flowers. It’s a psychedelic world at times, especially if I’ve had a few drinks. And a beautiful sky is still a beautiful sky.
What’s notable though, and what prompted this, was that it does something beautiful to people. The reinterpretations of people, particularly women, can be delightfully generous. When I look at an older woman without my glasses on, my vision just fills her in as she might have been when she was younger. Wrinkles are smoothed away, cheeks are filled out, curves are smoothed. I get to see her, as Olivier says at the top there, as she sees herself, “Seventeen with red lips”.
Older men… I see as older men. Men’s body shapes change when they hit an age, especially with the milk-fat Western diet, and the loss of hair is distinctive. But in a rare man, I see that flexibility of foot and spryness of movement, and conceive them as younger than they are.
Similarly, with certain young gangly men, it’s less generous. It fills them in as old earnest men, the sort of gentle English beanpoles we’ve all encountered, particularly if their body language has been aped from an old father. I can think of two slightly-stooped young men I know, who my side-vision tells me need a nice cup of tea and a biscuit.
Now, my eyes are getting worse. I can’t deny that I need my glasses to type now, which I never really needed two years ago. And a companion to this is that these interpretative illusions are happening more. I regret the loss of acuity, obviously; my success in my profession is partially based on vision and accuracy. But I can’t help enjoying the way that it’s making the world more fantastical and beautiful.