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My beautiful lorgnette

Cultural historian Travis Elborough’s latest book looks at the joy of specs. A rheumy-eyed Stephen Griffin takes a peep

02 September, 2021 — By Stephen Griffin

Photo: Oladimeji Odunsi on Unsplash

IT was that scene in Luis Bunuel’s Le Chien Andalou that did it for me. You know, that eyeball being slit bit.

Never particularly comfortable with contact lenses, that image was what flashed into my mind every time I attempted to insert one. So that – coupled with a “vessel ingrowth” (!) – is what sent me scurrying back to glasses… or rather “spectacles” as my optician insists on calling them.

I was lucky: my decision coincided with glasses, sorry spectacles, enjoying a style renaissance – so much so a fashion-conscious friend of mine blessed with 20:20 vision bought some prescription-free frames just for their cosmetic appeal. To those of us cursed with myopia, his decision was a mystery. For us Mr Magoos, why anyone would elect to perch great lumps of plastic on their nose when they don’t need to is bizarre.

Apparently I’m one of an estimated four billion reliant on specs, so cultural historian Travis Elborough potentially has four billion takers for Through the Looking Glasses, his exhaustive, illuminating celebration of eyewear.

Having previously cast his forensic eye over public parks, vinyl and the British seaside, Elborough proves to be an endlessly entertaining and informative guide, cheerfully taking us down ocular rabbit holes (his footnotes are as engaging as his text) with evident glee.

Not only does he deal with the history of specs – they date, he says, from around 1286, probably in Pisa although maybe, as ever, the Chinese got there first – but also eyewear’s bearing on our culture.

Medieval medics, we learn, weren’t too fond of visual aids, recommending instead nightly eye balms, including one composed of melted butter and “the sour urine of a man mixed with a little fat of a capon liquified by the sun’s heat or a fire”.

And for many years, in the same way that television was deemed detrimental to eyesight, the wearing of spectacles for any length of time was discouraged. Hence the popularity of the monocle, the lorgnette and the 18th-century dandy’s “quizzing glass”. Arms on specs arrived comparatively late in the 1720s.

Of course prior to the invention of the printing press few people could read so aids to vision were not considered that vital. And this seems to be where the notion of the speccy nerd comes in. If you had good distant vision you were more likely to be a hunter / warrior – a hero – whereas the short-sighted were confined to the cloisters or the book-keepers’ or tailors’ shop.

Elborough’s dramatis personae is impressive: he takes in everyone from Nero and Turner to Dolland and Aitchison. Su Pollard, Christopher Biggins, Jancis Robinson and Timmy Mallet all get a name check – the only surprise is that Dame Edna didn’t make the final cut.

It’s strange how glasses define you – often people can’t see beyond them. Presumably that’s why Superman only has to put on a pair of horn rims to hide his identity. And on the title credits of The Two Ronnies Barker and Corbett didn’t even have to be seen – they were substituted with two pairs of glasses.

In the same way, the silent comic Harold Lloyd could pass unrecognised. “With them,” he once said, “I am Harold Lloyd, without them a private citizen.”

The same cannot be said for Michael Caine, whose glasses almost define him. Apparently it started with 1965’s The Ipcress File. At the suggestion of producer Harry Salzman, Caine was permitted his glasses as, along with a penchant for elaborate coffee-making, it helped establish Harry Palmer’s “anti-Bond” credentials.

Elborough ensures musicians also get the once-over. Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Elton John, John Lennon are all covered – although I particularly like his description of Tom Lehrer’s act – “as if Noel Coward had majored in calculus”.

Glasses, our guide reminds us, have become huge fashion statements. Indeed, most of the couture designers have had a bash at turning out specs – in the same way that they produce scents, I suspect they realised they can flatter less pecunious punters by making their label vaguely affordable… with the added benefit of them fitting.

It’s all a long way from the NHS glasses that my contemporaries and I tolerated.

Twenty-two years after their introduction, in 1970 the trade paper The Optician opined that NHS glasses were regarded as “functional but second best”. Six years later the then health minister Barbara Castle declared the range was so out of date it was like forcing people to wear “a badge of poverty across their faces”.

Of course, in this ironic, post-post-modern era, those very same NHS glasses are considered cool and a pair of the type a gladiolus-bearing Morrissey used to sport will set you back an equally cool £65 (lenses extra).

It’s been a while, so back to me.

As a trendy sort of cove, I was an early adopter of “geek chic”. They may be fairly commonplace now but at the time my spectacles were seen as a bit of a statement. I was once rejected following a job interview with a letter that concluded “however, we really liked your glasses”.

Boy, you know you’re in trouble when your face furniture makes more of an impression than you.

Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles. By Travis Elborough, Hachette, £16.99

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