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Books

The benefit of glasses for middle-aged eyes

At the age of 47, Travis Elborough realised that his glasses were both part of how he looks and how he appears to others. His new book Through the Looking Glass has given him a new perspective on his spectacles.

At the age of 47, after putting it off for nearly two years, I finally bit the not inconsiderable financial bullet and accepted that I needed varifocals. If the pain of purchasing these particular spectacles was borne mainly in the wallet, my ego was correspondingly bruised. Time has been reasonably kind to me. I still have a full head of mostly brown hair and all my own teeth. But here were my eyes showing their age, as the optician tactfully explained. As windows to my soul, they’d always been somewhat faulty, myopic with a slight astigmatism, and needing double glazing since I was around ten. Now, however, they were letting me down, not so much by being weak, but by shattering a much cherished illusion that I was still a young-ish man.

In the famous “Seven Ages of Man” speech in William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, glasses are synonymous with becoming an old codger, as Jacques describes the sixth age as shifting: “Into the lean and slippered pantaloon. With spectacles on nose and pouch on side.” I was only ten when I got my first pair, the classic bog-standard, square-framed NHS numbers in sturdy brown plastic.

Now, though, the optician, worried by something he’d seen in the back of my middle-aged eyes, also referred me to Moorfields Eye Hospital for tests for glaucoma. The terrifying spectre of a future when I might actually be beyond the help of glasses suddenly made me realise how vital these things on my face have been. And yet I’d completely taken them for granted, scarcely giving a thought to an invention arguably as transformative as the wheel or tinned food.

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For the next couple of years (and until lockdown curtailed such outings) I pored over books, journals and catalogues in The College of Optometrists’ library in London. I visited the Algha Works, a spectacle-making factory in Hackney Wick that has been churning out glasses since 1932, and spoke to ophthalmic opticians, members of the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers and the Ophthalmic Antiques International Collectors’ Club. And I probably re-watched The Ipcress File about 20 times. All to produce Through the Looking Glasses: The Spectacular Life of Spectacles, my personal and cultural history of glasses, calculated to be worn by some four billion people across the world.

Glasses are both how I look, in the sense of aiding my vision, and how I look to others, since I am rarely without them on

The book moves from early theories of how the eye worked right up to wearable tech and the augmented reality of Google-style smart glasses, taking in such delightful models as the pince-nez, tortoiseshell Windsors and Ray-Ban aviator shades, along with iconic spectacle wearers such as Harold Lloyd, Buddy Holly and Gloria Steinem, along the way.

As I was to discover, and fittingly perhaps, the origins of spectacles are decidedly hazy. Lenses of a kind might date back as far as ancient Mesopotamia; the Roman Emperor Nero is reputed to have watched gladiatorial contests with the aid of an emerald or piece of green crystal to sooth or shade his eyes. Elsewhere, the Stoic philosopher Seneca noted the magnifying effect of looking at things through a globe filled with water. But the earliest known reference to spectacles themselves doesn’t come until the Middle Ages, in the text of a sermon delivered in a Dominican monastery in Florence. This document pegs the date of their creation at around 1286 and their birthplace as Pisa – hometown later to that other great Italian optical innovator, Galileo.

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The very first kind of glasses were nose-spectacles, primitive devices comprised of two disc-shaped frames fashioned in wood, metal or animal bone and simply riveted together. It would be another two hundred years before glasses with concave lenses for the short-sighted arrived. More astonishingly still, spectacles with side-pieces to keep them firmly in place were not to appear until the 1720s, though the Chinese and the Spanish had earlier perfected a method of fixing glasses to the head with cords or ribbons, which mysteriously failed to catch on anywhere else.

In Spain, unusually, spectacles also became incredibly fashionable for women in the 16th century. Larger and more ostentatious glasses were an indication of wealth and rank, with even those who didn’t need them donning them to keep up with the trend. A phenomenon that has parallels with the geek chic of more recent times, with the likes of Urban Outfitters stocking clear-lensed eyewear for the style-conscious but visually unimpaired.

For myself, as for most bespectacled types, I suspect, glasses are both how I look, in the sense of aiding my vision, and how I look to others, since I am rarely without them on. Writing this book has made me see spectacles with renewed respect and proved eye-opening in every sense of the word, something I hope readers, regardless of their prescriptions, will experience too.

Travis Elborough’s Through the Looking Glass is out now

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