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“You are aware of your vulnerability as a wearer of glasses”

Author and cultural commentator, Travis Elborough, on his new history of the show, Through the glasses

Travis Elborough

Small group of brown books

Through the glasses is a cultural history of the spectacle. The book begins with theories of how the eyes work, dating back to ancient times. I discuss some of the earliest known accounts of lentils – of people observing that putting water in a bowl has a magnifying effect.

Then we are in the Middle Ages with the much contested first creation of shows circa 1286 in Pisa, although there are rival claims to this. The book spans the centuries and brings us to the present day, with technologies such as augmented reality glasses.

Small group of brown books

There is an anxiety that comes from the first creation of glasses that “you see more than you should. The idea that it’s against God’s will – you are cheating somehow. The German poet Goethe hated being in the company of anyone wearing glasses because he saw them as a barrier to the soul.

There are now more myopic people in the world, so we are a bigger tribe. The range and variety of eyewear has exploded. Glasses have become fashionable and there is less stigma than in the past.

A friend of mine said to me ‘Do you think people who wear glasses are sweeter?’ In a way, you can’t throw yourself into a punch if you are wearing glasses because they will get knocked over. Wearing glasses must have had an effect on my interactions with others. You are aware of your vulnerability as a wearer of glasses.

I’ve been wearing glasses since I was eight or nine. These were the standard NHS 524 goggles in a spring-loaded holster that felt like they were pulled out of an oyster shell. My wife wears glasses and she also wears contact lenses. When we go to bed, our nightstand looks like the opening credits of The two Ronnies.

My wife is the only person who sees me without glasses. Glasses are both my appearance – in the sense that they are the aid that allows me to see – but they are also very much how I look and how I look. Much of my self-image is that with glasses.

Author and cultural commentator, Travis Elborough, on his new history of the show, Through the glasses

My glasses are a horn-rimmed style in the vein of Michael Caine. The first pair I received was from a vintage store in Greenwich. Since then, they have varied a bit in shape and size. Strangely enough, they’re not a million miles from the first pair of glasses I ever had.

One of the things about writing the book is that it gave me real respect for optometry and glasses and how we got there. It’s a cliché phrase, but they’re really one of those inventions that changed the world.

Author and cultural commentator, Travis Elborough, describes the history of the shows in his book Through the glasses. Previous topics he has explored in the press include buses (The bus we loved: the London affair with the Routemaster), green spaces (A walk in the park) and music albums (Farewell to long players).

• As told to Selina Powell.


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