On Vision


I’ve got one party trick. True, I can mildly impress a limp reveller with my hyper-mobile elbows, I can fit my entire fist into my mouth, and once I nearly met my (suffocated, messy) end during a self-initiated bet about whether I could do the same with an entire box of Crispy Crème donuts. But really, I’ve got one party trick. A real blinder. Find me someone in a pair of glasses – much easier today amongst my gently fashion conscious, 30-something friends than the enviably Disney-eyed companions of my schooldays – tell me their prescription and I’ll take that pathetic minus number, see it, and rocket it mathematically skyward: I have worse eyesight than 99 per cent of people I ever meet.

I wake up and what I see is light and colour and the memory of what my sighted self knows my bedroom looks like distorted into an approximation of reality. I wonder if this is part of what makes it so hard to get up every day. I get out of bed, remember my way around the bedroom and the bathroom (as we all do at night, in the dark, in those half-alive hours of habit) and head straight for my eyes in their pools of saline. Sometimes, if it’s the weekend, or a particularly hopeless day, I put on my glasses instead of my contact lenses, and rebel in the seasick world of semi-sightedness. Blurriness fractures around and into the edge of my glasses’ frames, making me feel dizzy and peculiar, as if I am occupying a different universe: a parallel, less urgent, and dimensionally-warped world.

I perch at the top of the stairs, preparing for descent. I push my glasses tighter to my face. I try to focus through their lenses without being distracted by the queasy provocations of perspective – where I live the stairs and walls are both white which doesn’t help things – but keep missing steps in the confusion, and in the end I push my glasses on top of my head and stumble down in myopic freefall, feet feeling their way down the familiar drops of wood.

Once in the kitchen I open the fridge, recoil at that sour curdling smell (still there, I cringe), and forage for a swiggable carton: even with my glasses pushed firmly back down onto my nose, I don’t attempt boiling water in a kettle. I sit on the sofa. I put a rug around me and root into its depths. I attempt to read, holding the page close to my face (reading is one of the only things I can do well in glasses, but even then, it’s a different thing altogether – I’m too close to the words and the book and the world of it, too alone); I stare at the warping wall. I wonder how long to linger in this blurry consciousness, this imperfectly rendered landscape. Sooner or later, I get tired of feeling half-drunk and go and put my contact lenses in. And when I do, the sharp shock of vision, of the world in all its clarity, stings my eyes.

Officially, I am disabled. My squashed, distended eyeballs skew my vision so much that the world has given this particular one of my incapacities the satisfying stamp of extremity. The NHS even gives me money off my glasses (or the old NHS did, the last time I bought a pair, and before what has now become the last time I ever vote for the Liberal Democrats). But impressive as this state-acknowledged disability might be to that limp partygoer (chewing at the edge of a plastic cup of cheap red wine, and weighing up their present level of soul-numbing boredom with the vague hope of pulling) it is no handicap. I am not blind. I feel blessed to have been given a daily reminder of how lucky I am, how difficult blindness would be – but I have no understanding of what it would be not to see. All I know is what it is not to see properly.

In fact I can actually see better than you close up – if I raise my palm a few inches from my face, I can see in microscopic vision. Walking to the mirror each morning is, and has been since adolescence, a fearful approach: knowing that I will first inspect my magnified pores in gruesome horror, before putting my lenses in, and pausing for a second in anticipation of the full, final confirmation of the night’s hormonal (and now also degenerative) ravages in 20:20 vision. In fact, that’s a cheap line: my sight is not at all perfectly corrected when I wear contact lenses. They can’t correct my astigmatism. Not at the minus numbers I’m on. Of course my astigmatism can be corrected in glasses, but then I have to exist in the permanently inebriated state brought on by the distractions of peripheral vision (and I am already at least two generations in to a mighty battle with alcoholism as it is). Recently, someone suggested that perhaps I should wear goggles. It is only a shame that by the time hipster goggles make it onto the just-about-to-be-gentrified streets in the way that – so very irritatingly – glasses did some time in my early 20s, I will be even further away from the requisite youth than I am now.

There has always been a lazy connection made between the bookish and the bespectacled. The geek in the corner, squinting over her favourite tome, with a whole legion of four-eyed heroes to console her: Larkin, Joyce, Piggy from Lord of the Flies. Reading, it is assumed, weakens your vision. Perhaps it does, though all the opticians I’ve ever been to have widely conflicting views on this, and it was Milton’s detached retinas, or possibly glaucoma, not his obdurate pride in reading, that spent his light. But certainly, the first day I walked into school wearing glasses – despite the fact they had desperately delusional little red bows on the sides – I saw in oh-too-crystal clarity a vision of the future that I was now consigned to: a thick-paned prison of scholarship, earnestness, and being the last one standing if anyone was ever picking teams in P.E. (it didn’t help that I was also unusually fat.)

I might not have been able to catch a ball in a playground, or glandular fever at a disco, but books and words were always mine. So I often feel like a bit of a fraud that words don’t affect me as aesthetically as they clearly do other people. It took a full GCS(Seamus Heaney)E smack of onomatopoeia to awaken my senses. I’ve learnt how to do it of course, how to hear not think the words, how to love poetry for its sounds not just its rhythms: I’m not tone deaf to the beauty of language. It’s just that the volume on the sensory effect of words seems turned down on my machine. Whereas the volume on colour is turned up to 11. Yesterday I walked outside and the sky was humming with a late afternoon October hue that practically broke the dial. For me the rainbow splinters into a taxonomy of emotion: give me just that particular yellow for safety; that soft green Cornish blue to think; and don’t bring me anywhere near pillar-box red. It sounds like a lie, but I once collapsed into tears in a roomful of Rothkos. And, genuinely, that was before I googled him, and realised that that’s what you’re supposed to say happened to you.

It’s a crass but often-posited theory that the sheer number of Impressionist painters who were myopic might shed some light on the nature of their work. Look! Monet, Braque, Matisse and Pissarro were all squinting at the view, Cézanne refused to wear glasses altogether! Perhaps the similarities between their work reflect not so much a shared artistic vision, as a mutual (literal) lack of it! Despite some scientific evidence that your eyesight might affect your taste in colour – myopes tend to prefer reds and browns over blues, whose short wavelengths are bent more by the optic of the eye – this theory is, in wilfully ignoring the entire history of art, almost as irritating as the common protestation that a three-year old could do a Jackson Pollock. Or the debate about whether Tracy Emin can draw. And yet. There’s something in it.

People don’t just draw differently or paint differently or indeed write differently. They see differently.  It is of course a cliché, one of those oh-oh-agh-the-universe-is-MASSIVE-how-could-there-have-been-nothing-before-something archetypal realisations that really screws you the first time you ever think of it, that maybe we all see the world in entirely different colours. But it is not just colour. It is line, distance and form. In the most physical, literal and real of ways, our vision is as unique and distorted as we are. But in a world where things are often corrected – vision, spelling, wrinkles – it is easy to forget the importance of weakness – that new perspectives are often found in error. Sometimes we need to look at what we can’t see as much as what we can.

I once had a furious row with someone describing some work a photographer friend had been doing teaching blind people to take photographs. She laughed in an ugly, dismissive way and ridiculed the notion altogether. What was the point? They would never be able to see the images they produced. She could just about acknowledge the value that the experience might have for them, but utterly failed to see the wider significance it might have for anyone else. Her short-sightedness enraged me. Without their photographs we would never be able to see the way they saw the world.

I’m not sure if you always see an image anyway. Sometimes, as with a Rothko painting, you feel it. As a child my favourite painter was, unimaginatively, Van Gogh before moving on, even more predictably, to a teenage obsession with the Pre-Raphaelites. I’m not sure how much I looked at any of the paintings in question in any real sense, as opposed to interpreted into emotion their colours, shapes and idiosyncrasies. Van Gogh made things simple, wonky, but somehow safe; the pre-Raphaelites were all flushed cheeks, swirling hair, fairy tales through a satisfyingly hazy lens.

I often used to wonder which of my senses had been heightened in compensation for my lame eyesight. That old wives’ tale, or perhaps it’s true – I have no idea – that your body somehow readjusts to its own failure, inverting your weaknesses with uncanny strengths. But in the absence of my life’s experience or achievements having provided any clear evidence of this phenomenon – a keen sense of smell being the most hopeful contender – I have started to wonder if my weak vision, my greatest disability, might in fact have hidden strengths.

I have certainly not always seen my myopia in such a hopeful light. Sight, for me, is something blotted and blurred with emotion. My identity and happiness have always seemed to balance precariously on its pivot: lurching dramatically groundward that moment I walked, red-bow framed, into Mrs Cumming’s class, and seesawing brilliantly upward when years later, at secondary school, I walked into a far bitchier classroom on the first day of the autumn term gloriously rim-free. (I had, in a first flirtation with anorexia, mainly eaten melons all summer, which helped the rims around my stomach too.) But even the miracle of contact lenses brought its own dread: what would happen when I first had sex: would I keep my lenses in? Would I sleep in them? How could I possibly stay the night with a boy and expose him to the painfully unromantic nightly contact lens routine – this was before the days of all-in-one solutions, when I had to perform nightly bleach-based ablutions – or expose myself to the terrifying obscurity of a morning in an unfamiliar bed.

I am very, very glad of my contact lenses. Survival would have been virtually impossible for me as say, a 12th-century peasant – one of my frequently imagined fantasy scenarios – let alone in the audition rooms of the 21st. I am glad of my glasses too. I just wish that their milk bottle lenses shrank my eyes a little less pin-sized so I could jump merrily on the vintage frames bandwagon. But I am also glad of the peculiar, troubled way these squashed eyeballs see the world. I’m not putting a laser anywhere near them.

A friend of mine once astonished an optician who discovered that she had been walking around for years utterly ignorant of her severe myopia. Even after he had corrected her vision, she often didn’t wear her new glasses. She just preferred the world without them.