Friday, 8 November 2013

I got my first ever pair of glasses last week. I'm finding them hard to get to grips with it.

I've not had an eye test for over 20 years. The last one being at primary school, when I did the obligatory spot the numbers in the coloured dots to check I wasn't colour blind.

Going to the opticians was an ordeal. I am not actually having problems seeing stuff - everything (luckily, considering my family optical history) is actually very crisp and clear. The optician asked me what the problem was.

"I keep feeling sort of dizzy."

"Right. I see. Does this happen ever when you're driving?"

"Sometimes, yes."


"But I am a safe driver, I'm not like passing out or anything. I can still control the vehicle." (I imagine him reaching under the desk for his traffic police emergency button. I imagine getting back to my car to find it has been clamped and a law enforcer enforcing my keys from my sweaty, panic stricken hand.)

"It also sometimes happens when I am standing too near to someone when I'm talking, it makes me feel like I have to look away, like I might fall over if I don't." (I imagine the law enforcer standing too close as he requisitions my keys and me keeling over onto the tarmac.) I gulp nervously. I think I might cry.


He asks me to look through the goggle box testing machine thing and checks me with a series of different images. He asks me which is clearer, slide A or slide B. He talks in such a gentle, patient way that I feel bad that both slides both look pretty much the same and  I'm so desperate to please him that I make up some of my answers.

He shows me pictures of my eyeballs. I pretend to be impressed, although TBH they look pretty gross that close up. He tells me I am a tiny bit longsighted and therefore can legitimately enter the great world of speccy-four-eyeness (my words, not his) I am not sure how I feel about this.

I find myself in the glasses showroom with a lady who is responsible for helping me choose my glasses. I stand there indecisively while she tries to peddle me a pair from the most expensive range. I steer us towards the value collection. I think about all my friends who wear glasses, who, without exception, look totally rad in their spectacles. I try on one pair after another and look like a bit of a tit.

"What about those ones?" I point at some rectangular dark framed ones. "I read somewhere that you are supposed to pick the shape that is least like your actual head shape."

The woman looks at me dubiously. What the hell do you know about it, glasses virgin, her twinkly blue eyes say. I giggle like the virgin that I am. We try every pair on in the rack.

"I'm sorry, I'm taking up all your time," I mutter after a couple of minutes. "I'm normally very decisive." She says it's fine. Really. I wish she would go away and let me embarrass myself alone in the privacy of the open shop window. We try on some more. I start getting dizzy, despite the lenses being clear and neutral.

"Perhaps you'd like to come back with a friend," she suggests. I think about ringing my lovely husband, himself a cool classically-trained glasses wearerer. But then feel a mother-induced feminist stab of guilt that I should just be able to Do It by myself.

"What about those?" I reach for the NHS old-lady-chic glasses on the top rack.

"I don't think so, no," says the woman, slapping my hand away.

I give in and settle for the ones she tells me look best. I am not sure. It might be because one of my ears is higher than the other, so I will always look a bit cockeyed in them anyway.

I giggle awkwardly when I go back a few days later to collect them. "We've never seen someone so excited to collect their glasses," says the sales assistant. I ask her what I'm supposed to do with them.

"Wear them, honey."

"I mean, when... Do I wear them like, now? Like, to go home in?" I remember being a little girl at Startrite getting patent shoes for the first time not sure whether to keep them in the box or put them on.

"If you like, but really they're only for when you're eyes are tired. Or if you're driving"

I drive home with the glasses in my bag. I'm afraid to put them on in case I crash. The dark rim in my periphery gives me two massive blind spots... and I am worried motorists will be distracted by the odd woman in wonky glasses coming towards them and side swipe me.

I have worn my glasses a little since. Although my mother advises me not to wear them as I'll develop lazy eyes. But there is something in 'putting on your glasses'; a bit like putting on a hat for a specific task that I quite enjoy doing in private.

I would add though, they don't seem to have done much to ease the dizziness.

Friday, 1 November 2013

 I was recently discussing a new story with a friend. The setting, I knew, would be during the First World War  - the dates for what I wanted to explore in the story were right about then, and I've been hungry to write something set in this period for a while now. But I hadn't fixed on a specific location. It was all feeling a bit untethered.

Then my friend told me about a recent trip she had taken with her family to Arras, France, after discovering that a family member had died in the trenches there. They felt a pull to see the site and try to find his grave. While they were there they also visited the Boves in Arras, a complex network of tunnels and caves dug out under the city during Roman and Medieval times, and extended during the first world war by New Zealand miners and British Bantam Battalions. The cave network housed 24,000 troops near the enemy lines, so that they were able to mount a surprise and sudden attack. It is a fascinating event in the story of the war, and one that was almost forgotten about until archeologist Alain Jacques rediscovered parts of the caves that still remain. There is now a museum where you can see parts of it. I wish I had time to get there for real, but a short turnaround means my research has all been computer based (what the hell did we do before the internet?!) and anecdotal, from my friend, about how it felt to be somewhere that held such great personal significance.

I've been checking all sort of details this week; what were the straps wound around soldiers legs called? Shift patterns in the trenches for sleeping, treatment for shellshock, which occupations were reserved? Precise distances between enemy lines... While it is so important to be accurate with historic details (not just for authenticity but also to avoid finger wagging from readers who like to fact check) I need to remember that humans are humans are humans are humans. I sometimes get to a point with research where I just have to let it go. Step away from it, stop trying to put period detail in where it doesn't sit comfortably and just focus on what my characters would do in a given situation, what they would say. I don't think humans change all that fundamentally, whether we are 200 years back, forward, or in a spaceship circling a white dwarf. Our human motivations, feelings and reactions to things are fairly consistent.

I am humbled and amazed once again by what our armed forces did during the First World War. With Remembrance Day approaching, and next year marking 100 years since the beginning of the war, it feels the right time for this story to be written.