According to the young optometrist at the Oxford Street branch of Top Specs, something very significant has happened to my eyesight. At a time of life when my every visit to a doctor, dentist, or osteopath brings further news of declining powers, it was comforting to learn after half an hour's exposure to distant wall charts and proximate puffs of air that my sight had radically improved over the past 12 months.
Although I was happy to relish my optometrist's surprise at this development, I was anxious that she should not regard it as positively miraculous. Back in the early Seventies, I told her, as she filled in the boxes on her form, my sight was in such poor shape that I needed a pair of heavy-duty horn-rims to make out the faces of the students in the first row of my seminar group.
But then, one night, I fell into conversation with a former biology lecturer who'd abandoned academic life for a job with the Forestry Commission. During the five years he had spent talking about the love life of sticklebacks at university, he had always worn strong glasses, but now found that he could wander happily through the woods observing the tiniest of flowers and the merest of animals without any such assistance. He owed it all to an advertisement placed in the personal column of the New Statesman by the Misses Bates of Hampstead.
My optometrist allowed herself a small indulgent smile. I was ready for her. "That was my reaction when he mentioned the Misses Bates. Exactly the sort of eccentrics you'd expect to find advertising in the New Statesman. It turned out, though, that they had a revolutionary theory. According to them, the eye was a muscle, and like all other muscles needed constant exercise. Wearing glasses made the eyes lazy. All one needed to do was to abandon one's spectacles and strain to see that which was normally little more than a blur. Slowly one's sight would improve. And there was more. According to the Misses Bates, we would also become far too light-sensitive as a result of wearing sunglasses. Their remedy was to set aside a period of each day for staring at the sky. After a time, one would be able to stare at the centre of the sun on a cloudless day without undue discomfort."
That was clearly an exercise too far for the woman from Top Specs. "Don't ever tell anyone to stare straight at the sun," she burst out. "That's very dangerous." But what about the rest of the Bateses' theory? "I can't say I've ever come across it before. Doesn't sound very scientific." I rose from my revolving stool and unleashed the evidence. "Not scientific? Then how do you account for the fact that your records show no deterioration in my sight for the past five years and now you've found an actual improvement? Thirty years ago, I couldn't read my own overhead projections. And what about that eclipse? While everyone else was tut-tutting about the dangers and peering at it backwards through perforated toilet rolls, I was happily staring right at the sun. Aren't I living proof that the Misses Bates were on to something?"
When I stepped out into Oxford Street, I felt so elated that I allowed an elderly lady to persuade me into buying a piece of lucky heather. As she endeavoured to place in into my lapel, I turned and spotted my optometrist in the window of Top Specs. She was nodding contentedly. Now she knew that there was quite enough evidence to confirm the diagnosis she'd already scrawled in capital letters across my records: ELDERLY CRANK. DO NOT ENGAGE IN CONVERSATION.