I used to tut at people who need glasses to read a menu. Then I joined them …

Some time over the past 18 months, I went from having perfect vision – the kind of vision that means, “Here, let me have a look” is your catchphrase, and that makes you mock your friends for the font size on their mobiles – to being unable to even read a menu. You have no idea how much I wanted to add a sweary prefix before “menu”.

I always thought people were attention-seeking when they went through that performance of getting their glasses out at the table. Come on, it’s going to be garlic bread, soup and chicken liver pate. Surely you could have guessed that? I didn’t realise how it would feel when the text was swimming about indistinguishably or how rare it is these days that the first sentence is “garlic bread”. Now I realise it’s just as likely to be bread with a medjool date whipped butter, or garlic bread with a cheesy crust. In my pride, I have spent ages ordering things that weren’t there.

The news has been full of surveys about how many people reported worsening eyesight over lockdown. It’s a screen-time effect, according to opticians. You are meant to observe the 20-20-20 rule – look at something 20ft away, for 20 seconds, every 20 minutes – but, for me, this made no difference at all, except to remind me of the 20-20 vision I always used to show off about. I used to be the sight version of the person who could always get the lid off a jam jar. “It’s not a lockdown effect,” a friend explained, slowly. “It’s called middle age. This is the thing your late 40s are famous for.” Of course, I’ve heard that. I just didn’t think I was that kind of 48-year-old.

When you’re taking information from a very small and unrepresentative sample – your friends – instead of from science, the way to turn it into wisdom is not to aggregate all their points of view, but to listen for the one thing that they all say. They were all saying one thing: once your eyesight goes, it goes really fast. You have only just surrendered to the necessity of 1.5 reading glasses, then wham, you’re a 2.5. You have made your peace with needing a pair of specs in every room, then boom, you need to replace them all. You’re now a 3.

At the same time this has been happening to me, my mother has experienced a catastrophic worsening of two conditions: age-related macular degeneration; and cataracts. Previously, the first five minutes of all our rendezvous would be an ambling series of questions, like the soft beginning of a police interview that was about to get serious: “What’s that on your top, is that curry?”; “What are those bags under your eyes?”; “Have you always had that [insert some mole or blemish that, yes, I have always had]?” Overnight (although, realistically, over about five years), she was reduced to a speculative, “You look well”, and I would caper about going, “Yes! Yes I really do!”, even though I usually was still covered in curry.

Now it is impossible for her to see at all and we have learned that modernity has devised all kinds of accessibility fixes – but for all the wrong things. Sure, you can get a robot voice to read your texts for you, but no robot on Earth will scroll through Twitter, ignoring the animal content and finding the people who share your view on the low traffic neighbourhood. My mum has had to source German field glasses to watch the TV and a miner’s head torch to use in the kitchen, and to stop slicing onions because it’s just too dangerous. Factor in a few decades of hearing loss, and now the only reliable entertainment she has left is seeing other people, in real life.

Then she sees me, and all I can do is moan on about how I am supposed to survive when I need a 12-year-old to read the instructions on pasta. Company, as a substitute for reading, it turns out, is quite hit and miss. Or mine is, anyway.




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