I have been toying with the idea of founding a Cyclops Club, drawing its membership from the dwindling band of individualists who persist in defying the zeitgeist of Cool Britannia by wearing a single eyeglass, commonly known as a monocle. We are a species threatened with extinction and we probably qualify for victimhood, as an oppressed minority.
The impending crisis first became apparent last summer when an incident in Bromley provoked national headlines. Brian Dowling, a retired scriptwriter who had worn a monocle for 30 years, went to the Bromley branch of opticians Dollond & Aitchison to renew his prescription, only to be told, ‘We don’t do them any more.’ The ensuing publicity caused Dollond & Aitchison to issue a hasty reassurance that they would continue to sell monocles at their main London store in Wigmore Street. The manageress commented, ‘I would say we sell about 20 eyeglasses a year, so it’s not a big part of our business. The people who buy them are older, perhaps fashion-conscious. Some are pretty eccentric as well.’
That is probably fair comment. An eyeglass is convenient and stylish; it can be brought into occasional service to scan a menu or a theatre programme, then forgotten. Above all, it is a Cavalier accessory in an increasingly Roundhead world. It is the antithesis of New Labour; so far from being socially inclusive, it is uncompromisingly exclusive. Yet, if it is incompatible with Blairism, it is equally alien to the new Tories. The last eminent Tory to sport an eyeglass was Sir Angus Maude; with the party now firmly under the kitten-heel of Theresa May, it is unthinkable that such reactionary eye-wear would ever be permitted on the conference platform.
The social nuance between the terms ‘eyeglass’ and ‘monocle’ should briefly be noted. Although Nancy Mitford declared ex cathedra that ‘spectacles’ is U and ‘glasses’ non-U, with an inconsistency typical of the arcana of class, ‘eyeglass’ is strictly U, but ‘monocle’ generally non-U, with marginally permissible U-usage. The terms are used here indiscriminately, to avoid monotony. In everyday speech, if the topic arises, I find it convenient to refer simply to ‘my lens’ – a clinical-sounding, neutral terminology.
Historically, it is often claimed that Nero was the first individual to use a single eyeglass. In fact, he watched gladiatorial games through an emerald, to reduce the sun’s glare, making him a pioneer of sunglasses rather than the monocle. The single lens first emerged in the 18th century, in the form of the quizzing-glass, a half-lorgnette with a handle. This was employed by foppish exquisites to stare others out of countenance or to administer the social ‘cut’, at a time when myopia was fashionable among the ruling class.
The modern style of monocle, inserted into the eye-socket, was introduced in England in 1806, when it was known as an ‘eye ring’. The invention next caught on in Vienna, where it later became an indispensable accessory in the operettas of Franz Lehar. By the late 19th century, the single eyeglass was established across Europe as a symbol of the dandy, the aristocrat or, in Germany, the militarist. The Emperor Franz Josef once refused to promote a general because he wore a monocle, which he considered a strutting, Prussian affectation. The Emperor himself wore pince-nez with his customary costume of a field-marshal’s uniform.
Different styles of monocle carry moral nuances. A rimmed eyeglass with cord attached is generally worn by an Englishman, who may be playing the silly ass but is actually a formidable man of action. A rimless monocle is more sinister and is likely to be worn by a Teutonic villain. The traditional English version is rimmed, with a ‘gallery’ – two extensions of the rim designed to fit into the upper and lower eye-socket, making the lens stand out to avoid friction with the eyelashes. A high-tech innovation is the ‘sprung gallery’, which adjusts to fit the eye and may one day become respectable. Recently I have detected a deplorably macho tendency among acquaintances who wear the rimless lens to adopt the patronising view that ‘real men don’t wear a gallery’. One treats such Junker posturing with disdain.
An eyeglass worn on a broad ribbon is Gallic and, therefore, degenerate. Marcel Proust acknowledged this in
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 17, 2003