They’re the new shoulder pads but this time they’re a power accoutrement that cuts across the gender line. I’m referring to narrow, oblong spectacles, often with black plastic frames, which in the UK have become a trademark feature of the BBC’s somewhat distinctive political editor Nick Robinson. Now for everyone who wants to appear sharp and in tune with the zeitgeist, they are indispensable. In Robert Redford’s new topical, political film Lions for Lambs, as far as I can make out from the publicity material, they are worn by absolutely everyone, from Meryl Streep’s investigative journalist to Tom Cruise’s presidential hopeful. The final straw, for me, came when my favourite newsreader, Samira Ahmed on Channel 4 News (the only news channel I can bear to watch), appeared with her beautiful, gentle face disfigured by a pair of Robinsons.

The exact opposite of these glasses are the round lenses with thin gold wire rims associated, above all, with the late John Lennon. For me, growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, with pretty good eyesight, those were the glasses I knew I would choose if I ever had to. I had a role model close to home; the coolest dude among my tennis-playing circle in south Buckinghamshire, nearly five years older and accompanied by a succession of stunning French redheads, wore Lennons, nothing but Lennons (and the purple shirts and the bell-bottomed trousers). The time came when my short-sighted left eye became more myopic and a pair of round, wire-rimmed Lennons were mine, to go with the leather bomber jacket and the Che Guevara beard. But, for some reason, the French redheads ignored me – they were already moving on to the sharp-suited Thatcherites.

You could take all this more or less seriously but I don’t believe fashions are entirely arbitrary or meaningless. No doubt not everyone, by a long chalk, who sported Lennons was a fully paid-up member of the peace and love brigade. But round specs certainly made a statement: they stood, if you like, for “l’imagination au pouvoir”, the resonant slogan which is one of the few things that remains from les événements of May 1968 in Paris.

Symbolically, as well as geometrically, the circle is very different from the oblong. What does the circle symbolise? The circle is both open, wide open, as open as a fully-opened eye, and complete, and eternal. In its beginning is its
ending, and in its ending is its beginning.

In Christian theology, the circle symbolises perfection and freedom from distinction and separation. The Benedictine theologians Champeaux and Sterckx consider “the circle as symbolising the godhead viewed…as a goodness broadcast in the creation, subsistence and consummation of all things.” The neo-Platonist comparison of God with a circle whose centre is everywhere was taken up by Sufi Muslims. For American Indians, “the circle is the symbol of time, for the day-time, the night-time and moon-time are circles above the world, and the year-time is a circle around the border of the world.” In Man and His Symbols, Carl Gustav Jung shows how the circle symbolises the psyche, while the square symbolises the body and the material.

The square is one thing but the long thin oblong is quite another. It signifies, above all, the mean, narrowed look; the look of quick appraisal and calculation rather than the slow, open gaze of contemplation. When you narrow your eyes, you may increase close focus but you lose much of your peripheral vision.

Perhaps it’s unfair to associate Robinsons with reptiles (unfair to the reptiles, that is): reptiles don’t usually have oblong eyes, but there is a link in terms of cold-bloodedness. When I see oblong specs, I think of remarks the American poet Robert Bly makes in The Sibling Society about the tripartite nature of the human brain. We really have three brains, says Bly (following Paul MacLean’s A Triune Concept of the Brain and Behaviour), and the oldest and most basic is what he calls “the reptile brain, specialised for alarm, for response to fear, and for survival of the organism”.

So here we have it, the history of the past four decades writ large in spectacles: from the open, dreamy, spiritual circle to the narrow oblong of survival. I can’t imagine any contemporary politician wearing Lennons (actually, wearing any sort of spectacles is a no-no for contact-loving politicians these days). But one economic luminary of our time does sport round glasses, not Lennons but super-Lennons, the size of small dinner plates. He is Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve. It’s a strange world where journalists look more like economists and economists distantly recall dead Beatles but then, as Madonna announced some time ago, we’re living in a material world.

harry.eyres@ft.com

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