April 21st, 2013


Don't it Make my Brown Eyes Blue?

I've a feeling I may have posted on this subject before - but maybe that was just in my head, where the Voices keep up a lively debate on all the trivia of the day...

When I was small, I knew that I had brown eyes. Certainly that's what was said in my family. My mother and I were left-handed and brown-eyed, my father and brother were right-handed and blue-eyed. That kind of symmetry appealed at the time. All the same, I assume I occasionally thought to carry out an empirical cross-check and look in the mirror, and nothing I saw there made me question the received opinion. I think it wasn't until I was at college that someone who had taken to staring into my eyes a lot happened to mention that they were actually hazel-green. Looking more closely, I saw that they were indeed - although there was also some dark brown there still, and even a fleck or two of blue, and yellow, and slate-grey.

Ever since then, I've not known what colour my eyes are. If I had to fill in a tick-box form describing them, I simply would not know what to say.

As an experiment, I just took three pictures of my left eye, about a minute apart: under artificial light, in bright sunlight, and indoors in natural light. Collapse )

How would you describe this eye, in terms of colour? (Its fellow is similar.) I thought of doing this as a poll, but I don't want to make this into a leading question.

Goodbye to Grey

Niger: [The daughters of Niger] were the first form'd dames of earth,
And in whose sparkling and refulgent eyes,
The glorious sun did still delight to rise ;
Though he, the best judge, and most formal cause
Of all dames beauties, in their firm hues, draws
Signs of his fervent'st love ; and thereby shows
That in their black, the perfect'st beauty grows ;
Since the fixt color of their curled hair,
Which is the highest grace of dames most fair,
No cares, no age can change ; or there display
The fearful tincture of abhorred gray...

So wrote Ben Jonson in The Masque of Blackness (1605). That last line has always bugged me, though. Did Jonson really believe that black women never went grey? If so, where did he get that idea? If not, why did he have Niger say it?

Pliny the Elder would normally be suspect number one for the first question, but it's hard to believe that Pliny, living in such a multi-ethnic society as first-century Rome, would be unaware that African women do indeed turn grey. The same would surely be true for most ancient writers of the kind that a Renaissance autodidact might believe in preference to his own eyes.

What had those eyes actually seen? Jacobean London wasn't exactly devoid of black people - though I wonder whether many of them were women of middle-age and older. The fashion for black pages would tend to skew the population towards youth; while foreign merchants would be overwhelmingly male. Maybe Jonson had never seen a black woman over thirty-five? Or maybe hair-dye or head coverings were in common use, which would have hidden the evidence? Either way, I've never come across anyone else stating the same belief, either before or since.

Des Carts and Copper Knickers

There's a very nice interview with Alan Garner by the noted Tolkienian John Garth in Oxford Today (though Garth tactfully avoids the 'T' word). It includes a good deal of familiar stuff, but also one or two plums - such as Garner's pre-Peter-Cook double-act with Dudley Moore. Well worth reading for those whose tastes run that way, as mine do.