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Posted on 24 Jan 2014 in The Godfather: Peter Corris | 9 comments

The Godfather: Peter Corris on going blind

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Peter Corris, AuthorOne of the few books in my parents’ house – the collection was kept in a hallway cupboard – was an edition of Henry Lawson’s short stories. Its publication was somehow sponsored by the Sun newspaper. I have no idea how my parents acquired it. Neither ever read it as far as I knew, but I did.

I found many of the stories, such as ‘His Father’s Mate’, ‘The Union Buries its Dead’, ‘Arvie Aspinall’s Alarm Clock’ and ‘The Drover’s Wife’ profoundly moving. One in particular struck me forcibly – ‘Going Blind’. I’m talking about 60 years ago and the details of the story are lost other than the pervading sense of despair as the darkness closes in on an impecunious man.

Of course I had no thought that such a calamity awaited me and it still might not, but it is a possibility. When my severe diabetic retinopathy was diagnosed, a condition I had brought about by my failure to manage my diabetes in my 20s and early 30s, a doctor said, ‘You’ve come very close to the tin cup and the white cane.’

The argon laser, then only recently introduced to Australia by Fred Hollows and used by one of his former students, Dr Paul Beaumont, saved my sight. The only way to describe the treatment in those early days is that it was not for squibs. The preservation of a functional amount of retina and better diabetic control, partly at the instigation of Fred Hollows, enabled me to see well enough to perform most visual tasks – reading, writing, driving, playing sports – at a reasonable level for the next 35 years.

But things have changed. While my ophthalmologist expresses confidence that I am unlikely to go completely blind, the eyesight has deteriorated. The scarring left by the laser has thickened, reducing still further the amount of retina. As I have noted in earlier columns, I can no longer read ordinary print and have to resort to e-books with a blown up font. I am writing this column in 20 point.

But recently I have become aware of the emotional and psychological, rather than the physical and technological, dimensions of my impaired vision. Fred Hollows observed that people who went blind in the third world usually died comparatively soon as a result of accidents, neglect of personal hygiene or the lack of community support. I have become conscious that something of the sort, far less severe, but nevertheless troublesome, operates in our affluent society.

Of course, poor eyesight is life-threatening in a busy suburb like Newtown where cars and trucks contend at speed for space. In addition, the footpaths are continually being dug up, fenced around, and part-repaired, making for barriers and uneven surfaces that trouble the visually impaired, whose confidence and balance are tested by changes in levels and texture underfoot.

At home, the pitfalls are many. From major things like difficulty with electrical connections and ensuring that the gas is off, to ludicrous, but pride-sapping errors such as mistaking rice for raw sugar and yoghurt for mayonnaise.  I am constantly aware of the great caution needed to take correct doses of my several medications and above all, not to make any mistakes in dialling up the right amount of insulin, which is different for each of the four daily injections. Many things that people with good sight do automatically I have to prepare for and execute with extreme care.

Grateful though I am for e-books, the large font has slowed down my reading to the point where I sometimes get tired of a book despite its merits. Recently I struggled with the black on white keyboard on my computer, finding the letters too small and  faint. I tried inking over and enlarging the letters, only to find that use wore away the changes. A new keyboard, black on yellow with the letters blown up to something like 22 point, has allowed me to keep writing.

Not as plea for sympathy but as a matter of self-examination, it’s not too much to say that these trials and the accompanying exasperation, loss of confidence and dependency on others, challenge the will to live. I must re-read ‘Going Blind’ to see whether Henry (whose own disability was deafness, quite as destructive in other ways), had any idea of how this distress can sap the spirit.


  1. Hi Peter,
    Your last post has haunted me for a few weeks now.
    The sapping of your will to live, I understand. I’ve surrendered to (not battling anymore) a chronic, terminal illness.
    I’ve had to let go; let go of all the old ways, and open myself to a life that no longer includes earning money, socialising, drinking, swimming, walking, dancing, even sweeping the floor or picking a tomato off the vine. I’ve withered down to 40 kilos.
    I thought I’d invest in a Nietzche plastic bag because I’m too crook and too broke to get the good stuff.
    Here’s what I did instead. I started meditating. Just a few minutes at first. Then up to 20 – 30 minutes a day. I feel calmer and have had a dialogue with my dying self that made me realise we are many different things in a fully rounded life. Shed your old wrinkly writerly skin and you may find a new identity. None of this is meant to minimize. I cannot imagine the blow you’re dealing with as I still don’t need glasses even in my 50s.
    We need men like you. Wise men. Kind men. Funny men. Men of good will.
    Stay the course. Please.

    • Dear Agent 99
      Thanks for your message. I’m sorry to hear about your
      illness and I’m full of admiration for the way you’re coping.
      I don’t think I’d have the fortitude. Never could meditate for
      a second.

      I hope you continue to keep your spirits up;
      your example is encouraging. Very best wishes.


  2. Dear Mr. Corris,

    Like many others I was dismayed to read about your eyesight problems. About two and a half years ago I had the beginnings of cataract. I had read in a book (more about this later on) that cataract is caused by too much sugar in the blood. As a consequence I have drastically cut down on my intake of sugar – not easy, as in most types of food the manufacturers tend to replace the word “sugar” by a million synonyms– and as a result my eyesight has not gotten any worse, although the eye specialist warned in 2011 that eventually I’d see little black spots all over the place.
    In this book which I have mentioned before, written by a young local doctor/researcher, which has by now sold over 250.000 copies in a market that encompasses 6 million Flemish-speaking Belgians (as I am) and another 12 million or so Dutchmen, he advises against eating bread, potatoes, white rice and pasta. I have drastically cut down on my “intake” of bread and I eat a small amount of potatoes only once or twice a week now. I didn’t have to cut down on rice and pasta as I don’t like them anyway. He did say, as I mentioned in the past, that the level of diabetes can be drastically reduced, so that you can reduce the amount of insulin taken, and that it is even possible to cure diabetes altogether – providing these 4 types of food are dropped from our shopping list altogether. He also strongly advises against using cow’s milk (his advice is to use sojamilk instead), eating milk chocolate, etc. Omega 3 is good, but Omega 6 is NOT.
    While I can’t drop bread altogether (I can’t cook, and don’t have the time to learn), I only eat bread once a day now instead of up to three times per day. And I was thinking, why don’t you give it a try yourself? You mentioned yoghurt, mayonnaise, etc… , I couldn’t help wincing when I read this. Suppose you gave it a try for a month or so, after all what do you risk? I am a glutton myself and love(d) milk chocolate, but at this doctor’s advice I started eating pure (at least 70%) black chocolate with stevia, which is much healtier. I hated it at first, and within 2 weeks I started liking it. I’ve never gone back to milk chocolate!
    I also disliked oatmeal porridge (prepared with sojamilk instead of cows’ milk) and am now eating it every single morning as a matter of course, laced with cinnamon or pure cocoa for example, or dip my strawberries into it. Who says health food has to be tasteless?
    There is no need to drop potatoes, bread, or whatever from your shopping list, but vastly reducing the amounts ought to do wonders. I now drink green tea (instead of coffee) 3 times a day, I can’t say I like the taste but laced with stevia I’ve grown used to it. There is much more advice in this book, he explains why things are good or bad for us.
    I’m only a few years younger than you are, and I can’t say I now feel like I’m in my twenties again, but the overall improvement is obvious.
    Sorry to go on for so long but I hope some of this will be very helpful!


  3. Dear Luc

    Thanks for your comment. I have a gluten-free and sugar-free diet anyway and eat very sparsely because of the diabetes. But I’m glad you have noticed some improvement with your regime.

  4. Hi Peter! I’m sorry to read about your eyesight problems and the adjustments you are having to make to compensate. As a small part of that time in your late 20’s (or early 30’s??), I want to congratulate you on the honesty and openness with which you share the problems you are facing.
    Even without added difficulties it’s sometimes such a struggle to retain the bounce and optimism of ‘youth’ – on a regular basis! Mortality and the sneaky ways in which one’s body ‘lets one down’ contribute weight to the daily grind: and sometimes the blows from left field aren’t glancing blows but full on body blows!
    But I do hope that your ophthalmologist is correct, and that your eyesight will not fail completely.
    Thank you for your books, for your writings – and for some good memories.
    And now I’ve found the Newtown Review of Books site, I hope to see many more of your articles….
    Lis Harvey

  5. Dear Lis
    How nice to hear from you after all this time and many thanks for your concern. I’ve had better news about my eyesight lately and am assured I won’t go blind. Also, through Vision Australia, I’m finding help in various ways that make everything easier.
    I remember meeting Vern in the street for a brief chat but it was eons ago. I trust all is well with you both.
    Memories of Canberra are mixed of course, but as you suggest, there were good times none of us would’ve liked to miss.
    I’m glad you like my books. Keep following the NRB.
    Very best wishes

    • Hello Peter.

      I understand how blindness challenges the will to live. My eyesight is fading in fits and starts. I also wonder if blind Henry ‘had any idea of how this distress can sap the spirit.’ I look to literature for answers as well.

      I don’t believe Dylan Thomas’s ‘Do not go gentle into that good night’ is about his father’s death, but about his father’s blindness. In Dylan’s ‘Elegy’, written for his father, is the line’ broken and blind he died’. When I hear “rage, rage against the dying of the light” I hear the son imploring the father to rise up from the passivity his blindness has reduced him to.

      Most poems about blindness that I’ve found are rather bleak, but I quite like this one by Rilke. There seems to be an assumption that the woman is old, but on first reading I Imagined her as quite young, and found the last line immensely uplifting.

      Going Blind

      She sat just like the others at the table.
      But on second glance, she seemed to hold her cup
      a little differently as she picked it up.
      She smiled once. It was almost painful.

      And when they finished and it was time to stand
      and slowly, as chance selected them, they left
      and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed),
      I saw her. She was moving far behind

      the others, absorbed, like someone who will soon
      have to sing before a large assembly;
      upon her eyes, which were radiant with joy,
      light played as on the surface of a pool.

      She followed slowly, taking a long time,
      as though there were some obstacle in the way;
      and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
      she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.

      Rainer Maria Rilke

      • Hello Peter. Henry’s blind friend Joe didn’t succumb.

        ‘He was always hopeful and cheerful. “If the worst comes to the worst,” he said, “there’s things I can do where I come from. I might do a bit o’ wool-sorting, for instance. I’m a pretty fair expert. Or else when they’re weeding out I could help. I’d just have to sit down and they’d bring the sheep to me, and I’d feel the wool and tell them what it was — being blind improves the feeling, you know.”’

        I remember hearing once about an isolated village in Japan where there was a huge incidence of hereditary blindness. Those most at risk of going blind became highly skilled masseurs in order to be useful when their sight failed.

        All the best to you Peter.

      • From the short story, Peter.

        From Henry Lawson’s ‘Going Blind’

        ‘He was always hopeful and cheerful. “If the worst comes to the worst,” he said, “there’s things I can do where I come from. I might do a bit o’ wool-sorting, for instance. I’m a pretty fair expert. Or else when they’re weeding out I could help. I’d just have to sit down and they’d bring the sheep to me, and I’d feel the wool and tell them what it was — being blind improves the feeling, you know.”’