It’s not always easy being left-handed in a right-handed world.
At school, I was tormented for my left-handedness – but never by fellow pupils. My junior school was overseen by a psychotic headmaster with Victorian attitudes and a bullying streak that would have seen him shamed in today’s education system. In the 1960’s, the fact that he would, scarlet-faced with explosive rage, blood-vessels bursting from his neck, physically terrorise pupils who fell short of his most exacting standards, was considered acceptable. Parents did not feel burdened to look beyond the high academic standards the school achieved.
The curse of cursive
This terrifying man would teach Penmanship to classes of 8-11 year olds.
My problems arrived as we graduated from pencils to an antiquated pen-and-inkwell combination – his view being that everyone should be able to master the skill of writing in traditional cursive style, using a pen and ink. We were each allocated a wooden pen holder and a single pen nib. Our desks held inkwells in the top right-hand corner. We would all dread our Penmanship lessons – they were terrifying for anyone with even slightly ham-fisted handwriting.
As a left-hander, my fear was intensified by the helplessness of my situation. For a left-hander, it’s all but impossible to use a pen-and-ink without smudging every line and spattering your paper with ink. As a right-hander working from left to right across the page, you’re pulling your pen along, and the ink flows smoothly out from the tip of the nib. With a left hander, the pen is pushed. It catches the paper, it pings and splashes. And, as your writing hand follows immediately in the wake of wet ink, you bear the added trial of having to avoid smudging every word as you write it across the page. I failed, time and again, to produce work of the required standard and was repeatedly pilloried for my shortcomings. I was made to feel there was something deficient about me, because I’d been born left-handed.
We’re a sinister bunch
My old headmaster’s persecution of lefties isn’t without precedent. At various times in history, left-handedness has been seen as some pretty dreadful things: the mark of the devil and a sign of neurosis or criminality for example. The word sinister, as in… creepy, disturbing, evil, menacing… is the Latin word for left. And in olde English, the word left arises from the Anglo-Saxon word lyft, which means weak or broken. Even in modern language the bias lingers; a left-handed compliment is actually a criticism or insult.
Ambi… ambi… what?
Like many left-handers, I have some right-handed and some ambidextrous behaviours (no smirking in the back row please).
As a child, sport worked mostly in my favour. I played hockey right-handed, due to the lack of left-handed hockey sticks back in the 1970’s. I played tennis with a racket in my left hand but could do a quick swap to my right hand when a left-handed backhand was out of reach.
Then there was the learning of musical instruments. I could cope with the piano but when it came to the clarinet I had to sit and grip it between my knees, as my stronger arm, my left, was at the top of the instrument, not the bottom, making it feel too unstable to hold. But I was okay with the guitar. I know some left-handed guitar players invert their strings and play with the neck of their guitar to the right, but I learned right-handed (the ‘normal’ way) and that seemed to work for me.
My mother once tried to teach me knitting, and when I couldn’t naturally grasp the required motions, she found a left-handed friend to teach me. I went from working left-to-right (or perhaps it was the other way around) to swapping entirely but neither approach felt right. I would start in one direction, then put down my needles, and pick them up again and set off in the other direction. The results were confusing and to this day, I’ve never managed to get to grips with knitting.
Whilst I use a knife and fork combo in the traditional way (fork to the left, knife to the right), I use a spoon in my left hand. I try to avoid desserts which require two utensils because using a spoon in my right hand makes me look like a toddler shovelling mush into my mouth – not pretty at all.
I used to wear a watch on my left wrist, because that’s what everyone does, but it gets in the way as I write, catching on the edge of the desk and being generally uncomfortable, so nowadays, I hardly ever wear a watch at all.
Puzzlingly for some, I use a computer mouse in my right hand. But I have a tendency to put cards in envelopes in such a way that when a right-handed person pulls them out, they’re upside-down.
What about the… who?
We left-handers have never mobilised like other minorities. We don’t have pressure groups and alliances, annual marches or colourful branding. We haven’t bemoaned the unfairness or bias we encounter. We just get on with it.
But the truth is, when it comes to industrial design, the southpaws of this world are frequently forgotten, with handles, buttons, switches and levers favouring the right-handed community.
Many smaller tools are designed for right-handers – scissors, can openers, vegetable peelers, serrated kitchen knives for example. It’s thanks to shops like Anything Left Handed that those left-handers who struggle more than I do with right-handed cutting implements have somewhere to go to find tools that work for them. Many left-handers just make do with the right-handed versions and adapt their techniques – as do I. As a paper crafter, it’s tricky to cut stuff out neatly with my set of precision right-handed scissors, because I can’t actually see the line I’m cutting. But I’ve got used to how right-handed scissors work in my hands, and where I need to line up to cut and I wonder, if I ever took hold of a pair of left-handed scissors, whether I would be able to adapt.
I saw an article today in the news about some new open-plan office ‘pods’ designed to give people privacy and a sense of insulation as they worked in open-plan environments. You can see them here. I thought they were a fascinating concept, but it was immediately obvious that these pods are designed for right-handers. I scanned the promotional material but I couldn’t see any reference to a reversed version for left-handers.
But it’s not all bad
Although this is disputed (ahem… perhaps by all those right-handers), left-handers are supposed to be more introverted, intelligent and creative. Far be it for me to disagree. Apparently in left-handed people the connections between right and left brain are faster, meaning – apparently – that we can deal more effectively with multiple stimuli. That sounds nice, whatever it means.
The worlds of art, music, drama and literature are filled with left-handers. There’s a great list of 1000 left-handers here including all manner of famous names, and a few infamous ones too.
The list of left-handed presidents of the USA is disproportionate (eight out of 44) and includes Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, Bill Clinton and, latest to join the list, Barack Obama. And space is disproportionately southpaw too – one in four Apollo astronauts were left-handed.
But because this is (mostly) a blog about writing, I’m giving special mention to a few left-handed authors: Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain and H G Wells.
Are you a Southpaw?
I’m curious. Statistically, 10-12% of the readers of this blog will also be left-handed. Are your experiences the same as mine? Have you grappled with anything in this right-handed world – implements, skills or activities? Have you found ways around those challenges?
If you’re an author (right or left-handed), have you ever written a character to be specifically left-handed? And if so, why?
I’d love to open up the comments section for all things left-handed and have a lively debate, so please, do share.