Life On The Left: The Perils Of Being Born Cack-Handed

Think being left handed is a walk in the park? Try early death, discrimination and chronic clumsiness. And don’t even mention cutlery.
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Think being left handed is a walk in the park? Try early death, discrimination and chronic clumsiness. And don’t even mention cutlery.

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I turned the engine off then, with a heavy heart, I turned round and looked at my daughter. Since she’d been a nipper, I’d messed about showing her how to throw kicks and punches and she’d been bugging me to let her go to the gym for ages. Even though I felt like I was selling out my people, I looked into her eyes and said: “When the man asks you if you’re left handed, say no”.

It was for her own good. ‘Southpaws should be shot’ is a familiar refrain around fight gyms. There are genuine beefs, like we make fights ugly and literally tread on people’s toes, but mainly it’s because we are hard work. Every time we take our stance, we hear the sighs. When a pad man calls a combination, he’ll automatically opt for the orthodox version- then it’s our fault for doing as we’re told. I figured that my little girl could do without the hassle. It’s only a bit of fun to keep fit. If she started getting into it, there’s no reason that switching should hold her back. Oscar De La Hoya and Miguel Cotto are both lefties who fought orthodox and it didn’t do them any harm.

The outright abuse you hear in gyms is an extreme, but we live in a right handed world and the rest of us have to make do- for better or worse. Secretly, we all buy into the idea that our brains are configured differently to make us inherently artistic. Having both Leonardo and Michelangelo on our team can’t be a coincidence. Look at Hendrix, the patron saint of the keggy handed. Issued with a guitar designed for the dull majority, Jimi flipped it over and conjured sounds beyond anything any right hander has managed before or since. He’s a one off, an innovator. Charlie Chaplin, John Lydon, Richard Pryor, John McEnroe; who wouldn’t want to be in that gang?

Being left handed may mean you’re more likely to become an artist, a sporting legend or an axe hero (we even have undercover guys like BB King and Noel Gallagher who strum right handed), but there is a big downside. We’re clumsier, we have way more accidents and we die younger. A Durham University study of 3,000 men listed in the Who's Who of Cricketers found that left-handed bowlers lived an average of two years less than their right-handed colleagues and were more likely to die suddenly at a young age. An earlier Californian study put the gap at a staggering nine years. The message is clear; if you see anyone operating machinery with their left hand, evacuate the area immediately.

The message is clear; if you see anyone operating machinery with their left hand, evacuate the area immediately.

It may not save lives, but there is one area where we should certainly change our behaviour. I hold my knife in my right hand and my fork in my left- for the simple reason that they were always on the table like that. It’s very unusual to see one of our mob making a sawing motion with a knife. Instead we use that piece of cutlery to hold our food steady while we rip it apart with a fork. The resulting flying elbows make sitting at a dinner table next to a lefty eating a rare steak an experience similar to man marking a prime John Fashanu. No doubt this kind of thing got us our bad rap in the past. You know, the whole gauche meaning awkward and crude, two left feet, sinister, sign of the devil deal.

As well as the combat sports, another place that the archaic hatred of left handers is alive and thriving is the primary school classroom. When I was a kid, good hand writing was rewarded by moving up from a biro to a fountain pen. Each week, Miss would have a little ceremony for those who had made the grade. No matter what improbable angles we bent our wrists into; the eager quartet of lefties in the class never got a posh pen. Waste of time; we’d only smear the ink all over the place. That was thirty odd years ago. Nowadays, when you get a Special Educational Needs statement if you fart once in assembly, you’d expect that kind of victimisation to be a thing of the past. Think again.

At parents’ evening, the teacher was banging on about the state of my daughter’s school books- ending with: “Of course, it doesn’t help that she’s left handed”. The old bag spat out the last two words in the derisory tone people normally reserve for “Sepp Blatter” or “extended warranty” When I cut her off and told her I was too, she turned to my wife for back up. When she also outed herself as a lefty, the surrounded teacher had the sheepish look of a white man in Hammersmith Palais. When we asked her what strategies she was employing to help our child smarten up her writing, she turtled up and mumbled something about how tricky it is. A riff on this sorry scene is repeated every year. To coaches, trainers and tutors- we are an annoyance. Extra work for no extra credit.

Not surprisingly, left handers overall fare less well at school than the rest. A 1998 University of Bristol study noted that their results in tests were below those of right handers, with the gap between the two sets of girls being the largest. According to other academic research, we have a rough time outside school as well. Lefties suffer: a higher accident rate, we are more likely to have our fingers amputated due to power-tool accidents, we suffer more wrist fractures, we endure a higher incidence of allergies, epilepsy, depression, drug abuse, bed-wetting, attempted suicide and sleeping disorders.

The resulting flying elbows make sitting at a dinner table next to a lefty eating a rare steak an experience similar to man marking a prime John Fashanu.

It sounds grim, but it really isn’t. Being born cack handed is truly a blessing. You get an alternative view of the world without being seriously persecuted like other minority groups (and previous generations of lefties). On top of our arty pretensions, we lead the way in other fields. The Bristol study found that, as well as scoring more low marks, left handers also dominate the top scores- particularly in the highest, genius level range. It seems that snotty primary school teachers either alienate us from the whole educational process or drive us on to prove them wrong. Maybe constantly having to translate everyday situations into scenarios that work the opposite way trains the brain. No doubt boosted by the high achievers, the Bristol boffins found that left handers will go on to earn around five percent more than righties when they leave education.

Barack Obama may have been the first black president, but he followed a long line of lefties into the White House- including four of the last five incumbents. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush Snr were fellow southpaws; folksy dolt W was the sole normal. Some say that a greater proportion of left handers process language with both sides of the brain, making them better equipped to cope with the mass communication overload of modern politics (spinmeister David Cameron is another lefty). Others point to the need to be resilient, something we get from being berated at school and regularly being injured in low level accidents. Or maybe it dates back to the old days. Generals like Alexander the Great and Napoleon conquered their worlds with strategies their foes couldn’t get their heads round. Hitting them from angles they weren’t expecting.

Back at the gym, the class went well. Everyone was really impressed with the strength and accuracy of my daughter’s front hand, especially since she was a beginner. That’s what you learn as a left hander. There’s no gain in digging in your heels and making a fuss. You have to use your head and make it work for you.

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