As a left-hander born, thankfully, into an enlightened age, I never faced any pressure to use my other hand. I realised only a day or two ago that a change has taken place in thinking about this issue. I was listening to the popular BBC Radio 4 school drama, King Street Junior, now being repeated on 4Extra. In this episode, entitled ‘Left Out, Roped In’ by writer Martin Davies, kindly teacher Mr Sims ‘faces a big challenge’ when he finds a Muslim boy struggling to write with his right hand. Sims quickly realises that the boy is left-handed but his devoutly religious father is forcing him to use his right hand, because in Islam the left hand is ‘dirty’.

My left handedness had been discussed when I was young; I heard tales of children in the generation before me who’d been beaten into using their right hand. Some had endured having their left hand strapped to their body. The adults I knew were quite emphatic about the folly and dire consequences of forcing wrong-handedness: it was thought to lead to stammering, bed-wetting, anxiety, social withdrawal, poor concentration and sometimes a failure to become literate. George VI’s stammer was attributed to the cruel treatment he’d received for being a southpaw.


By the time I went to school, parents of every class had been made aware that left-handedness was acceptable. I encountered the archaic issue again when I taught English in a Polish university in the 1970s. Whenever I turned my back on students in one particular group to write on the blackboard (they still had those), I would hear tittering. It slightly unnerved me and I wondered if perhaps my bottom looked big when I was chalking on the board. A Polish colleague told me that some of them were laughing because in Poland left-handedness was associated with stupidity. As I was a teacher, they found it funny that I would have a characteristic of feeble-mindedness.

Unlike Mr Sims, my colleague was furious. He told me that in Polish schools some rural parents – peasants, as they were once called – had backward ideas about left-handedness but teachers had been instructed to tell them that there was nothing wrong with writing with the left hand. He said that the parents had fully accepted that. He was dismayed that those particular students were behaving like urban peasants. In fact it was just a form of low-level bullying. I was the same age as them, and they knew I was endlessly more advantaged by living in the West. At the time they couldn’t travel even if they wanted to. He soon put a stop to it and I didn’t have any more trouble.

To my surprise, Mr Sims at King Street Junior met his ‘big challenge’ by telling his pupil that he ‘wouldn’t bother him’ about it. It was a matter of carry on as you are, but try to be ambidextrous if you can. There was no question of taking the matter up with his parents. Mr Sims had no intention of telling the boy’s devout Muslim father that he was wrong. He could strap down his son’s hand and fill his head with fear and self-loathing if he chose to do so.

Instead Mr Sims asked in the staff room if anyone had any ideas about the boy. One teacher suggested teaching him a brass instrument, as some are played mainly with the left hand. It was thought that this might inculcate confidence in him, somehow without annoying his father. As if he might not notice his son suddenly playing the trumpet.

Not impressed by that, Mr Sims tried to think of famous people who’d been on the sinistral side, to use their prestige to bolster the boy’s confidence surreptitiously. He tried Leonardo, Picasso, Paul McCartney, Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. Naturally the boy hadn’t heard of any of them – he was getting an English education, after all. It was decided to come up with some famous Muslim lefties instead. After all, it was accepted that the boy’s main focus had to be on Islam.

Sadly no gauche Muslims were found, but the teachers came up with another solution: a collective movement. They would form a support group for the ‘left-handed minority’. Once the problem had been labelled as a specific issue of identity it could be tackled without approaching the Islamic family. Quite forward thinking in terms of identity politics for a play first broadcast in 1995.

We didn’t hear whether the boy was allowed to attend the support group or if he gradually realised that there was no shame in being ‘cack-handed’, but while all that was going on we have to assume he spent quite a long time struggling to write with his non-dominant hand to please his father. The consequences for him of being forced to do this were not discussed. It seemed from this play that putting the needs of the child first had been superseded and for the last twenty years we have become increasingly post-child centred. We were now community centred, with the needs of the group and its particular identity, particularly if it is ethnically based, coming before any possibility that a child might be damaged.

I’m glad my childhood coincided with an age of post-war enlightenment, actually before child-centred education arrived. Post that, the new paradigm says that in childhood you will get whatever your particular community says you require; it could be quinoa and gluten-free bread and no sugar, having seven bells beaten out of you because your stepfather says you are possessed by demons, or getting your left arm strapped to your back. Child abuse is now culturally relative, but if the situation gets too difficult, you can always take up the bassoon.

28 COMMENTS

  1. I was about to witter on about westerners having to tolerate ‘backward’ cultures until I realised that it was not long ago that such thoughts permeated our society. My father was left handed and school/society forced him to favour his right hand. My right hand is dominant although I do write, when it suits, with my left. It is also useful when playing snooker. What I recall from my childhood was my mother’s reaction when I proudly showed her that I could write left-handed. It was though I was in league with the devil.
    My children are both left-handed and as you state, thank goodness we have moved beyond such criminalisation.

    • I started school at the age of five in 1957 as a left-hander. Fortunately I was never pressurised to write with my right hand. Like many who write with the left hand, there are other things I naturally do with my right hand, such as using a pair of scissors.

      One great advantage these days, (and I know other left-handers who say the same) is that I naturally use a computer mouse in my right hand (I cannot even control it properly with my left) so I can be using the PC and making notes simultaneously.

    • Doesn’t matter if the West was backwards a couple of generations ago because we aren’t now. Such things as accommodating left-handedness increase productivity and decrease anxiety, marks of cultural superiority and genuine measures of superiority.

      • Aren’t we?. Only last year my local borough public library disabled their computer systems from allowing left-handed use of the mouse! It took a complaint from the local disabled group to get that reversed.

        • Interesting, and my own story. I’m both right hand dominate and right eye dominate, something you learn in shooting (or archery). And yes, there are both ambidextrous and left handed guns, rare though. But I’ve had several go rounds with carpal tunnel syndrome, the last one from running my mouse, and so I switched to using it left handed (although without switching the mouse. Now I can barely run it with my right hand. Good part is that the CTS hasn’t returned either.

  2. Perhaps the ancients had the right idea when they wrote boustrophedon (look it up if you are not familiar with the word or the technique). At least that encouraged everyone to be ambidextrous. Probably good training for the brain too.

      • Maybe so. But it might have been easier to just swap the writing implement to the other hand, especially if the tablet was a bit big and heavy. Who knows?

        • I should imagine that students of these things know as handswapping would lead to a change of writing style.

          A third alternative is for the scribe to move round the table at each line end!

  3. If your left hand side is dominant, I urge you to take up football. There is a shortage of left footed players. You will be played on the left wing and your manager will be glad of you. Football needs players on both sides of the field, but there aren’t many who can play well on one half of the pitch.

    But if you incline to the left, please stay out of politics until you have grown up.

    • It continues to stagger me that squillionare footballers prefer to kick with one foot. Look at any Premier league match – you even see it at international level.

      • Heaven forbid a manager might want the players to do “weak-foot drill”– why, those poor darlings might pull a muscle or something!

  4. I started school in 1970 and was never pressured to write with my right hand although there was some pressure to use cutlery right handed. I do pretty much everything left handed and footed – throw, write, kick a ball, bowl, bat, play squash – the only things I am aware of that I do things the way a right hander would do are hold a pool cue and guitar and stand on a skateboard.

    Has it ever been a disadvantage – not really other than there are a couple of sports you can’t play left handed like hockey and polo (never tried the latter) and it is harder to get left handed gear for sports like cricket and golf.

    Advantages – certainly in a sport like squash there are some advantages to being left handed and although not a tennis player there definitely seems to be some advantage – Martina Navratilova, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Monica Seles, Rod Laver all lefties. Left handers are also well over represented in baseball e.g. Babe Ruth

    Both Pele and Maradona were left footed and basketballers Lebron James and Larry Bird both left handed as well as Wayne Gretzky.

    All these are in the very highest elite of their chosen sport – golf is perhaps the odd man out – can only think of Phi Mickelson amongst the great players.

  5. There is a genuine issue in many traditional Muslim societies because of eating and toileting habits. Food is eaten with the right hand and bottoms are not wiped with paper but rather washed with water, using the left hand. And there is unlikely to be lavish provision of soap and hot water for hand washing. So keeping one hand for each purpose makes sense.

    • I recall a lunch with local and expat colleagues in a cheap cafe in Yemen many years ago when a fellow Englishman inadvertently forgot the rule and picked up his bread with his right hand. The place erupted in a chorus of angry shouting and, after a couple of minutes, all the locals, apart from my two Yemeni colleagues, had left the room. Not a very rational or moderate standard of behaviour in my view.

      • You mean “picked up his bread with his LEFT hand I presume?

        As you may be dipping your bread into communal pots of food if you use your left hand you are exposing them to your faeces!

        Apparently one aspect of cutting off right hand for theft is that you can no longer eat with other people.

  6. We write with the right hand because we write from left to right and don’t want to smear the ink as it dries. (or possibly we write from L to R because we use the R hand)

    Many/most/all Muslim scripts write from R to L. Why then do they not use the L hand for same reason?

    • They do what they do because Mohammed said so. And as Mohammed couldn’t write, with either hand, he didn’t think about that little problem.

  7. I write/brush teeth/throw darts left handed (not at the same time) – everything else is RH. My only ambidextrous feat was being able to bowl with either hand in junior club cricket.
    In my student days, my writing left-handed did sometimes provoke comment from the opposite sex, which proved advantageous as an “ice breaker” in my relations with them, but I’d better not say any more.

    • That is interesting, I am very similar. I write, brush teeth and shave with left hand but all catching and throwing or anything needing force is down with my right hand. As a rule anything delicate or precise is done with the left hand and everything else with the right hand. Very little is interchangeable. If I was playing snooker or using a hammer I could use my left hand if needed if it was convenient but it would not be as effective.
      If, hypothetically, I was confronted by an irate and aggressive, Social Justice Warrior (is there any other kind) and I felt immediate threatened. I would have to lead with my right. 🙂

  8. I read this as a parable. For quite apart from the specifics it illustrates beautifully the process of dealing with difficult issues in a society quite incapable, it seems, of simply addressing the problem. On the cultural level this means there are endless instances of things being stopped, changed or being the subject of a “policy” . Based on supposed potential offence, frequently no one has even bothered to ask, apparently even asking might be offensive! Similarly with so many issues the slightly awkward conversations, inevitable if the issue is rare or about small groups in the general population, are avoided by just such a process of generalising the issue and creating “Policies” that avoid any actual dialogue or indeed the possibility anyone might learn something. In my field of disability it is common to find parents and community leaders who find disability to be a sign of past moral failings, or a sign of divine disfavour or shameful for the family. This occasions difficult conversations about these beliefs and the fact that in the UK services will not act on these beliefs. These can be angry interchanges but the point is at least both sides get to put their point and the family are clear about what UK services will and won’t do, and the reasons why. I always hope the family members will also take on some of the more optimistic views current, but of course I can’t force it.
    In this case it is just possible a dialogue might have resulted in a positive change in the parental view, or a grudging acceptance that in a UK school the son will be taught in a UK way, or just an angry tirade. That is life.

Comments are closed.