Saturday, 28 June 2014


As I walked to the station, earlier this month, I passed an overgrown garden that has a beautiful, blossoming bindweed, entwined around an old trunk near the fence. I shared a picture of the white trumpet-like blooms, to brighten some friends’ days.
Since then I have suffered an earworm of the Flanders and Swann song, “Misalliance”:

It describes the story of the love between two different entities – the Honeysuckle, which spirals clockwise, and the Bindweed that grows anti-clockwise - and the doomed nature of their relationship. It can be interpreted as a simple love story or an ode towards the need for tolerance and the acceptance of diversity.  

Some Honeysuckle from my garden
The vegetal lovers’ problems are not due to the plants themselves, but more as an outcome of parental disapproval and the perceptions and the reactions of others.  I like the clever words – like the spiralling tendrils of the plants, the witty twists and double meanings take root in my mind and leave me pondering. You might be interested to know that the proclivity of the twist of either plant to be clockwise or anti-clockwise cannot be forced through the influence of heat, light, wind or humidity. The direction of the spiral is set and is caused by a protein. Much like a human cannot choose to grow up as left or right-handed, although he/she can, through practice using the less favoured or natural feeling limb, develop better ambidextrous skills. There is little doubt that most of us favour one hand over the other, as this simple test demonstrates:

I was chatting with my eldest son on Friday, before we went to see “Bring Up the Bodies – the excellent sequel to “Wolf Hall” that we had enjoyed earlier in the month. Anne Boleyn, a key character in the play, seemingly twisted Henry VIII around her little finger, bewitching the King into leaving the Catholic Church and founding the Church of England, thereby enabling him to marry her, in the hope of producing a son.  Anne was not popular and rumours abounded, claiming that she had a third nipple (probably a mole on her neck) and an extra finger (which was perhaps an extra fingernail), which her critics turned into something more unnatural), – we speculated as to whether this was on her left or right hand. (It was in fact her right.)

Anne Boleyn, copy of a portrait painted c1534
This contemplation led us into a discussion about left and right-handed people and whether there are jobs that favour one type over the other. (The human race is predominantly right-handed as were our ancestors – judging by the scratches on their 500,000+ years old teeth: these prehistoric marks were created while our ancient predecessors prepared animal skins, holding the hides in their mouths to free up both hands to scrape and hold the sharpened stone tools and leather.) Circa one in ten of us is left-handed. I mooted to my son that, in the days of swords and the need to defend castles, the spiral of the staircases was designed to favour those attempting to defend an entrance from above, as a result a left-handed swordsman, who could attack a defended stairway more easily than most, might be able to command a premium as a mercenary. Similarly, left-handed tennis players (such as Rafael Nadal), baseball players (e.g. Babe Ruth) and boxers (like the 1930’s featherweight champion Freddie Miller) are at a slight advantage when pitted against to the majority of others in their sports. (As an aside, left-handed boxers are often considered more elegant to watch than their right-handed rivals and are referred to as “Southpaws”, an only sporadically used phrase outside the sport; certainly it is a more attractive moniker than the usual nicknames used for left-handers). Part of the sports stars’ success is probably due to these people having more experience of right-handed opponents than most of their competitors have had of taking on a left-hander.

Freddie Miller
Over the past millennia, left-handed people often have been considered inferior or frightening, resulting in individuals being described as “sinister” – from the Latin for “left” but often used to imply that something is unfavourable or evil. Another unpleasant phrase used for left-handers is “cack-handed”. Most people think “cack-handed” simply means awkward or clumsy.  The phrase originates from the custom of people using their right hand for eating and the left for cleaning the body after defecating. The word “cack” is Old English for excrement and is derived from the Latin “cacare” meaning to defecate.

My mother and both of her brother’s were born left-handed. They are of a generation where being sinisterly dextrous was considered a disadvantage and shameful. To avoid the boys from being viewed as abnormal, their teachers used to tie their “odd” hands behind their backs to prevent them from using them for writing (being a girl, this was not deemed necessary for my mother), this treatment had a profound and damaging effect upon her brothers – particularly the eldest who was sensitive and artistic as well as intellectual. Despite being restricted when young, both of my uncles matured into exceptional men: one designed the engines for the Royal Navy carrier, Ark Royal, and the other was a pioneering doctor, who established health services in Uganda, Gambia and the Seychelles.  All three siblings, when children, had their knuckles brutally rapped when they “misused” their cutlery. My mother is an amazing and creative woman – I still treasure the illustrations she drew for me as a child and her nature diaries, written and drawn when she was a teenager, are stunning.  People say that there is a link between being left-handed and artistic…

Certainly, there is evidence that a noticeably high proportion of architects, designers, thinkers, actors and artists (from Fine Art, Fashion and Music) have been/are left-handed, including: Leonardo Da Vinci; Paul Klee; Michelangelo Buonaroti; Henri de Toulouse Lautrec, Peter Paul Rubens; David Cameron, Barak Obama (indeed 4 of the past 5 American Presidents were left handed), Sir Kenneth Branagh; Charlie Chaplin; Angelina Jolie; Lewis Carroll; Germaine Greer; Jean-Paul Gaultier; David Bowie; Annie Lennox; Sir Paul McCartney; Jimi Hendrix; Rik Mayal; Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. The theory that left-handers are smarter and more creative than most of the population, due to left vs. right brain usage, has been disproved, but part of the explanation for a preponderance of creativity may be due to an enhanced connectivity of the left-handed brain – the neurologist Naomi Driesen and the cognitive neuroscientist Naftali Raz have determined that the corpus callosum (the collection of fibres that connects the brain’s hemispheres) is to a small, but significant, degree larger in left-handed as opposed to right-handed people. Another explanation that has been mooted is that left-handers have to constantly improvise and deploy creative thinking simply to operate within a predominantly right-handed world

Famous left-handed people
I know from my mother how irritating and, at times, hard it can be living in a predominantly right-handed world – she is a keen gardener – most secateurs, like scissors, are for right-handed use; card payment machines have the card swipe on the right-hand side; telephone boxes are designed for right-hand listening – the cable is too short and the area where you can write messages is inconvenient for left-handers; pens on chains in banks are often fixed to the right of the writing area with the chain itself an insufficient length; trousers with a sole back pocket are usually awkward, as the pocket is invariably on the wrong side; ticket barriers on the underground are for right-handed insertion; and cheque book stubs and ring binders can be fiddly when you want to make a quick record. I appreciate that for commercial reasons it makes sense to cater for the majority, but this approach causes inconvenience to and demonstrates a lack of consideration for a large number of people.

Right-handed scissors
Discrimination usually picks on a small sub-group that are different or weaker than the crowd.  When I started working in a dealing room I was one of a very small number of girls – a few of the men would tell me how I should dress – even suggesting shorter skirts when particular clients were coming to meet the team.  I was pretty smart at school – it is easy, when the school insists on calling out the names of top performers at the end of every term and making them stand up in front of their peers, to be viewed as a swot and to be picked on and teased by other pupils.  When I worked in Cairo it was not uncommon for a stranger to suddenly put his arm around me as I walked down the street, simply because I was a Western dressed, fair-skinned and blonde-haired woman. More recently I have sat in meetings and been the only British person, surrounded by others of a different nationality, and they have lapsed into their mother tongue, despite the fact that the official diction of the organisation was English (it’s a good thing I’m fairly proficient at languages and hence could still understand what they were saying). People often discriminate without even realising that they are doing so, all it takes is a lack of consideration and some ill-thought-through comments. In the Flanders & Swann song, the passing bee says:
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again,
consider your offshoots,
if offshoots there be…they’ll never receive any blessing from me.
Poor little sucker how will it learn?
Right, left, what a disgrace…
or it may go straight up
and fall flat on its face”.
The “fall” of an individual is most typically caused by other people’s reactions and interactions, based on what they perceive to be “inferior stock”, and not due to the individual themselves.  Like the horrific force of an American twister destroying a house or town, the impact and repercussions of discrimination can rip a person to shreds.  

A twister - also known as a tornado
In psychology there is a term - Twisted Thinking – that is often used in relation to people who have been suffering from long periods of depression. It refers to the tendency that a person with depression has of looking at everything from a negative stance – such as assuming that people are reacting in an unsympathetic and adverse manner towards them, when there is no evidence to support this; dwelling on downsides and ignoring the positives; not acknowledging accomplishments; automatically assuming that things will turn out badly and resorting to emotional reasoning (“I feel like a fool, so I must be one” or “It always goes wrong, so it will fail again this time”). Other people, usually close friends, family and colleagues, instead of engaging with the person to help them realise that they are using Twisted Thinking, tend to make flippant, dismissive and sarcastic remarks such as “It’s good to see you’re your usual cheery self!” or “Nice one Eeyore, great to see you so positive.” We should all take a lesson from Beatrix Potter’s book, “The Tailor of Gloucester” – now is the time for...
                                          “No more twist”.
"No More Twist" illustration by Beatrix Potter
in The Tailor of Gloucester
In reality the statement in the book refers to a lack of cherry coloured silk thread, needed to finish a garment – but the phrase can act as a reminder to watch your words and thoughts. 

Simpkin's grateful escapees
illustration by Beatrix Potter from The Tailor of Gloucester
Mind you, there are some pleasant twists to “The Tailor of Gloucester” tale. It is rare amongst Beatrix Potter’s books, in that it does not commence with “Once upon a time…” but is set in “the time of swords and periwigs” – a good period for some left-handers.  The book’s illustrations depict actual garments and places, as opposed to being imaginary images.  In addition, the story is based on a real-life incident (although the real tailor’s assistants were people and not mice who had been liberated from under teacups). So not all twists are unpleasant, indeed most of us enjoy a good twist (and not just a twist in a tale). So I am ending with some appropriate music to raise a smile – with thanks to Chubby Checker – here is “The Twist”.

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