More MS news articles for May 2001

Charlie Courtauld: At last I've found an excuse for my famous cack-handedness

27 May 2001

I am a lefty and, for those of you fed up with reading about the election, that has nothing to do with my political views. No, it refers to my leftish leanings with a pen. The near-illegible scrawl that comes from my left hand may persuade you otherwise, but that's before you've seen the efforts from my right. Already my four-year-old daughter, Daisy, can write better with her right than I can, and that's after only one lesson. For all the important tasks in life ­ bowling a cricket ball, drinking a coffee, smoking cigarettes, bottlefeeding a baby or picking my nose ­ my left hand is the natural choice.

But that didn't stop my primary school headmaster from imposing a ruthless purge of this leftish tendency. Like one of those Bible Belt classroom creationists who throw Darwin's books into the dustbin, my head didn't believe in newfangled theories ­ such as lefthandedness. Through my form teacher, Miss Roy, the edict was sent that all pupils must learn to write properly, and that meant from the right.

Miss Roy was something of a local heroine in north Essex. Long before Channel 4 noticed the fact, she realised that teachers can be cool and sexy. Her short skirts and thigh-high leather boots sent fathers' pulses racing on sports day. She was also the closest we had to a celebrity, since her father was rarely off Look East, being interviewed about his unfeasibly long moustache. The curled whiskers earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records (a British record only, alas ­ he never came close to the Chinese world champion) and he even once showed his tufts on Blue Peter.

But, however famous she might have been, Miss Roy's classes were a horror to endure. Forced to hold my Platignum italic pen in an uncomfortable way, and chant the mantra "right is right, left is wrong", I found shaping my letters an impossibility. My handwriting looked worse and worse until the only career paths that seemed open to me were in teaching journalists to scrawl shorthand or GPs to write prescriptions.

Eventually my parents were forced to march me off to a shrink. I don't know his name, but I do remember that, like all self-respecting psychiatrists in the 1970s, he had a thick Polish accent. He did the standard inkblot tests (quite why, I'll never know), and duly wrote a letter to the effect that I was hugely left-hand dominant and that forcing me to write with my right was detrimental to my mental wellbeing.

Surely this evidence would convince my headmaster ­ and so he was shown the shrink's note.

"Nonsense," was the considered response. I didn't stay at the school much longer. Ever since, I have ploughed the traditional clumsy furrow of the cack-handed. I am unable to handle china without dropping it, or drive a car without crashing. Hitherto, supported by a book titled The Left Hander Syndrome, I have blamed the conspiracy of the right-handed for these breakages. If only the world were more lefty-friendly, I have moaned, these disasters wouldn't happen. (This confidence was rather shattered when, on a visit to the Left-Handed Shop in Soho, I discovered that a lifetime in this right-handed world had left me entirely unable to use the left-handed tinopeners and chequebooks on display.)

But now I have a new excuse. A dropped plate, a dented car door, a smashed mirror ­ it's all because I've got multiple sclerosis. Never mind that I've always been a clumsy git: henceforward all breakages are down to this disease.

And, 30 years on from that primary school, I have at last a reason to thank Miss Roy for her stubbornness. Most of the symptoms of my MS have subsided for now, just in time for the election (which is a massive relief, because I'm working like a dog at the moment). But I have still got a very annoying tremor in my left arm. This isn't like the shakes you might get from over-indulging in caffeine: my arm constantly jerks in an alarming fashion, so much so that there's apparently a rumour at the BBC's Westminster offices, where I'm working, that I've got an out-of-control cocaine habit.

But the tremor means that, for many tasks, my trusty left arm is now a no-no and so ­ for the first time since Miss Roy's form ­ I'm using my right instead.

Last week, fed up with the sight of undecorated plasterwork on the outside of the garage, I finally bought a brush from Travis Perkins, changed into the overalls that my wife, Lucy, gave me for Christmas (hint, hint) and did some painting with my right hand.

OK, so most of the paint fell on the ground or daubed my hair, but at last I succeeded in getting the garage walls white. Lucy and I had hoped that this would give alfresco summer lunches a Mediterranean flavour. Unfortunately, until we get some plants growing up them, the relentless white walls are more evocative of a 19th-century loony bin (or, even worse, BBC Television Centre). But at least I did it. Miss Roy would be proud. Right is, after all, right.