Lynxhandlers

The title is how I like to think the German term for left-hander (“Linkshänder”) sounds, but there definitely is something different that isn’t just opposite about left-handers. Saturday 13th August was International Lefthanders Day. By now it’s well-known but still notable that these are:

Some notable sinisterists

Obama + Cameron, Bill Clinton, Bush the Elder, Osama bin Laden, Hugo Chavez

(Fidel Castro said to be but writes and ping-pongs right handed.)

Also included:

Harry S. Truman (he was a president of the USA, you know), Gerald Ford, (possibly Ronald Reagan but he wrote right handed.)

Our own dear queen (but writes with right), her parents, her eldest son and his.

I’m particularly impressed by the ‘and’ pairings:

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.

Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf.

J Edgar Hoover and President Herbert Hoover.

Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael (Michelangelo I’ve got down as ambidextrous).

Julius Caesar & Napoleon Bonaparte (& Josephine).

(The jury’s still out on Beethoven, and Mozart seems to have been ambidextrous.)

You may be able to think of a few top left-handed tennis players. But left handers don’t have the same advantage in all sports: they don’t in cricket but they certainly do in fencing where it’s normal for the top places in a tournament to be 50/50 right and left handers. In British fencing, the ‘Legends’ mostly seemed to be left handed up to when I was around, and two of the outstanding right-handers of my time who often kept the lefties at bay, Steve Paul and Pierre Harper, were both extraordinarily athletic. (In my time an athletic approach was less usual in British fencing than left-handedness. If my current job meant going up or down flights of stairs to get things off the printer, or cycling to work, I found I had an unfair advantage at the weekend (-: .)

I’m convinced the two reasons often put forward were both applying. First was that left vs right was normal for lefties but less so for righties, advantaging the lefties in a mixed bout. This effect is enhanced in fencing because of a big difference in styles: a left vs right fight brings more target accessible but now most of the target is only accessible if you use snazzy moves like flicks or grazes, which is why I favoured a ‘left-handed style’. However I don’t think that can explain all the huge apparent advantage, and the other explanation is also needed. In right-handers, the sword arm – and the action side of the visual field, not the case in all sports – are entirely processed by the left hemisphere, and the right hemisphere is very often better at spatial things. Things are different but not opposite with left-handers. While the important vision and motor sides are now on the right (because they’re leading with the other arm), the best spatial side quite often stays on the right. If all the business were being done in the same area, we’d expect that to help. (In a number of ways the left-handed population is more variable in their brains than right handers. This alone might make top performers better, since the proportion at both the top and bottom ends of the spectrum would be increased. I found a related phenomenon amongst my female pupils where the percentages of the extremely deft as well as the extremely undeft was higher than with the males.)

I can add that in my personal experience, left-handed fencers seemed to me to be less talkative (Alan Jay making an obvious exception) than right-handers. They also struck me as more thoughtful, or perhaps brighter, though both might be a wrong impression gained by their being more successful and less talkative, always assuming the latter were actually true. Interestingly, the preponderance of US presidents has been attributed by some to an increase in language abilities because brains of left-handers sometimes ‘do language’ on both sides. (Actually, the ‘non language’ side, wherever it is, is thought to handle tone of voice, jokes, identification of speaker etc.)

A couple of the most interesting of my opponents were left handed – most interesting and most annoying to referee for. The first I encountered turned out years later to be that East German spy. (I think we’re letting bygones be bygones now, so I won’t name him. But even though he knew I was working in a defence research job, the so-and-so didn’t think I was worth making any effort to compromise.) Rather than argue with him over his godawful bent-arm attacks, one of those peculiar ways of doing things he’d picked up abroad, and which he insisted had right of way (I’d have been prepared to send him to The Tower for just that!) I had to hide in the toilet one time, to avoid having to referee the final. It wasn’t for fear of handling some type like James Bond or Robert Shaw’s character in “From Russia with Love”, it was all the whingeing and grimacing I couldn’t face.

Even more notable was Bruce Dickinson, the Iron Maiden bloke, whom I first met when we were the only people to turn up for a competition on the wrong day. He made not one but two spectacular transformations. In his first incarnation, he’d jumped around pointlessly, wasting waggonloads of energy, and shouting even when he didn’t think he’d scored a hit. And boy could he shout. I was one of the few referees who asked fencers not to shout too much since it put their opponents off, but I could never get Brucie to obey. I suppose it was some consolation for me that one of his most nightmarish refereeing duties was over a fight between me and my coach. The old fakir had forced me over the back line then wouldn’t come back en guarde quite on the spot where Bruce told him to. Not for half an hour. (They had to send for no less than Graham Guenigault in the end – as they’d had to when I’d locked myself in the loo that other time).

But gradually, and by degree, things changed. First, he famously changed over to left-handed since he apparently sung left-handed (held the mike in the right hand and artisticulated with the left). Soon after that he won a competition he’d kindly organised for us on Jersey, but in a weapon he hated and never used, and competing against quite a few, including me, who specialised in it. (He didn’t actually beat me as such – I like to think he never beat me (-: – but we had a double defeat that felt like ten to me.) We all thought that was an aberration but it wasn’t. Our paths didn’t cross much after that but not many years later I happened to see him memorably out-classing the Hampshire champion, ten years nearer his fencing prime than Bruce and nearly a foot taller. I actually clapped at the end, even though as usual in fencing there was no audience to be part of, I just happened to be there. It wasn’t just a victory, it was a magnificent symphony in elegant continental style. (Oh – and silent. Mmmmm – Silent 🙂 ) He’d gone from being one of the most ludicrous on the circuit to one of the most admirable, and pretty damn good too. OK, his personal coach Zsolt Vadaszffy had something to do with it, and of course Bruce does have more brains, self-control (and self belief) and determination than most. But if all that change that I saw came about through just becoming a lynx handler…! It would explain a lot. Pity making that simple switch isn’t more generally useful!

The following have been claimed to be lefties but I don’t think were:
Einstein, Churchill, Alexander the Great.

Sources:
Obama + Cameron photo:
Via Guardian, orig: Paul Hackett/PA

bin Laden photo:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Cg2s3amG50&feature=player_embedded”

Chavez pic:
http://en.rian.ru/russia/20090910/156088746.html

Other pics: Wikipedia.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Handedness_of_Presidents_of_the_United_States

Royal family lefties:
http://www.interplanetsarah.com/leftyfactoids.html

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