On East And West And Left And Right

When I went to live in the Rue Neuve-des-Petits-Champs, opposite my windows, at the Hotel de Pontchartrain, there was a clock. For more than a month I did my utmost to teach her how to tell the time by it, but, even now, she can hardly do so. She has never been able to give the names of the twelve months of the year in correct order, and does not know a single figure, in spite of all the trouble I have taken to teach her. She can neither count money nor reckon the price of anything. The words which she uses in speaking are often the very opposite of those which she means.

Thus Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Confessions (1782/1789), of his companion Thérèse Levasseur. I like to think of her as the patron saint of those of us who lack a certain simple facility. Now, I can tell the time, I can name the months of the year in the correct order, I am reasonably good with figures, I can count money and reckon prices, and I usually use words correctly, unless I specifically intend not to. But when the time comes to write my own Confessions, it will be necessary to admit that I get hopelessly confused by left and right and by east and west.

This will not come as a surprise to those of you who read On Perpilocution a couple of days ago, where I blithely announced that Madagascar is a big island off the western coast of Africa. Madagascar is, of course, a big island off the eastern coast of Africa, which most of you will know without having to consult an atlas or gazetteer. The thing is, I didn’t need to consult an atlas. I could – I can – picture the location of Madagascar in my mind’s eye. The problem is that I experience a certain befuddlement, in trying to recall which direction is called “east” and which is called “west”, and as often as not I get it wrong. It will amuse you to be told that, as I tippy-tapped those words on New Year’s Day, I actually paused to hold my hands out in front of me, and looked from left to right, and right to left, to remind myself which way was east and which way was west, and, mentally satisfied, typed “west”, having convinced myself that my right hand represented “west” – which of course it did not, nor ever will.

I would like to be able to say that I am on slightly less shaky ground with right and left than with east and west, but in truth they flummox me almost as much. I remember a particular incident from my childhood. I was about ten years old, and had been to a friend’s birthday party, and his father gave me a lift home. All went well until we reached “the top” (as my family called it), an intersection where two main roads crossed. Approaching from the south, I had no problem telling Mr Hughes to continue straight ahead. I have never got my north and south mixed up. But I then told him to take the first turn on the right, so we whizzed straight past the first turn on the left, which would, shortly, have taken us, with one more left turn, to my house. And on we whizzed, there being no right turn for quite some time. It was a dark winter evening, but I knew of course that we were heading away from, rather than towards, home. I cannot fathom why I did not point out my mistake immediately, but as I recall I waited until we had gone a mile or so, with no right turn in sight, to pipe up. When I did so, Mr Hughes became somewhat exasperated. Once he had executed a U-turn, he of course depended on me to tell him when we needed to turn – right, this time – before we again reached “the top”. Brilliantly, I guided us down the wrong turning, one or two roads before we ought to have turned, and we then became hopelessly lost in the maze of the estate wherein – somewhere, but where? – my house lay. A journey that ought to have taken ten minutes thus took at least half an hour, and I think Mr Hughes was very glad to see the back of me when eventually I skipped out of his car and up the path to my door. I suppose he must have found his way out of the labyrinth eventually, unless, decades later, a by now withered and white-haired old man is still driving round and round the estate, ever more tetchy, while Mrs Hughes and all the little Hugheses, now grown, sit pining in their parlour.

2 thoughts on “On East And West And Left And Right

  1. I must take issue with your statement regarding hands: The right hand represents West with unerring accuracy. One need only face South to achieve this.

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