Dentists and me: A brief history

I’m not fond of dentists. I don’t have any kind of phobia about them, and they’re a long way up the evolutionary tree for me from bankers, lawyers, accountants and politicians. But I have my doubts. The Slog jury is out on the subject.

My first dentist as a kid was Mr Green, who had a surgery in a massive, creepy early Victorian mansion on Cheetham Hill Road in Manchester. I remember Mr Green as a live skull who mooched about around the dentist’s chair and constantly told me that things wouldn’t hurt a bit. But they did.

In the mid 1950s, having any form of pain relief for root canal work was felt to be prima facie evidence of at best homosexuality, and at worst a congenital form of rank cowardice worthy only of the death penalty. Tooth extractions were made bearable by the use of NO2 (‘laughing gas’) a form of anaesthetic about as funny as global famine. A mask was forced onto every unwilling face, and the pulsating headache that accompanied the recovery of consciousness was only exceeded by the odd sound of veeer-veeer-wuuurrggh-boooiawaing in one’s ears.

On Mr Green’s retirement, we went to another dentist, Mr Batten. He promptly asserted that Mr Green had been both visually impaired and suffering from tertiary dementia. I had somewhere in the region of 200 fillings during the ensuing three months. Batten told me they wouldn’t hurt. All of them did.

This sort of mendacity became something I almost autonomically associated with dentists over time. They would tell me that irradiating X-Rays were perfectly safe, and then run to the far end of the street before pressing the button. The fact that, by then, I was covered in a lead jacket did not provide much reassurance.

What made things worse was that I had inherited my Auntie Mollie’s complaint of having been born with an extra row of forty-odd teeth too many. As my pre-pubescent choppers fought for space , it soon became clear that I would either have to have lots of them removed, or face a life shouting through the equivalent of tightly planted bamboo. Part of the indignity associated with this involved being paraded in a students’ lecture theatre as a freak show on the same basis as the Elephant Man. I was supposed to feel privileged, but on the whole I can only remember thinking that never again would I pay to see bearded ladies, or sheep with two heads.

A mouth crammed with far too many teeth is bad enough, but I have never entirely understood the tendency of dentists to fill one’s mouth with liquid extractors, cotton wool, and hygiene sheets before asking questions requiring detailed answers. What are they supposed to make of answers that go “Eyegle glot shrew got goo bean lie gat”? A few of them, in my experience, are control-freaks with strong opinions who discuss the big issues of the day knowing full well that you will have to lie there and listen to the rant without responding. But the vast majority are simply uninterested in your reply. It is a case of The Outer Limits: ‘We are in control. Do not adjust your oral set’.

I was back at the dentists today. I had a wobbly tooth that complained every time I used it for chewing. My current dentist is a very nice lady whose sole concern is not to cause pain. But at the end of the day, she is a dentist and thus can’t help herself. Having injected my gums and caused absolutely excruciating pain before any root canal drilling had even begun, she confidently promised zero trauma, and went to work. After I’d been pulled back down from the roof rafters, the dentist correctly surmised that more aneasthetic was required. She returned armed with a hypodermic syringe possibly designed for use on rhinos, and then terrified me by asking the dental assistant whether the practice had any WD40 in stock.

It turned out that she’d been having difficulty unlocking the medication cupboard. But she did clock the terror in my eyes, and was able to reassure me that the infected root had not rusted into my gums. Soon afterwards, following persistent enamel grinding of the kind I imagine is used to loosen rough diamonds set into igneous rock, there was a strong smell of burning. Ha-ha-ha said the dentist, patients are often confused by that – but it’s quite normal. Confusion wasn’t the emotion I’d experienced. Blind panic was nearer the mark.

So like I say, dentists always worry me. As I went to settle up, the admin lady said, “That’ll be £195 today thank you”, as if next time it might cost twice as much. In Soho, there are dominatrix women who charge similar amounts to lash unfortunate blokes into tumescence. I suspect they might be dental student dropouts.