Petronella Wyatt

Gnasher obsession

The ongoing escapades of London's answer to Ally McBeal

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I was interested to read in one of the newspapers that my old friend Robert Hardman had had his teeth surgically whitened for an article. Frankly, in all the years I have known him, I have never paid any attention to Robert's teeth. This is no slight. It is merely that, when I saw the name Hardman, the immediate word association was not ivories. At least not the ones in his mouth, for he does play a mean theme tune on the upright piano.

This indicates one of two things. Either that Robert's teeth always appeared perfectly acceptable. Or that I am not a teeth person. The truth is a bit (sorry) of both. Robert's teeth had never sprung to my notice because they seemed perfectly, typically, normal teeth. Second, I am an eyes person, a nose person, occasionally a figure person, but certainly not a teeth person.

In bodily fashion terms, however, teeth constitute the new black. Or rather white. Robert had his teeth lightened because this is apparently the current thing to do if one is a celebrity, especially an American one. Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta Jones and countless other Hollywoodites have all spent a fortune on dental treatment.

This obsession with teeth is something we English find hard to understand. Many of us take pride in not visiting the dentist at all. My younger brother puffed up his chest, on one occasion, and declared that he had not brushed his teeth for five years. Dentalwork, at least pre Martin Amis, was all a bit foreign and suspect, like using stinky male eau de cologne and reeking like a Frenchman.

As far as my own teeth are concerned, I thought them pretty OK as far as British teeth go. That is, until I went to America recently. Having been used to people looking at my face or, in moments of impertinence, at other parts of my anatomy, I found for the first time in my life that an unusual number of people seemed to home straight in on my teeth.

As imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, blah-de-blah, my eyes started making a beeline for theirs. This was a mistake. It is not only famous Americans who have perfect, even gleaming, disgustingly pearl-white teeth, but all Americans. If the Continentals are obsessed with clothes, then Americans are obsessed with gnashers. By comparison, my teeth, which are not as even or as neon as they might be, were decidedly inadequate.

I began to get feelings of acute paranoia. Whenever I went to a place with a large crowd of people, I felt that they were all pointing at my teeth. Some days into my trip, I went to the graduation of a friend's son. In desperation, I determined that the best policy was to keep my mouth clamped firmly shut and talk through the corners. This was wise. Even the parents, in their garden-party sort of clothes, appeared to have the teeth of ten-year-olds.

I kept my mouth shut for some time. Graduation ceremonies are rather on the long side. It is all a bit like Ascot. People dress up and walk about in the freezing cold while a parade of undergraduates goes by. I felt like shouting 'good withers' at some of the girls, or indeed 'great set of molars'. The only difference between a graduation and a horse race is that you cannot bet on the students.

This seemed a pity. I was dying to bet large sums of money that Miss Long Legs from Wisconsin would graduate with high honours in English or that young Mr Lock Jaw was a definite one for social studies. Only the suspense was cruelly shattered by the college printing the results in a brochure that we were given before the ceremony. Still, had I thought about it earlier, I could have done a P.G. Wodehouse and organised a Great Graduation Handicap the previous day. I should have set up bookie tents for parents to take a wager on other parents' offspring.

Not that this would have gone down very well with the faculty authorities, but there was certainly no danger of the affair transmuting into Gussie presents the Prizes. Unlike most British students and professors at university events, everyone was admirably sober. But then British students and professors don't care how they rot their teeth. Gosh, I'm doing it again. I can think of nothing but teeth these days, principally my own. In fact, the day after I arrived back in Blighty I booked an appointment with my dentist whose assistant had understandably forgotten my name. I'll have Hardman's teeth if it kills me.

Jeremy Clarke is away.