Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 31 January 2009

Tinkling the ivories

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Three years ago, when I couldn’t put off going to a dentist any longer, and had to make an urgent appointment, I discovered that the closest NHS dentist was in north Devon. I live in south Devon. Devon is a big county. It has more miles of road surface than Belgium. So I was forced to enrol for a course of treatment with a private dentist in the nearest town.

Every time I visit this private dentist’s surgery I am reminded of the old saying that only the rich know the difference between being rich and being poor. In the waiting room, soothing, digitally recorded Mozart wafts you into a deep leather sofa. There is a choice of daily newspapers and up-market magazines, including The Spectator, and free tea and coffee from the machine. And there is only ever one other person waiting, at most. Assuming you to be comfortably wealthy also, this expensively dressed person invariably looks up from their BlackBerry or Condé Nast Traveller and welcomes you cordially and conspiratorially to the world of private health care. The smiley receptionist looks like a young Sophia Loren. The expense is of course stomach-churning. Most people work to live, to bring up kids, to glorify God or Allah. For long periods I have to work to stop my teeth falling out.

I hadn’t visited a dentist for over ten years when I made my first appointment with this private dental practice, concerned that my perennial gum disease now seemed to be embarking on a policy of aggressive expansion. My fear was justified. My teeth were fine, said this dentist, after taking a look, but my gums would have to come out. My breath was so vile, he said, that, of the two of us, he was the one who was going to have the anaesthetic.

During the next 12 months I spent more time in that waiting room than I did at home. But he arrested the gum disease and tidied up my gob with a couple of extractions, some structural renovation, including fixing a false tooth directly on to my jawbone with a titanium peg, and some interior decorating.

Another thing bothering me at the time was the amount of mercury I was carrying around in my teeth. I took a tablet of the hallucinogenic drug LSD at a party once, and for the next six hours I was disconcertingly conscious of my fillings, which filled my mouth with the taste of metal and hummed and vibrated like an electricity sub- station. So where these mercury fillings were cracked or damaged and needed replacing, I asked him to put in non-ferrous fillings, a request which made him do a little dance on the spot and rub his hands together with glee. Monthly visits to the practice hygienist completed the job and my mouth once again became a place where, if the occasion arose, a third party might be willing to insert their tongue. This initial bout of treatment I paid for with the assistance of a small inheritance.

But I think this dentist must have lost heavily on the stock market lately, or is having another extension put on his palace, because I’ve got to have the wrecking ball in again, he says, and another intensive bout of renovation and reconstruction. I was having none of his nonsense to begin with. Look here, I said, I already spend more time here than I do at home and my teeth are almost as good as Gary Lineker’s.

He was adamant. Old age, I’m afraid, he said. My teeth are beginning to wear out. Wait a minute, I’m not that old, I said. He shot me a look suggesting it would be better for me if I faced up to reality occasionally. Or that was what it looked like from below, upside-down, and with only his eyes visible between his mask and his paper cap.

That was just before Christmas. And last week I turned up again at his surgery for the first of another series of visits that was going to take a bank loan to pay off — and the banks still aren’t lending. But apart from the fearful expense, I have to say I really enjoy going to the dentist’s. When you live in a Devon village in the winter, going to town to have your teeth taken out is a treat. I made my usual proposal of marriage to the receptionist, and she graciously promised me, as usual, that she’d rather drink bleach. I went over to the drinks machine and made myself a herbal infusion, lemon and ginger, just to demonstrate my sophistication, and I lounged in the leather sofa and read the football transfer news in the sports pages. Two hours later I came out of there minus two back teeth. I was spitting blood through lips I couldn’t feel. Cost: 200 quid. It was the highlight of my week.