On the whole I think dentistry is a dashed good thing. I am glad there are strange people willing to poke about in our mouths in exchange for little more than a feeling of absolute power and a sizeable property empire. It’s one of those areas where it’s hard to be nostalgic. The very crustiest of fogies sit, encased in their gentlemen’s clubs (no ‘members’ clubs’ for these old oafs – we’re talking about the kind of ancient who isn’t entirely sure women ought to exist, let alone be allowed into exclusive establishments), and in exchange for a pint of modest-quality gin will rant about the horrors of modern inventions like moveable type, steam engines and democracy. Yet even these decaying, hate-fuelled creatures are quite fond of modern dentistry. For a start, it’s quite hard to complain vociferously when your mouth contains little more than enamelled shrapnel.
Perhaps I am too harsh on mouthwork’s manky past. For the wealthy, there were alternatives to a face full of grit and bone. You could have some artifical gnashers constructed from coal and asbestos. For a few bob more you could have the real thing torn from the face of a loyal servant or defeated foe, and then shoved into your own necrotic gob. You could have an elephant slaughtered especially, and some shiny new incisors carved from its tusks. Or, of course, for the true decadent for whom any minute away from the opium pipe is a minute wasted, you could simply train an obedient houseboy to do all your chewing for you, then pipe the resulting meat gruel directly into your own bloated belly, washing it down with several gallons of port.
See, the old days weren’t so bad. However, we now have shimmering surgeries that look like images of heaven from 1920s films. There are neutrally decorated waiting rooms that are between them solely responsible for keeping Readers’ Digest in business. Here musak tinkles in between softly spoken adverts for increasingly nuclear forms of tooth-whitening.
Compare these cool, Scandinavia-on-a-strict-design-budget vistas of peace and glass-topped tables to Gps’ waiting rooms. These are an infernal combination of creche, retirement home and consumptives’ sanatorium, where you all wait for weeks for five minutes of time with an overworked doctor permitted only three answers: “Ask somebody else”, “Hope it goes away,” and “Take these mysterious pills”.
However, there is a consolation: doctors rarely see fit to surround you with pictures of the terrible things that could happen if you don’t visit them regularly. Dentists, on the other hand, are quite happy to pack their realms with posters of gum disease, murals of misaligned molars, and hideous images of cheap, broken fillings. It’s all very unsettling – a bit like visiting the DVLA and finding yourself surrounded by sculptures of car crashes.
There’s a good reason why doctors don’t do this: decorating the place with pictures of dead ‘flu victims and people who’ve turned into giant rashes is considered slightly bad form. Also, a doctor without a giant queue is a happy doctor. Very rare, in other words. A dentist in a similar situation, however, is pretty swiftly going to find themselves out on the High Street with a cardboard sign saying ‘will cap teeth for food’.
Bad teeth are good business, and the worse we think our teeth are, the better that business gets. True, as a nation we ought to spend a bit more time having our teeth examined, but that’s not enough to excuse handing new patients a ‘smile assessment form’, as my local did when I signed up. The form was packed with leading questions designed solely to make me question my self-worth enough to sign up to heinously expensive and entirely unnecessary cosmetic procedures. “Are you satisfied with the shape of your teeth?” It asked, only barely suppressing the subtext: “Really? Are you sure? Justify yourself, scum. Yeah, you really think they’re good? What about their positioning, angulation, colour, length? Listen up. Your mouth is a miasmatic pit of menace, and nobody will ever love you. Unless...”
It did surprise me to learn that everything wrong with my life is a direct result of my dreadful teeth, and that it can all be solved by a simple, regular application of money. I’m glad the answer is so simple. Now all I need is an attractively illustrated pamphlet explaining how to get hold of enough cash to afford any of these life-changing procedures.