Having a smashing time

The worst thing that ever happened to me, I think, was the smashing of my front teeth. As a child of the 60s, who had a fatal few years before fluoridisation and better dental care, my teeth were never that good. I was having fillings in my milk teeth, and I’ve had lots of fillings ever since. If I could have my time again… 

If I could go back in time to any one moment (though one moment would never satisfy me) of my earlier life and prevent myself from doing something, it would be to the playground at Highfield’s Junior School on the day I broke my front teeth. One of my sisters and I both had gappy teeth. My sister smashed hers on the garden step when she was young, but I think only broke one of them. I also had a trip on the garden step when I was about four, but though I needed four stitches in my forehead, the teeth were undamaged at that time. I didn’t know which of my parents I’d inherited the gappy teeth from (my mum, I think), because both of them had false teeth for as long as I remember (in their 20s and 30s, oy). My teeth weren’t attractive. Through the modern miracle of orthodontistry, the gap might have been fixed, but there was no such thing for us. You didn’t get it on the NHS, and only those who were wealthy enough to ‘go private’ (which was hardly anybody) would get braces. Ironically, of course, braces themselves carried a stigma: your temporary ugliness outweighed the eventual dental perfection. I suspect that if I’d been offered braces when I was that age, I’d have refused, horrified.

I think the dentist used to come to school, come into school like the vaccination people and the head lice people, and check us up. Probably that’s why I had so many fillings. Fucking dentists. I’m an anti-dentite.

Having stitches was like a badge of courage – and the number of stitches mattered, and continued to matter when you totted up your stitches total as you went along. When I sliced open my finger with a craft knife (the same year I did the front teeth), I needed three stitches. Added to the four earlier ones in the forehead, that made seven. But of course that was nothing compared to the kids who broke their legs or arms, or had a black eye. I never had a black eye.

My teeth didn’t live long enough, anyway, to enter the age when braces would become appropriate. They were still, probably, freshly sprouted: my new front teeth. I was in what would nowadays be called Year 6 – the 4th year of Junior school, and about to head off to Mill Vale middle school. It was the cusp of the changeover from the grammar school system to comprehensive education, and so I, a fourth year, was about to head off for another third and fourth year (modern Years 7 and 8) at Middle School, and after that, yet another third and fourth year (Years 9 & 10) at the Queensbury Upper School on the other side of town. So I would have been ten, going on eleven.

When you’re in the midst of change, as a student, you take it all in your stride, because life for an 11 year old is one of constant change anyway. I suppose parents were confused by it, but once people were out of it, education, they generally stop paying attention, which is why politicians can always get away with their meddling: the majority of the population (adults without any school-age kids), are not really involved or affected, so they don’t really care.

So there I was, in the middle of it all, dimly aware that I’d be going to Mill Vale, which used to be the school for the ‘stupid’ kids who failed the 11+. The headteacher at Mill Vale, was a real hold-over from the old system. Used to trying to build up students’ broken self-esteem, he didn’t believe in exams, so for two years, I had none. The idea that our current 7s and 8s would go a whole two years without any exams is mind boggling. Back at Highfields, I had no idea of the gentle two years ahead of me.

We were on the Highfields playground, lunchtime, a group of us boys, following the latest playground fad, which we were calling “voodoo”. It wasn’t voodoo. What it was was an act of stupidity. It went like this. You crouched on the floor, on your haunches, and hyperventilated for thirty seconds or so. Then, you jumped up and a friend would grab you from behind and squeeze the air out of your lungs. Result: dizziness.

But what if, we were saying, you did the panting, hyperventilating thing for longer? What if the squeeze was harder? We had talked about this at morning break.

I volunteered to try it at lunchtime.

So in the lessons between break and lunch, the anticipation was building. We couldn’t wait to get out there.

I hyperventilated for a minute.

I stood up, quickly, and Mark Barrett grabbed me from behind in a bear hug so intense that he lifted me off the ground. 

When he let go, I fell forwards, and kept falling, in a dead faint.

The teeth were dead on arrival: death by misadventure.

This was, without doubt, the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life. And I do not blame Mark Barrett, who was simply fulfilling his role in the agreed voodoo pantomime. I lost one upper front incisor, and smashed three out of the four bottom incisors. But the incident itself was just the beginning of the pain to come.

The dentist replaced the front incisor with a crown. When this fell off a few years later (PAIN!), a new dentist gave me a much better, porcelain crown that I still have. I still have a vivid memory of the suppurating red stump that was the remainder of my tooth.

The bottom teeth were smoothed off and left as they were. Which was the wrong thing to do. By the time I was in my middle teens, one of these had worn down to the nerve and an infection set in. I had an abcess in my lower jaw that caused my chin to swell. This led, inevitably, to some horrific experiences in the dentist chair as various dentists tried to deal with the infection.

Antibiotics didn’t work.

A hole was drilled down to the root in the middle tooth of the three broken teeth and the dentist attempted to drain the abscess by poking at it with various serrated implements. Is this what they call root canal? A quick Google search informs me that indeed it is. This root canal involved sawing at the hole for what felt hours on end, pulling up the serrated tool, rinsing it off, and then sawing again, bringing up the pus, rinsing it off, and so on. If you had gravity on your side, I could see how it might work. With gravity against you, however, it was hopeless, a painful, doomed, quixotic attempt to save a tooth that was already a stump and was now a stump with a hole drilled in it.

None of this worked. None of it. The next step was an operation under general anaesthetic, a two-day hospital stay, during which a butcher/surgeon (I wasn’t awake to see which) sliced open my gum below the toothline and cleaned out the infection. I was off school for a bit. Again, this was done with the best will in the world: to try to save a tooth that was supposed to last a lifetime.

I remember reading Catch 22 while I was off school, which immediately led on to picking up Something Happened by the same author and feeling the same sense of crushing disappointment that generations of Catch 22 fans had.

In the hospital I met a kid who’d just had a circumcision with the kind of stitches that are supposed to dissolve – only they’d dissolved too soon and he’d got an infection. He walked awkwardly, painfully, and I shuddered to see him, empathy working overtime. My own operation went okay in that my stitches were just the old fashioned kind, removed after a week or so by the local GP. I woke after the anaesthetic with a craving for Maltesers and Lucozade. Ate a whole box and then immediately threw up.

Home again, chin down to a normal size, everything seemed to be okay. But then, a year or so later, during the summer of my Lower Sixth year (Year 12), it was time for the sequel. Abscess 2: the Return. The thrill of the drill. Jaws 2: Back to my Roots. I was in Bangor, Wales, on the Biology field trip. It was embarrassing, making me the centre of the wrong kind of attention. We visited a dentist on Anglesey. Everybody had to wait in the mini bus while I was in there. For 45 minutes he drilled and poked and sawed, trying to drain the abscess against the will of gravity. His technician/nurse was actually distressed at the brutality of this treatment: she held my hand throughout. For me, it was just more of the same, more of the suffering generated by one minute of playground madness.

I filled a prescription at the pharmacy in Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. They didn’t fit the whole name on the label. Still: a souvenir prescription of penicillin. I came out in a rash. Turns out, I’m allergic to penicillin. The abscess, the impossible to kill infection, the superbug in my superchin, persisted.

Another hospital visit, another operation. Another box of Maltesers. This somehow came between the Biology field trip to Wales, which was in June or July, and me leaving home, which happened that same December. The second operation also managed to squeeze itself in before my bout of glandular fever (mononucleosis), which happened around November/December. All in all, I missed quite a lot of school in the run up to leaving home.

Down in Kent, after I’d left, when the abscess flared up again. Like all third sequels, this was the worst. Abscess 3: Yanked. I went to another dentist butcher who decided that the only thing for it was to yank the infected tooth. I applauded his decision, if it meant an end to the suffering. His solution was to give me a false tooth, a plastic plate that was uncomfortable, irritating, annoying, embarrassing, and painful. I endured this plate for a year or so, and then, back in Luton, I went to the best dentist I have ever had. This guy was a hero socialist dentist, who was willing to spend public money to end my suffering, just like the NHS is supposed to work. He asked why I had the false tooth, and when he heard my story he was basically disgusted that a young man of my age had been saddled with the plate. He offered to fit a bridge.

This involved more hours in the chair, having the two remaining damaged teeth ground down so they were small enough to receive the porcelain bridge. But it was good work, I still have the bridge, and the improved porcelain crown and the gold crown on one of my back teeth I got later on. These days, an NHS dentist would never do such good work. You end up just having the tooth yanked. My sister eventually got expensive titanium implants in her front teeth, which must have been painful and horrible, but at least leaves her with something permanent. I’ve considered it myself, but the opportunity, as a fully-employed adult, to take the time off needed to have the treatment seems impossible in this late Elizabethan age, which seems much more like the early Victorian era than it ought to. Not to mention the astonishing expense of this kind of treatment.

When I think of the hours lost and the pain and the discomfort caused by that playground misadventure, it makes me want to weep. I see little kids running around and wince. While you can’t and shouldn’t stop kids from running around, even hurting themselves occasionally (it’s all part of growing up), I do think that medical science should come up with a way of delaying adult teeth or even creating a third set of teeth for when you’ve learned all the terrible lessons and will promise to look after them this time.

Ironically, at almost every subsequent visit to the dentist, I’ve generally been told my teeth were in ‘good condition’, which I could never quite believe. As you get older, things fall apart, and the natural wearing out that comes with age meets headon the youthful misadventure. The joints ache and the teeth crumble. One day you look at a caramel chew or a toffee and realise you can never contemplate eating such a thing again.

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