Dinner on the Nile, 2010

The ship was cruising slowly past the banks of the ancient river. The other diners at our table were joking about the limited wine list – Pharoah red or white – when my partner’s face changed shape, he made a strange guttural sound and clutched his napkin to his mouth – as if poisoned in an Agatha Christie plot. Then he rushed off to the cabin…

The guilty party, it turned out, was an unstoned olive, which had dislodged one of the poor man’s upper front teeth. The gap in his mouth stopped him smiling for the day or two remaining of the cruise, but seem to remember that the tooth itself survived, preserved in milk, and flew back with us to Wigan – where it was re-installed in his jaw. I was sympathetic about it all, but not as much as I should have been – because the Tooth Fairy’s no friend of mine.

We need our teeth too much to love them – it’s an inescapable co-existence. They erupt in the jaw and set up home there, robed in the hardest substance in the body: enamel. In life, they’re the only exposed part of the skeleton and in death maybe all that survives of us. A memento mori in the mouth.

In sleep, we often dream of losing them – and when they fall out, a second, ugly self appears: the sexless hag of myth and legend, a frightful symbol of the impotence of old age. But where the cackling crone comes from, deep in the human psyche, dwell other creatures, far from toothless, possessed of great power to kill and consume…

In my favourite fairytale, Little Red Riding Hood meets a wicked Wolf, who has already devoured her grandmother. Oh what big teeth you have! she cries. All the better to eat you with, my dear! he replies…. The Big Bad Teeth here are weapons of destruction, akin to the fangs of the Vampire, fond of blood, while the monster of the Mighty Bite lives on in movies like Jaws, with its Great White hero – the shark with 3,000 teeth, arranged in 5 rows…

Our dental arcade is modest: 32 in a full adult set, including up to 4 wisdom teeth. Incisors, canines and molars that like their human hosts, have evolved over time. The fossilised teeth found in caves tell the prehistoric story. Homo Erectus needed heavy-duty dental equipment to shred and grind raw flesh and bone; Homo Sapiens had a softer diet – of food cooked over fire – which shrank the size of his teeth and jaw.

But teeth as tools for our survival also serve another existential purpose – to help us communicate. Without them, our range of facial expression is limited. In the grand old portraits of kings, queens and nobles, the closed mouth and sunken cheek confer a certain dignity, but also betray the poor dentistry of the past. No picture of the first Elizabeth reveals the blackened stumps of her teeth, rotted by the sugar she was so fond of. Ambassadors and courtiers complained it was hard to understand what she said.

Missing teeth were gaps never easy to fill – and the most desirable replacements were always in short supply…..

At the Wellcome Collection, London, 2018

With time to kill before the train back north, I drifted into an exhibition in the Euston Road, all about the history of dentistry. ‘A tooth in the head’ said a poster,’ was worth ten on a plate!’

One of the objects on display had an ornate, monogrammed handle of silver, with horsehair bristles at the other end: Napoleon’s toothbrush. I knew about the Waterloo of 1815, but not what happened when tens of thousands lay dead on the battlefield. In less than 24 hours, the fallen were stripped of all their possessions, including their teeth – which were shipped back across the Channel, destined to be set and wired in a plate, ready for the mouths of the living – and the rich.

Sets of new teeth weren’t always fresh and human. Some of the earliest were handcrafted from hippopotamus ivory, prized for its whiteness, or walrus tusk, wood, shell, gold or pearl. Much later, they were fashioned from porcelain, though china teeth sets had an unfortunate habit of chipping… Affordable, reliable dentures that stayed in place didn’t arrive till the 20th century.

I had a dear friend once, who’d had a very difficult life. As a girl in the war, she’d watched the bombing of Coventry from a hill above the city, a sibling and both parents lost in the rubble – and she was later to lose a son to AIDS. But there was another absence about her I was never to forget. When still in her 30s and told they were ‘better out than in’, all her natural teeth were taken out. Quite common then, she said.

At least she went to a proper practitioner, aided by anaesthetic. Not to the barber-surgeon of old or to the local blacksmith, the only man with the strength and the tools for the task. Or the quack at a country fair, where tooth-pulling was a form of public entertainment…

Toothache is as old as time. The bacteria that cause decay, bad breath and the bleeding gum have been in existence for millennia. Remedies, spells and prayers have even been found on the papyrus of Ancient Egypt – because then, as now, the agony of an abcess is a pain like no other…

Last year, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, when regular dental appointments were unavailable, one clinic in the county stayed open all hours, for emergency lancing or extraction. A friend was afraid he’d have to get there, but kept the problem at bay by gargling with salt water or whisky. Like me, he remembers the sitting in waiting rooms with piles of out-of-date magazines and the sound of the dreaded drill behind a closed door…

As for my own teeth, I’ve managed to hang on to most of them. So no dentures grinning in a glass by the bed. But mine has always been a vulnerable mouth, so one stage of my dental ‘journey’ took me to the modern, more honourable descendant of the tooth-trader – an implantologist.

Wimpole Street, London, 2011

He was a charming Irishman in rubber clogs, who dispatched a troublesome molar with style. it was a Swedish professor, he explained, who discovered that a root form made of rare metal could bond with bone… Which was how, several appointments later, a new tooth with a titanium root and ceramic crown was planted in my jaw, then screwed in… ‘There,’ he said, ‘now he’s part of you!’ which sounded faintly erotic at the time. I remember exploring the strange presence in my mouth with my tongue, then christening it with pasta salad at a cafe near the clinic.

Since then, I’ve had a couple of veneers and tried a bleaching gel treatment, using custom-made trays, though my legs in winter are still a few shades whiter than my teeth… Modest steps, not in search of the perfect celebrity smile, just a decent-enough display to face the world with. It’s a confidence thing. But I met a widower once who would have dismissed such efforts as vanity and a waste of money, had he known about them.

He was tall, kind and witty and kept himself reasonably tidy. We got on very well, but romance was out of the question because he also had the yellow-brown tombstone teeth of the heavy smoker, though he’d given up some time before. He was later to marry someone deeper than me, who was able to judge the man not by the colour of his teeth, but by the content of his character…

Still, for most mortals, personal appearance matters – central to our sense of who we are and how we relate to events and other people. Not just as individuals but as members of a species that sees the world as a reflection of itself. So we describe it in human terms: the heart of the country, a head of state, the brow of a hill. And deeply rooted in ‘body language’ – and therefore in literature – are references to teeth. They spring up everywhere. Words and expressions, sometimes poetic, often violent – speaking of deceit and danger and revenge, no holds barred.

So we sow dragon’s teeth – seeds of future conflict – and talk of a kick in the teeth. We grit them, lie through them and fight tooth and nail. And in that well-known bit of the Bible, it’s ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…’

I’m not sure where this uncomfortable train of thought began. It might have been when I found a forgotten necklace, a rather aggressive gift from a fellow student in the Sussex years – a string of teeth of obscure animal origin. Or when something else came to light in a box in the loft.

Inside it, nestling in cotton wool, were three tiny treasures- baby teeth, milk-white – stolen by a thief in the night, a fairy in maternal form, thirty years ago.

4 thoughts on “Teeth

  1. Another great piece of writing.
    You have managed to highlight the beauty that teeth can give to a face. The aggressive attitude that can be shown by using the teeth.
    The pain that teeth can give.
    Very appropriate pictures. So much research has been done by you to write this interesting piece.
    Well done.


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