Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Farewell, dear friends. We’ve shared numerous good times


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For most of my life I have done my best to look after my teeth. Alas, as I sat up in the dentist’s chair last week, numb of mouth and feeling fragile, there before me were my two newly-extracted gnashers, writes Martin Newell.

I gave them a rueful glance. Only slightly bloody, on a small tray sat the two molars: upper right – back.

They’d been loose, “mobile” as dental professionals call it, for some years. I had fought a good fight: brushed the gums briskly, used my interdental brushes and seen the hygienist regularly.

A large orange pip having been their nemesis, their time came at last.

Dental surgery, after much eye surgery in recent years, while not exactly a cakewalk, held few terrors for me. I marched in as if I were going on stage and said, “Let’s do this thing.”

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Over almost six decades, those two teeth and I had been through much together. They’d attended teenage parties, done hundreds of gigs, fallen in and out of love, taken part in arguments, visited loads of bars, told numerous jokes and travelled the world with me. But now the reckoning had come.

Approximately 60 miles from the place where they’d first seen the light of day, here they were, on a tray in a Colchester dental surgery. I suppose a small amount of sentiment is permissible here.

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In 1960, the NHS was not much more than a decade older than I was. My mother was one of its early beneficiaries. During the late 1940s, still in her early 20s, having left the services she had every tooth in her head removed in one brutal sweep. At the suggestion of the new National Health Service, she, like many women of her age, was issued with a smart set of NHS dentures.

We British may have been victorious in wartime but our national dentition, from an aesthetic perspective at least, was more akin to the Siege of Sebastopol. Take a closer look at the photos of those young men and women dancing in the streets during VE Day celebrations. Cheery they may have been but their smiles bespoke a nation more familiar with the toffee tin than the toothbrush. Snaggle-toothed and peggy, many of them bore smiles like a badly-neglected corner of a country churchyard.

The British have long been known throughout the world for the poor state of our teeth. This is no joke, actually. The number of UK children even nowadays requiring hospital surgery for appallingly-neglected teeth is reportedly clogging operation schedules.

Thus it was that in the late 1940s many young women, like my mother, simply had their old nicotine-stained smile part-exchanged for a lovelier-looking state-sponsored one. My mother was working at that time with the Post Office. She went to have the last of her teeth removed on a Friday.

Unsurprisingly, she was in rather a bad way afterwards and was taken home by workmates in the back of a Post Office van. She took all that weekend to recover.

When she recounted the story to me, it struck me once again what a tough old bunch of buzzards that wartime generation really was. I do remember, as a child, how many of my adult relatives had false teeth, often full sets. It was all very usual. Even strips in comics such as the Beano often depicted people sneezing their false teeth out.

I’d worn a top plate myself for some years, with one and a bit teeth on it. Aged 18, I’d messed up my mouth playing a stupid game which had involved us lobbing bottles at each other. For over a year I sported this huge gap. It looked piratical and quite rock’n’roll in its way, so for a while, I left it.

My father, however, pointed out it looked pretty unclassy and might eventually make my face sink in. That put the wind up me. So a good Maldon dentist, Mr Kruger, fixed me up with a plate, even bunged a spare bit of another missing tooth in, at the back. It did change my life. I was beginning to look rather villainous. The gap wasn’t conducive to passing job interviews, not even for rock bands.

I later had some bridgework done to replace the plate.

A year or so afterwards, I dedicated a poetry collection to Mr Murphy, the dentist who performed that service.

The serious side to this business is that poor dental health is a gateway to heart disease and all manner of other nasties. Dentists and hygienists are a vital part of the front-line in our health defences and should be regarded as such. So if you’ve been wavering about making an appointment, do it now. It’ll be worth it.

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