The Tooth-Pullers of the Pont Neuf
- The Smile Stealers: The Fine and Foul Art of Dentistry by Richard Barnett
Thames and Hudson, 255 pp, £19.95, April 2017, ISBN 978 0 500 51911 0
‘Many dentists,’ my mother once portentously remarked, ‘are thwarted sculptors.’ No doubt she herself had experienced their creative frustration – and painfully so. She was wearing a full set of dentures before I was born but never told me exactly when she’d acquired them. Perhaps she’d been presented with a pair (and some sort of voucher for the requisite extractions) on her 21st birthday, or the occasion of her first marriage. As Richard Barnett points out in his excellent text for The Smile Stealers, it wasn’t uncommon up until the late 1930s for young women to receive just such a benison – the reification, if you like, of the great relief to be obtained once those nerve-infested lumps of rotting dentine were yanked from your mouth. Mother used to play with her dentures at unexpected times – pushing out the lower plate so as to give her the gibbous appearance of an Amerindian with a lip-plate. Since she never admitted to wearing them, this was an astonishing coup de théâtre – mounted for me alone. I suppose I could say her performances left me with a fascination for everything carious, but let’s face it: we all have that.
Dental prostheses from Pierre Fauchard’s ‘Le Chirurgien-Dentiste’ (1728)
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 39 No. 14 · 13 July 2017
Will Self quotes Richard Barnett as saying that it wasn’t uncommon ‘up until the late 1930s’ for young women on their 21st birthday or on the occasion of their marriage to be given vouchers to have all their teeth taken out (LRB, 29 June). The practice lasted much longer than that. As a civil servant at the Department of Health helping ministers with their reviews of the then Family Practitioner Committees, I met delegations, particularly from the North-East of England, who reported that it was still common for young women to have all their teeth removed on their 16th or 18th birthday as a ‘present’ – and this was in the mid-1990s (by which time the process was free under the NHS).
Whisky and soda would be a more jovial beverage were it actually to contain nitrous oxide, as Will Self suggests it does. Nitrous oxide is used in whipped cream dispensers because it dissolves in fat: soda siphons use plain old global-warming carbon dioxide.
Vol. 39 No. 15 · 27 July 2017
Will Self discusses the use of the drug ‘nozz’ by young people today (LRB, 29 June). This is the first time I have seen the colloquial term for nitrous oxide in print, but I’d always assumed it was ‘nos’ and not ‘nozz’. I incline to this view because the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customised to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems). The not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.
Merton College, Oxford
Vol. 39 No. 16 · 17 August 2017
Will Self’s piece on dentistry provoked memories of my time as a merchant seaman in the 1960s (LRB, 29 June). We were crewed by Pakistanis who signed on for a year. When we docked at Liverpool, they would go en masse to a dentist there. He would remove all their teeth and replace them with gold dentures. I imagine the dentist’s address was well known in Pakistani ports, and passed on by former seamen to first-timers.
I asked one of the crew the reason, and he told me that there were few or no dentists in rural Pakistan, and that with a set of gold dentures – which, incidentally, could cost as much as half his year’s wages – he would be free of dental problems for the rest of his life when he returned to his village. No dazzling smiles though; it often took a month or two for them to recover, during which time they could barely fulfil their duties.