For all of my adult life I have had an irrational fear of visiting the dentist and consequently I haven’t looked after my teeth as well as I should have. The reason for this phobia about having a stranger poking about in my mouth is the memories of the school dentist.
For the horror of the school dentist we had to thank the national health service which was one of the fundamental recommendations in the Beveridge Report which Arthur Greenwood, The Labour Party Deputy Leader with responsibility for post-war reconstruction had successfully pressed the cabinet to commission from economist and social reformer William Beveridge. The Government accepted this in February 1943, and after a White Paper in 1944 it fell to Clement Attlee’s Labour government to create the NHS as part of the ‘cradle to grave’ welfare-state reforms.
I am not saying it was a bad thing because the principle was fine it was the way it operated that I have issues with because a succession of over zealous dentist with their noses stuck in the NHS money trough left me with a mutilated set of dentures and a mouth full of ugly black fillings by the time I was sixteen. Most of this must have been unnecessary and to illustrate the point I compare my oral nightmare with that of my own children, who, now in their twenties, have not a single filling between them.
I am not saying that they were to blame entirely because when I was a boy I used to eat the most appalling sweets, all full of sugar and all attacking my teeth enamel; gob-stoppers, bubble gum, milky bars, sweet cigarettes and spangles and many more besides and I am prepared to concede that this obviously made some sort of contribution towards a bit of tooth decay.
All of this was possible because just a year before I was born on 5th February 1953 war time rationing of sweets came to an end which meant all sorts of sugary items were unleashed on 1950s children. And it wasn’t just sweets of course because even some everyday food had unnatural amounts of sugar in them. Biscuits and breakfast cereals are a good examples, I used to like Kellogg’s sugar puffs and I think a food expert once proved that these were about 50% pure sugar, probably more.
The dental practice that I used to go to every six months or so was Cartwright, Wright and Cunningham on Whitehall Road in Rugby. It was a once grand old house now converted to a house of torture. On arrival I had to ring the door bell and a buzzer would sound and the latch was released and I had to step inside to be booked in by the nurse. There was a downstairs waiting room which overlooked the back garden and full of old furniture including a grandfather clock that tick tocked the seconds away. It was always deathly quiet because no one ever spoke in the waiting room and the clock was a bit like that one that they kept showing in the Gary Cooper film, High Noon when every movement of the minute hand brought the dreadful moment closer. There were always old magazines on the coffee tables such as Punch and National Geographic and I would leaf through the pages without paying any attention to the content just for something to do.
Every so often an intercom would crackle into life and a name would be called out and it would be someone’s turn to go to the treatment room. Eventually it would call out ‘Andrew Petcher please’ and it would be my turn. The treatment room was upstairs and the dentist was Dr Cunningham who was a big man with a bushy beard and once the brief formalities were over he would invite me to sit down and he would get to work.
After only a few seconds there would be beads of perspiration forming on my forehead and I would have an involuntarily vice like grip on the arms of the chair. This still happens when I go to the dentist today by the way. Every now and again I would tell myself to relax and loosen the grip but every time he poked at another tooth my fingers tightened up again.
The inspection was soon completed and this led to the inevitable bad news that he would need to follow that up with a couple of fillings and then out came the anesthetic needle and after that had taken effect he would start to grind away at the tooth first with a slow drill that made my entire head buzz and then the high speed follow up to remove the last bits of whatever it was he thought he needed to take away. This was then followed up by a quick mouthwash and then a shiny new filling was squeezed in place to replace the tooth that he just destroyed.
For Doctor Cunningham and every other dentist too, the next part of the procedure was the most important because I was then required to sign a form to confirm that he had carried out the work and this and many more like them would form the basis of next month’s claim to the NHS because this was all one big scam and I dread to think how many unnecessary treatments must have been inflicted on school children in the 1960s while the dentists lined their pockets with tax payers money.
Thanks to these people I have had to live with teeth full of metal for forty years with each filling having to be replaced every so often so not only did Doctor Cunningham get a first payment for disfiguring me and thousands of others like me he guaranteed future revenue for the members of his profession for the rest of our lives.