Lynn Barber may write biting interviews, but she’d struggle with a steak. Here’s why
Lynn Barber made her name as a ferociously incisive interviewer – so it’s ironic that her gnashers are her weakness. They’ve fallen out during pregnancy, been yanked out by cowboy dentists and one even popped out mid celebrity encounter. Here she chews over the trouble with teeth. Portrait by Lydia Goldblatt
All my friends keep telling me I’ve lost weight and ask what diet I’ve been on. They say they might like to try it too. I don’t think they would. It’s called the rotten teeth diet, when your teeth are so rocky that eating is painful and slow. It’s what carnivores die of in the wild – once they can no longer tear strips off a carcass, they’re on the way out. Of course I don’t have to tear strips off a carcass because fortunately somebody invented sushi, but it means I go pale when confronted with a steak. And it just gets boring eating sushi all the time, so inevitably I’m eating less.
I expect when you look at a person’s face you look at their eyes first. I don’t, I look at their teeth. Have they got more than me? Invariably, yes. Are they whiter than mine? Of course. Do they look durable? Yes. Even the Queen, at 92, seems to have sturdy teeth, though I worry about Prince Harry. When he and Meghan are photographed together they look like an illustration for the virtues of American dentistry as against British. Jeremy Corbyn is usually supposed to have the worst teeth in politics but actually I think David Cameron’s were worse because they were small and feeble. For a long time, the teeth I most envied were Cameron Diaz’s but recently I watched a documentary about Carly Simon and thought: my God, she could easily eat a whole wildebeest, probably an entire herd. David Cameron would be hard put to manage a dormouse.
If you’re as obsessed with teeth as I am, then of course Marall
tin Amis is your author of choice. (He has other literary virtues too but I rate his tooth accuracy most highly.) In The Information, for instance, the protagonist Richard Tull sees a man reading a novel and, when he puts the book down, ‘The face was hereby revealed. Its asymmetries resolved themselves into a smile. The smile was not, in Richard’s opinion, a good smile, but it did disclose surprisingly and even sinisterly good teeth. The lower set, in particular, was almost feline in its acuity and depthlessness. Richard’s lower teeth were like a rank of men in macs on a stadium terrace, tugged into this or that position by the groans of the crowd.’
Amis’s tooth obsession stemmed from the fact that he had terrible teeth himself and, just before The Information was published, went to the States and spent $20,000 on implants. Soon afterwards, he sacked his long-standing agent, Pat Kavanagh, for not getting big enough advances for his novels and there was much jeering in the papers about how he needed the money to spend on his teeth. I suppose I jeered too, but I wouldn’t now – I would think it was a very sensible investment.
No doubt you will expect me to quote Pam Ayres:
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth, And spotted the dangers beneath All the toffees I chewed,
And the sweet sticky food.
Oh, I wish I’d looked after me teeth.
But actually this is not fair in my case, because I did look after my teeth and I never ate sweets as a child because they were still rationed after the war. We didn’t have flossing or electric toothbrushes in those days but I brushed my teeth conscientiously morning and evening. And yet as soon as I hit adulthood they started falling out. Or – worse – dentists took them out. When I was 20, I went overland to India and was advised that, as a precaution, I should have any dodgy teeth removed before I went because there were no dentists in India. (Richard Leakey, the great Kenyan anthropologist, used to make his students have all their teeth removed before they came on site.) So I lost four teeth in one morning, all at the hands of a Twickenham butcher dentist.
People say it’s a myth that you lose a tooth for every pregnancy, but I managed to lose two both times. So that’s four lost to India, and four to pregnancy, and one or two others that just decided to fall out. Luckily, in my 40s, someone told me about implants so I had two but I wish I’d had more – they are my only reliable teeth – and when I tried to have more implants recently, I was told I was too old. Occasionally, I’m asked by magazines what advice I would give to the young. I’m probably meant to say something profound about following your dream or having faith in yourself, but actually the only answer I ever give is: have implants.
FOccasionally, I’m asked by magazines what advice I would give to the young. I’m probably meant to say something profound about following your dream, but actually the only answer I ever give is: have implants
or years and years, probably throughout my 30s, 40s, 50s, I used to have regular tooth dreams, in which I’d be in some glamorous setting or perhaps on stage and one of my front teeth would fall out, dropping with a clatter on the floor. Or there was another, more sinister, tooth dream where I could feel my teeth slowly crumbling, like sandstone cliffs being eroded by the tide. These tooth dreams left me so
dejected that my husband could always tell when I’d had one. He – lucky man – had flying dreams, which were much more fun. But then one night I dreamt that I went to the dentist to complain about my crumbling teeth and he said, ‘Oh come on, we’ve both read Freud. It’s not about your teeth, is it?’ And I meekly agreed, ‘No, it’s about my confidence’ – and never had another tooth dream again. But still my teeth kept falling out.
One fell out very conspicuously once, though luckily it was only a crown. I was interviewing the film director Oliver Stone and he was being very bratty and rude, taking phone calls from friends, walking round the room laughing. I thought the interview would never start, but when he finally sat down and I opened my mouth to ask my first question, my tooth shot out on to the table. He switched into a completely different person. He was incredibly concerned and sweet, dashed to the bathroom to fetch me some tissues, asked if he should phone his dentist and get me an appointment. I said no, it was only a crown but actually I wish I had gone to Oliver’s Stone’s dentist – maybe he could have saved me. But what was so interesting was the way the whole atmosphere of the interview changed. From then on, Stone was thoughtful, polite, attentive, a complete gentleman. It made me think maybe I should manufacture a tooth crisis every time an interview was going badly.
My parents kept their teeth in beakers on the bedside table. Both of them lost all their teeth during the war – apparently many people did, possibly because of calcium deficiency but also because there weren’t enough dentists to go round. In my mother’s case this was a wholly good thing – she had very goofy, sticking-out teeth as a girl and actually looked much prettier with her neat NHS gnashers. But I remember as a child if I ran to my parents’ room during the night, I was always shocked at how old they suddenly looked without their teeth, and they would only have been in their 30s then. My parents had two sets of teeth each, but David Hockney’s father had about 20, which he kept in a bedside cabinet all neatly labelled, ‘Good for eating lettuce’; ‘Good for eating meat’; and one ‘Good for smiling’. But how would he know, when he went out, whether he would be called on to eat lettuce, or to smile?
This is the decision facing me now: do I go full denture? At present I have a half-plate on one side, and a bridge on the other, supported by my few remaining teeth which are now very rocky. The sensible thing, every dentist tells me, would be to have my remaining teeth removed and a nice neat full denposhest ture instead. But I can’t face it; I’m grateful to these remaining teeth for sticking with me all these years and to have them removed feels like wilful vandalism, or actual self-harm. Anyway, I want to keep a few teeth to the end. A friend who used to work in A&E told me that in hospitals there is something called ‘a socio-economic indicator’, and that if a woman has a missing front tooth it counts as a ‘marker’ for poverty. Apparently it doesn’t count at all for men, but the theory is that a woman will usually go to a dentist and get a missing front tooth replaced unless she is so poor and disorganised she can’t manage it. Again, this is so unfair – how can men can get away with missing front teeth and women can’t?
So what do I do? What I actually do is trail round different dentists every month in hopes that eventually I will find one who says, ‘Don’t worry, I can fix it.’ My quest has taken me from pinstriped premises in Harley Street to overworked NHS clinics in the outer suburbs. But still the answer is always the same. Abandon hope. I even invested £500 in a consultation with the
I’m grateful to these remaining teeth for sticking with me all these years and to have them removed feels like wilful vandalism, or actual self-harm
of all implantologists, who had some very nice art in his waiting room. But he still told me what everyone else told me – that I was too old for implants (not enough bone density) and that what I really needed was a full denture. Just to rub it in, he told me the reason my bone density was so poor was because I smoked. So that was a fat lot of use, and £500 down.
Given that all the dentists say the same thing, why do I even bother going to Harley Street? I’ll tell you why. At my age (74) any conversation with a dentist is essentially a conversation about dying. The subtext is always – how long do you need these teeth for? How long do you expect to live? (I suppose it’s the same with facelifts, though I’ve never had one of those.) And of course it’s a question I can’t answer though it might be significant that my parents both lived to 92. In Harley Street they seem to assume that everyone lives to at least l00 and has limitless money to burn, which makes you feel good at the time. Whereas NHS dentists seem to go out of their way to make you feel bad. If you even mention implants, the reaction is incredulity or even outright hostility that you could consider spending the kids’ inheritance on such a selfish lost cause. The NHS will do you a full denture for £256.50; Harley Street can easily charge 10 times that. And I don’t want to spend the kids’ inheritance so I will be sensible and good, and get myself some NHS gnashers. Just not yet, oh Lord, not yet.
Above, from left Barber on holiday with her parents in 1948; at school in 1962; with her late husband David on their wedding day in 1971
Above, from left Going boho in 1970; in Yorkshire, 1973; on the razzle in Tangiers in 1968