Once bit­ten…

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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

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