Un-American Teeth

I first encountered American teeth when at school.

An American girl joined our class in the second term…she had no uniform, had no idea of the syllabus we were following, but made the best of it that she could.

We had been warned beforehand…her family were in the U.K. on a transfer from the father’s firm…she should have been going to a private school but arrangements had fallen through…..and we were to be kind and helpful for the brief time with which she would be with us.

Fine.

But…the teeth.She had what I knew later to be braces…some sort of metal cage round her teeth…a phenomenom completely unknown to us.

With true British reticence, no one commented on this or posed questions…

I was not in the circle who invited her to the house…father, having discovered for which firm her father worked, was not entranced…but I did cop the odd invitation to her family’s place, through her father’s commercial contact with one of my uncles.

The parents were very hospitable, making sure we were all at our ease…clearly, very nice, kind people…as we made our best efforts not to be surprised by a mould in which salad was encased in lime jelly – a far cry from the Sunday salad of beetroot, cucumber and lettuse to which we were accustomed – and the hot dogs served with sauerkraut and mustard…to me, a real treat!

But again…The teeth!

All the children had braces while the parents had perfectly even white teeth which made us suspect that they were false, so perfect were they.

My first encounter with American teeth was not of long duration. Harold Wilson’s Labour Party came to power and our classmate’s father’s firm was withdrawn from the U.K. tout de suite as it was assumed that communism had taken control of the country.

This view seemed to be shared by the more antiquated elements of the British army as their later aborted coup would show, but for the majority of people his promises of using technology to bring the country out if its traditional Tory torpor were nothing if not welcome.

Those American teeth struck us because we, profiting from the post war settlement, had had the privilege of being supplied with free dental treatment from an early age….

Unfortunately, this meant that we had the services of the school dental service.

Lined up to accept their attentions the accepted view was that, while the Americans and the Russians had captured all the rocket scientists, the British had captured the Gestapo operatives and were letting them loose on the nation’s chldren.

I was most upset because, though I dutifully brushed the teeth and was not fond of sweet stuff, I always seemed to have fillings whose treatment was administered without anaesthetic using a drill activated by the dentist’s foot.

This came to an end when one of the torturers assured me that what he was about to do would not hurt….. I was a fairly stoic child, but the pain nearly lifted me from the chair and, seizing my opportunity, I bit the bugger.

Not that that freed me from dentists….every six months off to a surgery hidden behind a belt of trees and a shrubbery. ‘Deadens the screams’ said father. Nowhere near so bad…though I can still recall the smell of that rubber mask for anaesthesia….

Then came a period when I kept on growing wisdom teeth….one would come through, another right behind it…by which time a wave of young handsome Australian dentists had hit the U.K.. Mine was a dab hand with the x ray machine…perish the thought of precautions…and kept showing me the next tooth on the rack with great delight. Any fear of dentists evaporated with this chap as he talked cricket non stop as he worked and was both deft and caring.

Having to repair a mess on my front teeth he showed me his colour chart by which he would match the repair strip to the existing tooth – and did a great job which has lasted to this day. British teeth, it seemed, came in all shades, from ivory to milky coffee….but never brilliant white.

Following the wave of Australian dentists came the wave of American Mormons…..we were used to the Jehoveh’s Witnesses, but this was a new plague. Pairs of young men in white bri nylon shirts with satchels over their shoulder, bearing name tags which identified them as Elder something or other…

Well if they were elders, what were the younger ones like, one asked.

And all with American teeth! It was alarming…..all brilliantly white and even…uncanny! You would catch yourself looking at the teeth as they gave their spiel, wondering if they had all been supplied with false teeth before venturing into the wilds of Europe or whether anything like that could really be natural…

Gradually, though, American teeth began to take over the U.K. White even teeth, you were informed, would give people confidence in you.

Yes, well, up to a point, Lord Copper. As far as I was concerned, if you formed your views of someone on the state of their teeth then you were a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Teeth are there to reduce food to a state fit for digestion, they are not cosmetic. To me the whole thing stank of dentists keen to bolster the incomes which had made them notorious as lovers of fast cars and fast women….but people fell for it. Off they went to have their gnashers straightened and bleached, kids had their teeth caged….while those who could not afford the nonsense practised smiling like Good Queen Bess – a sort of grimace which did not show the teeth at all for fear of revealing their state. A belly laugh became a thing of the past.

Many years later, moving to Costa Rica, I soon noticed that the country was infested with lawyers and dentists. While in the smarter areas the dentists just had normal shop signs, in poorer areas their presence was indicated by huge depictions of teeth with vast roots. Let not the inability to read deprive you of dental services.

The country was also marked by American teeth. No one who is anyone lacks American teeth. Especially lawyers. Vast expanses of perfectly even, brilliantly white teeth. Very boring…no character, no inkling that under that perfect smile a gat toothed Wife of Bath might be lurking….

But it matters….

While we were quite fresh to the place, a developer was trying to abstract water to get permission to build a pile of houses nearby and we were involved in the succeeding water wars which went on for some time. As foreigners, we came in for a fair bit of calumny which has taken years to die down and while it was at its height I was chatting to a woman in the supermarket.

All went swimmingly until she asked where I lived and said in hushed tones that Senora X – wife of developer – had told her that there was a really obnoxious gringo living nearby who did nothing but cause trouble.

Well, that was either us or our unpleasant North American neighbour, the one who tried to stop us building out new house.

So I told her that there were two gringos in the area, which one did Senora X mean, did she think?

The one with yellow teeth.

‘Like this?’ And I bared my fangs in a most unElizabethan smile.