Julie Burchill

My teeth are falling out. I won’t miss them

Why cling to beauty?

  • From Spectator Life
An X-ray of a worn-out set of teeth (iStock)

Like many Brits, I never had perfect teeth. Even when I was young they weren’t gleaming white and the two front ones had a gap between them. I grew to quite like my gap – ‘diastema’ to give it the correct name – and found out all kinds of interesting facts about it. In The Canterbury Tales, the ‘gap-toothed Wife of Bath’ symbolised the supposedly lustful nature of diastemata types, who include Madonna and Brigitte Bardot. In some African countries, the condition is considered so attractive that there is a roaring trade in cosmetic dentistry to create it. In France they are known as dents du bonheur – lucky teeth – due to the fact that the Napoleonic army recruited only soldiers with perfect teeth, classifying my gap-toothed brothers as unfit to fight and perhaps to die prematurely. 

I’ve always thought of beauty as fuel to be ignited rather than fruit to be preserved

Had I grown up in a middle-class milieu, I might have considered my teeth to be substandard – but so proletarian were we that my grandmother had not a tooth in her head and my father did his own dentistry by tying a piece of string to a door, knotting the other end around the rogue tooth, and slamming it. I’ve never been attracted by gleaming white teeth, and have been rather amused by the recent vogue for them among the young, who are generally lovely enough to be made even more charming by imperfections. There’s something very English about having wonky teeth; even the Queen Mother had them.

I had a very nasty experience with a dentist at the age of 12, started snorting copious amphetamine sulphate at the age of 17 and spent most of my twenties, thirties and forties taking enough cocaine to stun the Colombian army. I was aware that my teeth weren’t half as nice as most peoples but as I had a splendid rack and a talent to amuse, it never really bothered me. But in my sixties I started to lose a couple a year and as I face 65, it’s more like one a month. I was an attractive woman when young, but I now bear a distinct resemblance to Cletus Delroy Montfort DeMontblanc Bigglesworth Spuckler, also known as Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, of The Simpsons.

Why don’t I get new ones? Several reasons. I still have the odontophobia I developed as a child. The exception to this was a lovely dentist I met socially around the turn of the century and who persuaded me into his chair. He took an X-ray; I screamed when I saw it – surely this was the mouth of a monster? It turned out that I have an extra row of perfect teeth lodged in my gums – you can’t believe how scary it looks. But I was excited; ‘So when my teeth fall out, I’ll get these new ones?’ No such luck. I have hyperdontia, a condition sometimes referred to as ‘a third set of teeth’; generally they erupt into the mouth, crowding out their cousins, but mine have remained impacted in the bone. To get them out into public life would take an operation, a lot of pain and a year of brace-wearing. Approaching 65, I’m not sure I’m in the market for either such drastic measures. I’ve seen people my age with brand new teeth; it’s like when you buy a new sofa – everything else looks extra shabby.

But still, I am aware of how comical I look with only 14 left, and I do think of the Pam Ayres poem ‘Oh, I Wish I’d Looked After My Teeth’:

My Mother, she told me no end, ‘If you got a tooth, you got a friend’ 
I was young then, and careless, My toothbrush was hairless,
I never had much time to spend.
Oh I showed them the toothpaste all right, I flashed it about late at night,
But up-and-down brushin’
And pokin’ and fussin’
Didn’t seem worth the time… I could bite!

I’m far more philosophical about it than many would be. Maybe I take it as a warning; I’m immature in many ways and often think I can carry on behaving in a way that actually looks a little deranged when old people do it. My drinking – the cause of my latest tooth loss, one of my lovely gappy fronts – has become a cause not if quite of concern then of fleeting embarrassment to me. I am of the English working-class and became a journalist at 17 and thus am a veritable Venn diagram of sottishness; I always found my binge-drinking amusing, but over the past year both the ambulance service and the police have been involved in getting me home in one piece. I used to see myself as a Beryl Cook painting in my old age; increasingly I can see in myself in Martin Parr photographs, which isn’t half as jolly.

But still a part of me, forged in hedonistic times, feels that burning up one’s good looks by the age of 65 (I’ve always thought of beauty as fuel to be ignited rather than fruit to be preserved) in the process of having a lovely life is far from the worst thing that can happen. I think of what Hunter S. Thompson wrote – ‘life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”’ – and it speaks to me, or rather mumbles, through a mouthful of broken teeth. Amusingly, my husband – more than a decade younger than me – is losing his teeth too; I used to be mistaken for his mum whereas these days, we both rather resemble inhabitants of Skid Row. (I’ve noticed recently that many of the beggars I give to have better teeth than me.) So it’s a measure of my enjoyment of my life and my pleasure in my work – I’m a writer, not a toothpaste model – that I find my encroaching toothlessness amusing rather than upsetting. Having said that, if I find myself reduced to sucking soupy nourishment through a straw, the lure of gleaming white gnashers may well grow.