I’ve become a tremendous fan of Radio 4’s “A Point of View” – the ten minute talk broadcast between “Sunday Worship” and the News at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning – in the slot that Alistair Cooke used to occupy. It’s a kind of secular “Thought for the Day”, with a decidedly academic tinge. And it has some of the same rhetorical flourishes – including outrageously improbable links and connections.
You know how “Thought for the Day” will start with some blokeish reflections about Rooney’s latest sending-off. Then there will be a second or two’s pause, while our media vicar smartly changes direction with some line like “Well I’ve always thought that Jesus was a bit like a referee”…and then we’re off onto the religious bit.
Well, last Sunday David Cannadine, who is now writing and presenting his second or third mini-series of “A Point of View”, kicked off with the unveiling of a blue plaque to John Betjeman in Highgate before he settled in to a nice cross-cultural (or at least transatlantic) comparison of dentistry and oral hygiene. The link? “Plaque” of course. And the fact that Betjeman had the most appalling teeth which for most of his life were apparently covered with foul green slime.
What on earth could kissing him have been like?
Cannadine was less interested in that than in the fact that Americans have better teeth than the British, and that even before America was Top Nation it pioneered almost every advance in dentistry that there has ever been (and being an academic he suggested there was a good research topic here).
The basic observation is clearly true. You only have to walk through an (affluent) American suburb to spot that, after years of orthodontics (an American invention, of course), everyone has perfectly regular teeth. My own tomb-stones would certainly not have survived if I had been brought up in the USA.
Whether this is a good idea, I’m not sure. There’s something about the way teeth naturally tend to go with the head they are born with – and something faintly ridiculous about the vast range of human oddity and irregularity, all of it being equipped with the same perfect dentition.
But the real cultural difference came home to me when I visited a US dentist a couple of years ago with a nasty wisdom tooth. When I opened my mouth, he muttered the dentist’s equivalent of “What cowboy put that in?” and said that if I has been in the States, my wisdom teeth would have been hacked out years ago. I tried to explain that we had a different philosophy on the mouth in the UK and I personally was rather committed to the principle of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. He looked slightly pitying, gave me antibiotics and an X-ray to take away – and refused to charge me (charmingly, but with the slight hint that I was a third world charity case).
Two years later in England, and same wisdom tooth necessitates a visit to the, fearsomely named, “oral surgeon”. Fully prepared for an extraction, I was told that in fact any pain I was feeling was just a bit of oral muscle strain. Of course, I’m no dentist and the diagnosis might be correct; there was certainly no self-interest on the surgeon’s part as he would have made a decent amount of money out of cutting me up. But it is my mouth and it doesn’t actually feel like a faulty muscle.
It was, I now conclude, exactly what Cannadine was talking about: different cultural assumptions on the care of the mouth.