Help, I think I’m turning into Martin Amis! Not as a dazzling prose stylist and the novelist of my generation, tragically – though I did provide Mart with a name for an incidental character in his novel Yellow Dog and have been dining out on this stunning moment ever since – but as someone who has recurring nightmares about his teeth falling out.
These are not terribly elaborate nightmares. What happens is I wake up and find my gnashers on my pillow. But I suppose if I was to add elaboration I could pretend that the teeth have tumbled from my mouth to spell out a word: “It’s …!”
Remember the beginning of Monty Python’s Flying Circus? A man who looks like he’s been living in a cave, all ragged clothes, big beard and – this is the important bit – wild, wild hair. He’s disoriented and frightened. It seems like he’s summoning all of his mental powers to produce this one gasping utterance: “It’s …!”
Teeth ’n’ hair, teeth ’n’ hair, teeth ’n’ hair. I don’t think of myself as especially vain or obsessive about my appearance. But, come on: what will be the state of our teeth when the world gets back to normal and what will our hair look like?
Dental surgeries are going bust. This hasn’t happened to mine – yet – but a friend has just reported that his is no more. As if self-isolation wasn’t grim enough, some desperate toothache victims have had to resort to self-extraction.
And how many hair salons and barbers will survive the lockdown given that even when normality resumes for most they’ll still be unable to re-open? The other day the Sun – in the headline type-size normally reserved for wartime – splashed with “182 BAD HAIR DAYS”.
When Amis lost his face
Teeth nightmares are common. They’re right up there with falling dreams, dreams of being chased and dreams where you’ve misplaced some or all of your clothes and it’s epicly inappropriate to be in such a state. Amis wrote teeth nightmares into his novels – Dead Babies began with one – until he couldn’t face having any more of his own and stumped up for a new set of wallies. This provided brilliant material for much more than a bite-sized chunk of his best book, the memoir Experience. As his mouth is caving in, he frets about sex ending and being forced to “slip out of the country to a land – Albania? Uzbekistan? South Wales? – where nobody else had any teeth either”. It’s okay, though, he’s going to have his replaced. There would be a week of “oral nudity” when he reckons he’d be “comfortable enough in my coalhole or the in the cupboard beneath the stairs among the fuseboxes and the geranium bulbs”.
The immediate post-op reality is rather more dramatic: “In November 1994 I lost my face.” Amis dares to look in the mirror: “My lower teeth were still there. But in the new space above them, impossible to misidentify, was a darkness, a void, a tunnel that led all the way to my extinction.” Can he still recite the alphabet? Every letter apart from f. But when he stumbles into a bookshop seeking the astronomy section he cannot make himself understood and finds himself in astrology.
Right now, I can share in Mart’s anxiety even if I can’t describe it quite so eloquently or humorously, or afford the reputed £12,000 that implants cost him. The lockdown allows for plenty of spare time to reflect on childhood’s sugar-rush. All those gobstoppers and sherbet fountains and penny dainties and soor plooms and Cremola Foam and American Cream Soda and the damage caused.
What are the three most terrifying words in movie history? Not “A room, please” from Psycho or “Re-open the beach!” from Jaws but this from Marathon Man: “Is it safe?” Dustin Hoffman is asked the question by Laurence Olivier. He tries to answer it both ways but it makes no difference. The Nazi war criminal just keeps on drilling into perfectly healthy teeth.
A hippie hymn
Seven terrifying words from quarantine are: Could you do what Billy Taylor did? He’s the helicopter mechanic from Dorset who could stand the pain no more and, when he was refused an emergency appointment because of the coronavirus, grabbed a set of pliers. An hour later the offending tooth was out. “There was blood everywhere but the relief was instant,” he said.
Count yourself extremely fortunate if your only issue is your ever-lengthening and more and more out-of-control hair. You can try and cut it yourself or entrust the job to your eight-year-old daughter (I wouldn’t). So we are probably all going to resemble cavemen and women by the end of this, although sadly nothing like Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC.
That magnificent mane was not styled by flint knives and the fangs of sabre-tooth tigers and I bet in Hollywood hairdressers are designated key workers so the beautiful people will be alright. Not so Charlie Stayt, the BBC Breakfast presenter, probably the most bouffant man on TV, whose thatch is mushrooming at an alarming rate. During these interminable days stuck at home I watch with morbid fascination and swear his hair grows before my eyes, slithering across the back of the sofa in a menacing fashion towards his co-host Naga Munchetty.
Afterwards, I’ll play some music. It was The Return of the Giant Hogweed by Genesis for a while but I’ve moved on to David Crosby’s hippie hymn, Almost Cut My Hair. “Happened just the other day,” Cros sings, “it’s getting kind of long/I could’ve said it was in my way but I didn’t and I wonder why/I feel like letting my freak flag fly.”
I make it 177 bad hair days to go. My freak flag is going to be quite a sight by then.
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