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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 106 - Biting the bullet at the loss of an old friend


I LOST an old friend recently. While I may shed a silent tear, I wonít make a fuss about it because we capital citizens, with flinty stoicism, can bite the bullet.

Let me just say that, for the greater part of my life, we were together - in the belt, slap, shake and shove of old-time Scottish education, enlivened by the Buddhist-like chants of multiplication tables, right through my adolescence, even unto the Army where, when I was promoted to temporary, acting lance corporal, my friend helped when I drilled squaddies in the exotic and near-balletic movements of porting eating irons for inspection and changing salutes on the march.

In journalism, we were close when I walked with captains of commerce but kept what I call my virtue, and talked with town councillors and adopted, in protective mimicry, the common touch.

Oh, the toothsome morsels we had when we feasted across gourmet Europe - the Hungarian goulashes we saw off, les viands, les poissons, die wurste, das sauerkraut - you name it correctly, we probably had it, all washed down with a crafty Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild or a cheeky Pol Roger, Pommery, or other wines, courtesy of expenses-paid press trips to imbibe the atmosphere of holiday destinations.

Now, when it comes to the crunch, my friend has had his chips. "Thatís it," said my dentist, and there he was in a mouth-rinsing bowl - my upper-left, pre-molar, for long a grim, unswerving bastion of my bite, felled after heroic attempts to save it from demise. In the resultant gap, my tongue slithers like a seal, seeking food morsels in an unfamiliar landscape.

THE pull-out was precise and painless; I expected that, since my dentist is a highly-skilled chap, at the cutting-edge of dental technology.

His private Edinburgh practice is about as different from old-time dentistsí surgeries as the Wright brothersí flying machine to a jumbo jet. For one thing, he has a £40,000 computer-activated system that, in a sense, gives patients engaged in filling-in time, mouse-to-mouth treatment.

Patients may be entertained by seeing on screen their new-age ceramic fillings formed in a high-action, micro-precision, restoration drama. For another, the practice includes reconstructive surgery, bone growing, teeth-whitening, tissue regeneration and teeth implants - a set-up spreading in Britain as dentists, dissatisfied with inadequate government funding, leave the National Health Service for private practice.

Scotland lacks around 215 health service practitioners. Aberdeenís last fully NHS practice, with 3,000 patients, will become private and with health service dentists disappearing like snow off a hot dyke, growing numbers of patients are being told that their dentists are shaking off their NHS shackles for more shekels to improve their practices.

My heart aches but, thanks to my mouth-maintenance man, not my teeth, for Scotlandís decaying NHS dental service. The British Dental Association has called for Scottish Executive dental funding to be increased from GBP 172 million to GBP 520 million - money that might temporarily fill a deep, financial cavity but is unlikely to halt the drain to the prosperous uplands of private work.

I HOPE that National Health Service dentistry survives, especially for those who cannot afford private practicesí comparatively high charges. I have had experience of some great, old-time, traditional tooth tuggers and fillers who operated - perhaps not with the exuberant alacrity of the Italian monk medico, Brother Giovanni Battista Orsenigo, who, between 1868 and 1903, extracted 2,000,744 teeth, an average of 185 teeth a day, but with the strength and persistence against offending biters of leading tug-of-war men and who regarded gum-numbing jabs when filling cavities as cowardly, effete un-British.

Meanwhile, Scottish children, largely because of poor diet and dental hygiene, have the worst teeth in Europe, Glasgow children the worst in Scotland and so many of the gap-toothed generation have cavities they are said to create echoes when they speak.

At the other end of the dental scale, people are spending vast sums on cosmetic dental surgery such as "smile makeovers".

My bite and my smileís allure have suffered slightly from my friendís departure, and my dentist has implanted in me the idea of a realistic substitute. I gave a weak, spaced-out smile on hearing the price - doubtless appropriate, considering the work - and while I could bite off financially more than I could chew, I may grit my teeth and go for it.


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