I can not say what age I was when I started to go to the dentist, but I do remember my first one well. Mr. Gosling had his surgery on Easterly Road in a large house very close to the public toilets next to the Fford Grene public house and across from the Clock Cinema. My first impression of the dentist’s was a waiting room that was cold and not particularly inviting for a child. There were some magazines for adults, but nothing for younger clients.
Mr. Gosling was an elderly gentleman, or at least he appeared so to me. Anyone above the age of about twenty and all teachers seemed old. The dentist wore half lens glasses, that I suppose now would help him with his near vision. Walking into the surgery was like walking through the gates of hell. It was full of cold hard metal equipment which surrounded a leather chair that reclined only a little. So unlike the ones nowadays that recline to the point of being horizontal, with your head in the dentist’s lap. In those days you sat fairly upright and the dentist and assistant gathered around you in an intimidating manner. A bib was placed around your neck and you were instructed to ‘open wide’.
The video below showcases another local beauty spot, White Wells on Ilkley Moor.
Of course, before leaving home your teeth were given such a hard scrubbing to ensure no food remained and there was no chance of bad breath. Toothpaste in these days came in alloy tubes, not the plastic of today and fluoride was not in the water and had just started appearing in the toothpaste. Pepsodent and the new, super exciting Signal with a miraculous series of red and blue stripes were the ones we had. ‘You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent’, the adverts announced. It was only when I was much older that I realized that the toothpaste in these times had added sugar to make the flavour more palatable. Face and teeth suitably scrubbed, I opened my mouth with ‘a ring of confidence’, to be assaulted by a hand with a sharp pointed metal implement. Everything about the experience was alien to me. I had only ever had people show me kindness and no adult had ever hurt me intentionally, a situation that changed as I entered high school, and so it was with shock that this point would jab into gums, between teeth and into cavities that suddenly exploded with pain. This was probably my first realization that life wasn’t always good and that we could deteriorate as we got older. This discomfort was not aided by the fact that the dentist, Mr. Gosling, had a habit of humming and whistling as he worked. His apparent good humour was not matched by my feelings, particularly when it was announced to my mother that I was in need of a couple of fillings, and must ensure I regularly brushed my teeth.
Fillings! The word didn’t mean much the first time, but afterwards it always brought fear. I was helpless, sitting open mouth and open soul, totally unaware what was to happen. Strange stainless steel implements were arranged on the tray next to me and suddenly a glass and steel syringe appeared in his hand. The word cocaine was mentioned and then there was a sharp stab into my gum, and then repeated at another point. I must say, I was shocked. I was left to stew for a while and my mouth became numb and this spread up to my nose. For some reason I thought that that was it. Oh how wrong can you be!
He returned and the pale mint green tower that I had noticed, a bit like a crane, was swung my way and he fiddled with the end and then, I assume with a foot switch, turned on the drill and the noise I can still hear now. The sound of a dentist’s drill, particularly those used many years ago, has a special place in the fear section of the brain. The wail of a banshee holds no less terror, and I challenge anyone not to share the same response to it, much the same as the scrape of fingernails on a blackboard. Ever since, there is nothing more likely to strike fear into the stoutest heart than sitting in a dentist’s waiting room and hearing the sound of someone experiencing the drill.
The dentist reached into my mouth whilst the assistant hung a miniature vacuum cleaner into it. It wasn’t comfortable and dug into the palate below the tongue, but I had no means or repositioning it and it just added to the misery. The drill whirled, water sprayed into my mouth and the tooth began to disintegrate. I think he may have muttered, “This won’t hurt a bit!”, but if he did, he lied. He whistled and inflicted torture and there was nothing I could do. I was helpless, at his mercy. It seemed like eternity, but I am sure it was just a few minutes. The assistant was instructed to make up the amalgam filling and she mixed and scraped standing to the side. He stopped the drilling, told me to rinse my mouth out and then she handed him another tool and he squeezed the mixture into the tooth he had removed most of and then repeated it with the other. Sharp tools were then in his hand and there was scraping, the instruction to close my mouth, further scraping and then the final instruction to rinse my mouth out with the glass of water. The bib was suddenly whipped off and I was told to get up, look after my teeth better with regular brushing, and my mum and I left and walked home. My forehead was numb at this point and when at home and was given some orange juice, I found I couldn’t drink it as it dribbled from between my numb lips. I seemed a very long time before the feeling returned and life could return to normal.
We changed dentists at some point to another on Easterley Road, half way up the hill and on the opposite side. Having grown accustomed to fillings I was no longer quite as terrified. This was also helped by improved treatment techniques, equipment and painkillers. There was one experience I had not had up to this point and that was an extraction. I can’t remember why I was needing a tooth removed, but I did. I was sitting in the chair, tense and afraid, when the dentist said, “I’m just going to give you a little gas. You’ll just be a little woozy. Just try and relax. Nothing to worry about!” A black rubber facemask was clamped over my nose and mouth. There was the strong smell and taste of what is Nitrous Oxide, laughing gas, and I breathed in and knew no more until suddenly faces appeared swirling around my consciousness, accompanied by a dull ache and the taste of blood. “That’s it now, David. All done!” The words of the dentist and the smile of the assistant and it was all over. “Rinse your mouth out. I did as I was told and then turned to see the concerned look on my mother’s face. “Now don’t eat or drink for a couple of hours and then you should be as right as rain!”
I think I may have had gas another time, but I am not sure why, unless they removed double first teeth, but later when I was at the end of primary school at Harehills I had four double teeth removed to allow for overcrowding, but this was not with gas. When I saw the dentist with the overcrowding they decided I needed a brace on a plate for three months or so to straighten them out. I returned to get the plate fitted on the day I was to attend a girl in my class’s birthday party. The brace was fitted and it was tight. I was shown how to remove it and it was quite difficult and uncomfortable, but then I headed off to the party. I must say I was very embarrassed and, to make matters worse, I could barely speak with it in. I really didn’t enjoy the party and I could only nod and just about managed to say yes or no. I believe we may have played postman’s knock, but as you can guess, I don’t think I was anyone’s first choice.
Older still, we continued our progression up Easterley Road and moved to a dentist at the top of the hill and back on the other side of the road. It was a large corner house and we stayed there for many years. One thing I do remember was that when I was old enough to go on my own, I was asked to sign a blank form for the treatment before anything was done. I can only think of one reason for this and that was dentists were paid by the National Health for the work carried out and who knows what work was claimed. This seemed to be the general practice of all the dentists I had, and I also think there was an encouragement for extra work to be undertaken. In my adult life I don’t remember the constant need for fillings to be re-done regularly, but the early ones seemed to require this. Maybe I am just getting cynical in my old age, but the payment for work system seems to encourage unnecessary treatment.
Modern dentistry is painless and not as scary for me now, but I wonder if children share similar experiences to those we did in the 1950s-60s? The only thing scary about a dentist in Perth Western Australia is the cost.
For those interested the audio book, Hell Fire, can be streamed, free of charge, from the SoundCloud player below. The first eight parts are available below and a new chapter is added each week. Hell Fire is an adult/young adult fantasy novel.