Waiting Room Joys
[ Issue 42 ]

Sleepy Jack Hanrahan is one of Emily Bronto's favourite Bikwil features

Bikwil has a thing about Sleepy Jack Hanrahan

Waiting Room Joys

Here is another episode in our occasional series featuring Sleepy Jack Hanrahan, as reported by his friend E. Roy Strong.

I don’t know about you, but for me there are some subjects you just don’t talk about, and top of my list is anything to do with dentistry. Now, while we have many things in common, it’d be true to say that for Sleepy Jack Hanrahan no topic at all is taboo, even when embarrassment for him might ensue therefrom. So when he confidently showed me his latest piece of writing the other week, it was only with the greatest of reluctance that I was persuaded to go public with it.

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Waiting Room Joys
[ From Come Spin Us a Yarn, Sleepy Jack ]
— E. Roy Strong


I don't know about you, but for me there are some subjects you just don't talk about, and top of my list is anything to do with dentistry. Now, while we have many things in common, it'd be true to say that for Sleepy Jack Hanrahan no topic at all is taboo, even when embarrassment for him might ensue therefrom. So when he confidently showed me his latest piece of writing the other week, it was only with the greatest of reluctance that I was persuaded to go public with it.

What follows, then, is the full text of a paper that Sleepy Jack claims he prepared for — but, as things transpired, did not actually deliver at — the 37th Sino-Tunisisan Paleodeciduous and Intermolar Colloquium held last Spring in Reykjavik.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have been invited here today to share with you some ideas on the topic of “The Dentist’s Waiting-Room” and all the joys that are conjured up by memories of such minimum-security enclosures.

What, indeed, could be more sentimentally prominent in one’s long-term memory than images of visits to the dentist as a child? I guarantee that everybody here can readily bring to mind a favourite childhood gum-digger recollection. I dare say, too, that it could well be a vision characterised by “an intimacy of so affectionate a nature” (to borrow a phrase from Dickens) that, long after senile dementia has set in, it will still occupy pride of place among the mental leftovers.

Now, just in case your long-term memory — unlike that of Carl Jung, say — doesn’t often avail itself of the Collective Unconscious, it will be to our advantage, before we go any further, to outline some dental chronology.

Why? Well, if no other reason that a bit of history at the outset not only sets the stage but also makes for an even more welcome return to the present-day — in the case at hand to one’s relatively more recent memories of dental delights, principally the serene contentment of the waiting-room.

Yes, sublime delights aplenty there were in my juvenile exchanges with the dentist, and they will, I assure you, be worth putting off a moment or two longer.

First of all, then, one of the earliest recorded mentions of dental theory was found on a Sumerian clay tablet of 5000 B.C. Inscribed in cuneiform, this indispensable piece of medical news states that toothache is caused by small gnawing worms within the tooth.

Dental practice, of course, predates dental theory. Recent fossil findings have revealed, for instance, that picking one’s teeth is one of humanity’s oldest and most widespread habits. It goes back as far as Homo Erectus, who, as everyone knows, raised his ugly head about two million years ago.

While we’re on the subject of fossils, I read the other day that an archaeological site in Baluchistan has revealed what may turn out to be evidence of the earliest evidence of dentistry. Eight or nine thousand years ago these prehistoric inhabitants of what we now call Pakistan seem to have been drilling into people’s molars for the purpose of fixing tooth decay.

Ah, those ancients! They were good, were they not? A mere two thousand years later than their gnawing worms our Sumerian friends were even managing fillings, and in 1000 B.C. the Etruscans were using false teeth, mainly for cosmetic reasons.

For our next piece of history we leap odontologically forward to 17th century Europe, where many progressive methods for alleviating toothache were on offer. I don’t know about you, but I reckon that none could have provided more ecstatic and spine-tingling relief than the ritual of rubbing a dead mouse on the cheek near the pain.

If you like, we can dwell upon that picture one further minute . . .

My mention of tingling there leads me neatly to the next item on my list: the origin of what I am certain is everyone’s fondest memory of all — the delicious anticipation one feels in the waiting-room for The Drill. Who would have dreamt that it was George Washington’s dentist, one John Greenwood, who in 1790 invented this popular electric instrument of childhood bliss?

I cannot tell a lie, for the President, apparently, was nothing if not the willing experimental subject in Greenwood’s hands, with history reporting that, as well as several false teeth made of elm wood, he also sported some fashioned of hippopotamus ivory.

Before he became G.W.’s dentist, by the way, Greenwood used to quite openly pay a guinea each for what were called “live teeth”, that is, teeth taken from cadavers, which was a common practice right up to the middle of the nineteenth century, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Gradually, however, dentists and patients weaned themselves off the decaying and diseased corpse tooth habit, and began using teeth from fit and healthy young soldiers killed in war. The Battle of Waterloo (1815) was a special case in point, being the bloody creator in one day of thousands of dead bodies. The result was a boon for the living, who were able to benefit from a veritable flood of dentures made from so-called “Waterloo teeth”.

Now, did you know that teeth can serve a musical purpose?

Of course you did.

They say that when Beethoven was going deaf he used to bend over and bite the piano while he pounded the keys. This way he could feel the vibrations of the music through his incisors. It may have eased his hunger, but it played havoc with his mandibles, and this perhaps is why in later portraits he seems so square of jaw and furrowed of brow.

My final bit of relevant history (I know you can’t wait for this) took place in 1789, when there was an unsuccessful uprising against the Portuguese colonial regime in Brazil, led by the patriot Joaquim José da Silva Xavier. It has become known as the Tiradentes Conspiracy after his nickname of Tiradentes ("Tooth Puller"), given him because he was a dentist.

OK, waiting-rooms I have known and loved.

When I was a child, my mother was very keen that the dentist saw me regularly. She herself had once had teeth that were attention-grabbing to say the least, and when I was eight she went off one day and had them out — every one of them. I came home from school and didn’t recognise her at all. The expression on her face was unforgettable. Obviously she had been very moved by her exhilarating experience.

No. What I was trying to suggest was that the shape of her mouth was completely new to me. I must have looked quite baffled because she smiled encouragingly, and the more she smiled the more bewildered I became.

Anyway, this led her to speculate whether I had inherited her dental features. Her guess proved all too accurate. To the casual observer it would have seemed that in the school holidays I had nothing better to do than enjoy myself in Mr. C.’s rooms.

(I call him Mr. C., but no amount of anonymity is really good enough for him. I suggest it’s better for all concerned if we draw the circumspect curtain across the man himself, and concentrate instead on what he did and what he employed to do it.)

As some of you will no doubt recall, the 1940s were the leisurely years of the slow drill. Moreover, this breathtaking process involved no local anaesthesia; the only time you ever got an injection was before what P.G. Wodehouse might have called a “fang-wrenching”.

Time for a riddle.

Why did the guru refuse an injection at the dentist’s?

Answer: he wanted to transcend dental medication.

O.K., O.K. I can see you’ve heard it. Returning quickly to my old boyhood dentist, I should add that Mr. C. had no nurse to assist him, either, and had to prepare his own amalgam fillings. I can see him now, grinding away by hand, using the tried and true combination of pestle and mortar.

Yes, he put his all into his work, and I still have one or two teeth that if required could be called in evidence of his efforts. Years later, a more avant-garde dentist, at great digital risk, once prised open my clamped jaws, took a cursory peek and immediately pronounced, “Your teeth can be described only as lots of amalgam held together with bits of enamel”.

Overall, I suppose, Mr C.'s tools were no more old-fashioned than that of other family dentists of the time, but for me none of his technology is easily wiped from the memory, and neither is his relaxing dental green-room, to say nothing of all the old riches that it accommodated.

The waiting space, roomy with a high ceiling and a bay window, was unusual in that it was not next to the surgery, but across the main hall of the building, through which other tenants regularly passed. This two-storey edifice, originally a small mansion, was a good thirty years old even then, and the waiting-room furnishings could easily have been of the same or earlier vintage.

Indeed, there was a veritable hodgepodge of furniture just begging to be added to an antique dealer’s catalogue: a long settee for impromptu family gatherings, four roomy leather armchairs of the gentleman’s club variety, each with a smoker’s stand — even a tasselled standard lamp that had seen better days in some elderly châtelaine’s boudoir.

Among this throng of fittings was an equally old-fashioned low wooden table inlaid with a leather edging and decorated generously with deep scratches. This is where the predictable waiting-room magazines put their feet up — as did the odd pair of hobnailed boots.

It’s that reading matter that lingers longest in the memory, actually, and I’ve begun to wonder whether there might be a hidden agenda here, when every dentist’s ante-room contains out-of-date periodicals. Do Dental Registration Boards believe that you will be more distracted from the pleasures to come by old rather than current issues? Who knows?

What I do know is that I am not the only person to have been aware of this eternal truth. In Wodehouse’s The Fiery Wooing of Mordred (in Young Men in Spats), for instance, Mordred Mulliner and Annabelle Sprocket-Sprocket were subjected to outdated magazines in a dentist's waiting-room, Mordred “turning the pages of a three-months-old copy of the Tatler”, while Annabelle “listlessly perused her four-months-old copy of Punch”.

More explicitly, there was a writer in The Times Literary Supplement in November 1980 who knowingly referred to “the wearisome unfunniness of back numbers of Punch perused in the dentist's waiting-room”.

Hear, hear.

Someone else has even gone so far as to conjecture,

Maybe the magazines one finds in the dentist's waiting-room are put there to indicate how long the dentist has been practising.


Not so long ago I learned a very handy gambit you can use if you become unbearably frustrated with the age of the magazines presented to you. You should pretend to read avidly, then suddenly look up and announce in a dark and confidential whisper to the other pleasure-seekers present, “How about that? O.J. Simpson has been acquitted”, or some such antediluvian piece of news.

Just watch the reactions. Will the receptionist fall about in hysterics behind her desk? Will the children giggle? More to the point, will you have enhanced the collective buoyant mood?
Age aside, what selection criteria could possibly be at work with these periodicals? Take my Mr. C.’s assortment, for example. I use the word “assortment” loosely, I should say, since every single item on his timber table was an issue of that venerable Australian periodical The Bulletin.

The old large one, of course, with the literary Red Page and the Seppelt's ad. Such a dreary magazine to have lying around for children nonchalantly awaiting his seductive summons, but there it was, to be taken or left.

Dickens, writing on the subject of dentists’ waiting-rooms, referred to them as “horrible cool parlours, where people pretend to read the Every-day Book and not to be afraid ”.

Afraid? Afraid? Afraid of what? Even Thomas Mann’s poor old Senator Buddenbrook was not afraid, just in pain, but he too had trouble coping with old jokes:

He entered a yellow-brown house in Mill Street and went up to the first storey, where a brass plate on the door said, "Brecht, Dentist." He did not see the servant who opened the door. The corridor was warm and smelled of beefsteak and cauliflower. Then he suddenly inhaled the sharp odour of the waiting-room into which he was ushered. "Sit down! One moment!" shrieked the voice of an old woman. It was Josephus, who sat in his shining cage at the end of the room and regarded him sidewise out of his venomous little eyes.

The Senator sat down at the round table and tried to read the jokes in a volume of Fliegende Blätter, flung down the book, and pressed the cool silver handle of his walking-stick against his cheek. He closed his burning eyes and groaned. There was not a sound, except for the noise made by Josephus as he bit and clawed at the bars of his cage. Herr Brecht might not be busy; but he owed it to himself to make his patient wait a little.

Thomas Buddenbrook stood up precipitately and drank a glass of water from the bottle on the table. It tasted and smelled of chloroform. Then he opened the door into the corridor and called out in an irritated voice: if there nothing very important to prevent it, would Herr Brecht kindly make haste — he was suffering.

And immediately the bald forehead, hooked nose, and grizzled moustaches of the dentist appeared in the door of the operating-room. "If you please," he said. "If you please," shrieked Josephus. The senator followed on the invitation. He was not smiling. "A bad case," thought Herr Brecht, and turned pale.

While on the topic of confined birds, here’s Wodehouse again, this time in Very Good, Jeeves:

Barring a dentist's waiting-room, which it rather resembles, there isn't anything that quells the spirit much more than one of these suburban parlours. They are extremely apt to have stuffed birds in glass cases standing about on small tables, and if there is one thing which gives the man of sensibility that sinking feeling it is the cold, accusing eye of a ptarmigan, or whatever it may be that has had its interior organs removed and sawdust substituted.

Yes, creative writing about the dentistry experience is everywhere — some of it quite serious. But who wants to get serious about this, having come so far in a different frame of mind?
Here is a romantic extract from Alan Coren’s Your Teeth in Their Hands. This was first published in Punch, and has been reprinted several times since:

The Hon. Fenella Strume-Clavering's lovelorn eyes gazed down, intoxicated, as Garth Genesis's lithe fingers probed and caressed the dark, secret places of her mouth. They were the fingers of a dentist: strong, lean, tanned. Virile. Her heart pounded.

"Spit," he said.

She turned her exquisite head, bent over the bowl, unable to spit; a single tear rolled down her nose and splashed against the immaculate porcelain.

"You realise, madame," said Genesis levelly, "that there is absolutely nothing wrong with your teeth?"

She looked away from his unfathomable blue eyes.

"Yes," she whispered. "I know. But I just had to come. I had —"

American humourists have also been fond of the dentist:

For years I have let dentists ride roughshod over my teeth; I have been sawed, hacked, chopped, whittled, bewitched, bewildered, tattooed, and signed on again; but this is cuspid's last stand. They’ll never get me into that chair again. I'll dispose of my teeth as I see fit, and after they've gone, I'll get along. I started off living on gruel, and by God, I can always go back to it again.

That is the concluding paragraph from the equally often republished S. J. Perelman piece, Nothing but the Tooth.

Hang on.

Wait there.

I seem to have wandered from the parlour back into the operating theatre again. What a truly rollicking good time we must’ve been having among all those metallic gadgets.

That reminds me, speaking of time, of what cosmic philosopher Douglas Adams wrote in his Life, the Universe and Everything about the punishment about to be administered to the nasty people of Krikkit for their intergalactic war crimes:

The planet of Krikkit was to be encased for perpetuity in an envelope of Slo-Time, inside which life would continue almost infinitely slowly. All light would be deflected round the envelope so that it would remain invisible and impenetrable. Escape from the envelope would be utterly impossible unless it were unlocked from the outside.

You may be asking yourselves what, if anything, the planet of Krikkit has to do with a visit to the dentist? Simply that the way out from the dentist’s waiting-room also depends a lot on forces beyond the control of those inside.

And listen to this. I’ve been unable to trace its author, but like Adams’ judge he or she was fully cognizant of the unhurried passage of time in such detention centres:

It is widely held that time passes at the same rate everywhere, except as predicted by relativity theory. Anyone who has sat in a dentist’s waiting-room will realise that this is false. Dentists' waiting-rooms are specially equipped with a device which slows down time in order to enable the patient to savour the anticipation fully.

For an ultramodern approach to delicate amusements of being a dental patient may I suggest you visit the Internet and look for an Australian site called Leading Edge Dental. The address is http://www.edgedent.com.au. It’s very funny and deserves your restorative attention.

Now, look.

You’ve already let me know that you’ve heard plenty of terrible dentist jokes over the years, but as I surreptitiously sneak a glance at my normal-speed watch I see that I can just sneak in one more short one before we move into question time.

Here goes.

“Doctor, I have yellow teeth, what do I do?”

“My best advice is to wear a brown tie.”

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