John Walsh Column

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My dentist is turning Japanese. Her surgery currently features a spindly viburnum twig in a long blue-glass vase standing on a pedestal, which clients of her fashionable south London practice can contemplate at their leisure, like Shinto devotees inspecting a cherry blossom tree.

Did I say "at their leisure"? What I meant was "to distract them from the screaming agony they are simultaneously enduring". For the plant's function is, of course, therapeutic rather than aesthetic. It's not there to amuse passing horticulturalists. It's to distract you from the knowledge that you're sitting with your mouth bizarrely, and unpleasantly, filled with rubber suction tubes, metal clamps and little plastic hoovers while a brace of ladies you hardly know are leaning over you and hoeing your gums with an ultra-violet cattle-prod.

I haven't had the pleasure for a while. In fact I haven't been near a dentist for five or six years. I've grown used to the gradual organic decay, the carious grooves and crenellations, the unexpected Polo-mint- sized holes and Monument Valley erosions in the cave of one's mouth over the years. But when a whole landslip of grey molar suddenly appeared before me the other night, in an otherwise perfectly acceptable murgh dhansak, I decided it was time to travel down the Road of Pain once more.

I couldn't believe how much had changed. It used to be so brutally simple. Once you sat for 20 minutes in a hushed ante-chamber that smelt of Mr Sheen and old copies of Horse & Hound, until your name was called by a sad-eyed matron - the sort who in bygone times would have been found robbing corpses in a Dickens novel - who led you to a room reeking of cloves and zinc oxide, where a genial and bearded Australian would attack you with a drill and make you drink some effervescent pink antiseptic, while you stared unhappily at a blank wall.

Now look what you get: the waiting room is full of piped Dvorak, there's an educational jigsaw on the table and some copies of the new-style Punch on the chair in a burst of post-modernist ("You must be in a `dentist's waiting room', right?") irony. In the surgery, the dentist is a smiling, auntie-like figure with a batterie de cuisine that includes plaque guns and light-sensitive filling-hardeners. Sit up on the reclining chair and you're given an array of carved wooden African trucks and diggers to look at. Recline on the reclining chair, and you're staring at an aerial view of Dulwich, the idea being that, in trying to identify your back garden, you will fail to notice that a particularly jangly dental nerve is about to be cauterised with pitch and tar. Should a filling be required, they plonk a Sony Walkman over your ears and turn it up until the cacophany of excavation is briefly drowned by Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin waltzes fortissimo. Should a major filling be required, they give you a pair of perspex goggles to shield you from bits of flying amalgam. And there you sit, a torture victim on sensory overload, your mouth, eyes, ears and nose simultaneously assailed. It's surprising they don't give you something to do with your hands to complete the set. Modelling clay? Worry beads?

"There's a lot of new thinking about patient relaxation," I was told by a personable Scot at the British Dental Association. "It's to reassure people who are still scared of dentists. Some surgeries even give you virtual reality headsets while your teeth are being worked on, but since they cost pounds 1,500 each, it's early days." Intrigued, I did some research of my own, and found a chap in Mill Hill who offers patients giant spectacles on which they can watch videos - mostly soothing stuff, such as great golfing moments or (a favourite, apparently) Delia Smith explaining how to make boeuf en daube. But, he told me, patients had the option of bringing their own favourite movies along. Jolly good. Where did I put my copy of Marathon Man? Can you still rent Driller Killer?

"And Nicholas Soames told the House of Commons that ministers had not deliberately myzelled Parliament over the use of dangerous pesticides in the Gulf War," said the lady newscaster, reading the 8pm bulletin on Greater London Radio on Tuesday night. Myzelled? Oh I see, misled. Poor thing, she had momentarily suffered that curious form of word-blindness that affects everyone from time to time, when a familiar arrangement of letters refuses to divulge the word it purports to represent. Personally, I've always had a problem with "swee-thart" and "noo-shoond", which is how I read the words sweetheart and newshound. And a quick straw poll reveals that one or two (non-dyslexic) colleagues have always had trouble with "drorts" and "kway", which is how they always read the words draughts and quay. So it is hardly fair for me to criticise another's momentary lapse. I am just as guilty. I have no aleeby.

The news that Health & Efficiency magazine faces closure left a curious pang somewhere in the memory banks. I haven't seen the thing for all of 30 years, but what a curious production it was. The title, for one thing, seemed a little off-target for a nudie magazine. (Efficiency? Efficiency at what?) And the ampersand gave it an unmistakeable whiff of the trade mag (as in Transport & General Workers' Union Magazine). But the content was far odder. It was in these pages that a whole generation of nervous Catholic youths at my severely Jesuit school first glimpsed naked female flesh - and couldn't work out what possible connection its owners had with sex. All these abstracted-looking dames, standing around on sea shores or languidly playing volleyball, seemed far more attuned to the bracing properties of ozone than to the lore of the boudoir. Even their spectacular chests, at which we gazed in simple wonder, seemed strangely disembodied, as if they'd been borrowed for the day. And, given the prevailing rules about the airbrushing of pubic hair, well, it turned us all into little Ruskins. (Armpits too).

All this reminiscence started getting to me. I simply had to find a copy of the final issue before it went, er, belly-up. But there was no sign of it in Brad, the index of the nation's magazines. H&E's proprietor, Peenhill Ltd, was raided by the porn squad some months ago and their London phone number is "not recognised". So I finally went to the newsagent at Canary Wharf and asked for it.

"Health magazine, is it?" No, I said, in a serious, journalist-at-work voice, it's a naturism magazine. Nudism, that sort of thing. Quite famous, once. Going out of business. I'm doing a story on it, you see. For a paper. Very much a matter of research. Oh yes.

The newsagent regarded me steadily. "We're not allowed to sell magazines like that," he said. "But the nearest thing I can offer you is probably Video World..." Eyeing me with kindly indulgence, he indicated a publication full of hypertrophied mammaries. Suddenly, from being an awestruck 13- year-old, I had become a Dirty Old Man in a dodgy raincoat. And now, however strong my craving for wine gums or Marlboro Lights, I can never go into the shop again. ("Over there, Gerry. That's the poor sod who was looking for 'ealth & Efficiency the other day...")

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