The Diary: I bet Johnson spoke clearly, teeth or not

On Tuesday of last week I went to the Liberal Club to attend a splendid luncheon given by W H Smith on the occasion of its 1999 book awards. I had a very merry time and ended up being presented with a cheque for pounds 10,000 for Master Georgie.

I can only suppose, judging by the events of the next 24 hours, that I was a little too merry, for I seem to have offended a great many people - particularly the citizens of my native Liverpool - by some chance remarks flung out while in a state of euphoria. In what context they were said escapes me, but six hours later the telephone rang and an irate voice on the answering machine shouted that hanging was too good for me. Apparently I had called for the compulsory teaching of elocution in schools and the wiping-out of all regional accents. After much soul-searching as to how and why I came up with such a sensible proposition, I can only suppose that, it being Tuesday, I was looking forward to the midweek episode of Brookside. It has long been my contention that the reason the children of the Farnhams - a middle-class family unaccountably residing in the Close - had to die so tragically was that their parents were ashamed of the way they spoke. And who could blame them?

For what it's worth, I shall repeat what I have been saying on the radio over and over for the last two days. I am not against the accents of the Scotch, the Welsh, the Irish and the Lancastrian, for such speech is music to the ear. On the other hand, the mangled language spoken by some citizens of Birmingham and Liverpool is a disgrace, and a relatively recent one. One has only to listen to the voices of Tommy Handley, Ted Ray, Ken Dodd and the Beatles to hear the difference between the past and now. By the way, the great Dr. Johnson came from the Midlands and spoke with an accent, though I bet it wasn't the one now in use.

I am not in favour of talking posh, simply in favour of correct grammar and fluency.

WEDNESDAY LUNCHTIME, in flight from the telephone and various camera crews - I had been up at six to go to the studio of the Today programme - I met my friends Margaret and Lynn at Waterloo and embarked for Aldershot. We couldn't find a smoking compartment except in first class, and when the collector came round we all proffered money to pay the excess fare, only to be told we were nicely spoken ladies and we needn't bother. I mention this merely to emphasise what happened later. We were met at Aldershot by Major Vincent Ward. "Birmingham's out for your blood," he announced, as I got into the car.

Several months back I wrote something or other about teeth, in particular the possible lack of them in 18th- century England. I was interested in how actors of the day, Garrick etc, and Dr Johnson for that matter, managed to speak clearly without their molars. Most people had either a few rotten pegs or had lost the lot by the time they were 25. Hence the use of fans by ladies - they were needed to waft away bad breath as much as to hide the mouth. Molten lead was sometimes used as a filling, but only if you were rich. Until at least 1800, barbers combined hair-cutting with both tooth-extraction and blood-letting. Here are a nice few lines on one such chap: Lin'd with red rags to look like blood,/ Did well his threefold trade explain,/ Who shav'd, drew teeth, and breath'd a vein.

My article on the subject was read by Major Ward who wrote and kindly offered to show me over the historical museum of the Royal Army Dental Corps. And what a wonderful place it turned out to be, full of treasures showing the connection between dentistry and the Army from 1660 to the present day. I was particularly taken with the death mask of Himmler, who committed suicide before they could hang him by secreting a cyanide tablet in a back molar. And did you know that in order to use the flintlock musket soldiers had to have their front teeth scaled to preserve them? It has something to do with the need to bite the top off the bullet thingie when loading, and you couldn't do that if your front teeth had dropped out.

The first false teeth were made out of hippopotamus horn. The very earliest instruments for pulling teeth were corkscrews, and after looking at these and photographs of dental operations on hideously shattered jaws, Margaret, Lynn and I all developed toothache which lasted all the way home. Oh, yes, halfway through our tour a gentleman in shorts ran in and said Sky Television was looking for me, but we told him to say we'd gone for battle training.

IT'S CURIOUS how people differ in their reaction to the way one speaks. On our return journey, this time seated in a second-class smoking compartment, we were roundly ticked off by the ticket collector. There was some confusion on our part as to what class we were sitting in, which led us to confess that we'd travelled two hours before in the posher part of the train, whereupon we were immediately asked to show our excess whatsits. What a carry-on! Our explanation was dismissed out of hand. "I am surprised," he said, looking extremely censorious, "that ladies such as yourselves should stoop to lying." Lyn went bright red and Margaret got the giggles. "He was very tall," I stuttered, endeavouring to describe the previous ticket man, "and he wore glasses." "That," said our accuser - and he had a point - "could he said of many men in railway employ."

I think if I'd answered him in a Scouse accent he might have let the matter drop; instead, he went and sat two seats down and kept an eye on us all the way to Waterloo. It meant we didn't dare rip up the upholstery or scratch lines on the window.