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18 December 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 10:23am

“That tooth’s got to come out,” the dentist says, with a prod. “Ho hit, herlock,” I reply

By Nicholas Lezard

Unlike Boris Johnson on the campaign trail, I like to tell the truth. What to say, then, on the registration form at the new dentist’s, when they ask you how many units of alcohol you drink a week? I like to tell the truth. It is a good way of finding out your dentist’s mettle. My old dentist never made comment. What has one’s alcohol intake got to do with one’s fangs, anyway? (I anticipate a flood of correspondence.) I wrote “50”, but I am prepared to admit it may be more than that. For my previous dentist, whom I had been seeing for 25 years before he even got around to asking this question, I wrote “lots”.

I am led into the dentist’s surgery by a nurse whom I immediately want to marry.

Standing by the equipment is a small boy, aged about 12, wearing a dentist’s scrubs. He is also wearing a pair of thick black round glasses and a straggly beard, which makes it all the more adorable.

“Hello, sonny,” I say, ruffling his hair. “Where’s the dentist?”

OK, I don’t really. The point is, though, that I could have.

He is, of course, the dentist. I explain what the matter is: a cracked tooth, as useless as Johnson’s moral compass, and beneath it a surging sea of pain. He pokes it; nothing. He pokes it again, a few millimetres along, and I scream.

“That tooth’s got to come out,” he says.

“Ho hit, herlock,” I say, my mouth still open.

“And you have an infection.” He looks at his notes. “It says here you drink 50 units of alcohol a week.” As he does not look old enough to drink, I imagine that to him this seems like an awful lot. He prescribes me a week-long course of amoxicillin; in fact, he gives me a packet. But before he hands it over he says: “You must not drink while taking these.”

“Orrock,” I say, which is my attempt to pronounce the word “bollocks”. I have taken amoxicillin before – the last time was three months ago, for a chest infection; I didn’t lay off the sauce, and it was fine.

“The alcohol will block the effect of the drug, and the extraction will be more painful,” he says.

Ah. Which am I more scared of – not drinking for a week, or a more-than-necessarily-painful extraction? It’s at times like these that one discovers what one is made of.

I’m halfway through my course as I write, and I am on my fourth day of not drinking. Because NHS dentists for new patients now only exist in fairy tales, I am going to have to pay £85 for the extraction. If I don’t go to the pub and don’t drink wine for a week, the cost will be covered by my abstention.

I’ll also see if not drinking has a beneficial effect on my middle-aged gut. And I am curious to see if I can do it without having some kind of seizure. Meanwhile, the pain continues unabated; and thus begin the Days of Soup. I have also started having porridge for breakfast. (Being sober, I am awake in time for breakfast. This morning, as for the previous few mornings, I got up at 7am, and have found myself asking, with a deep existential bewilderment, the question posed by Richard Scarry’s famous book for children: what do people do all day? It’s half past ten in the morning and I’m so bored I’m writing my column almost a day early. After this I am going to go for a walk.)

I can now eat only mush. I spent a year in Scotland turning my nose up at the porridge, and now here I am at the opposite end of the landmass eating the stuff like it is going out of style.

OK, I exaggerate: like it is tentatively coming into style. Afterwards, it is soup. The thing about soup is that it has to be really good, because each spoonful is going to be exactly like the others.

I am surprised, though, that I am not consumed by cravings for drink in the evenings. The only bad time is when I walk past the Prince Albert on a cold winter evening, for it does a delicious porter and has a proper open fire. (My apologies to the Battle of Trafalgar, but you don’t have a fire. I will be back, promise.)

So what, you may say. Not drinking for a week? Millions of people either don’t drink at all or save it up for the weekend. Ah, I reply, but you don’t understand: this is me. I am having to reconfigure a significant part of my identity.

Yesterday I developed crippling stomach pains, and a friend asked if this was more about not drinking than a reaction to the antibiotics.

“Do you use alcohol as a relaxant?” she asked. (She doesn’t know me very well.)

“Relaxant, muse, social lubricant,” I replied.

It occurs to me that the main reason I’m doing this is to show my baby dentist that I’m not the alcoholic he clearly thinks I am. And, unlike Boris Johnson, I like to stick to my word. 

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This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning