13 minutes reading time (2515 words)

The Grinch

Christmas comes but once a year, And when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.

Christmas comes but once a year, And when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.

“The Grinch Is Ready To See You, Mrs Brown”


“Christmas comes but once a year, and when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.”


I still don’t know how I ended up in dentistry. My own childhood dentist certainly inspired no dental aspirations. The only thing he engendered was a soul-gripping dread whenever I was dragged up City Road, Birmingham, to his terraced house practice. The man had no empathy whatsoever and shouted at me when I gagged on his un-gloved nicotine-stained fingers or what I assumed were child-killing cottonwool rolls.

I could take all the drilling with his belt-driven state-of-the-art rotary slow handpiece, and didn’t protest at the smell of burning dentine or the frequent twinge of pain (for he didn’t believe that children could perceive pain). It was just the fear of choking on his instruments of moisture control that got me every time.

One late December afternoon, a few days before Christmas, I was dragged up the road to be greeted by the illuminated cuboid ‘Dental Surgery’ sign being ‘decorated’ with a pathetic sprig of holly secured to the frosted lampshade with what looked like electrical insulating tape. It was the practice’s only nod to the festive season - there was nothing even vaguely Christmassy inside. Having said that, this was the only time I had experienced anything approaching a reasonably comfortable experience with the hairy-nostrilled fiend.

As we approached the practice, I wasn’t aware that I was about to have a GA for deciduous tooth extractions. I have no idea why extractions were necessary, because apart from having pain once in my late teens with a lower six (which I suspect still has Ledermix overlying the pulp), I can’t remember ever having had full-blown toothache as a child, or even complaining about a dental problem. In retrospect, he certainly didn’t grab me as being a bloke who believed in serial extractions.

Anyway, that cold afternoon, the nice Cornish nurse greeted me and asked me if I wanted to “spend a penny.” I went upstairs and was incredibly disappointed that there wasn’t a sweet shop up there. In those days, I was heavily into Spangles.

I didn’t know what was coming next and woke up from the GA with what felt like a mouthful of gums and a deep-seated resentment of sneaky dentists, particularly those who didn’t appear to have a suitably qualified individual acting as an anaesthetist.

Having been in a COVID-19 fuzz this past couple of weeks, I emerged today from the fogginess, realising that Christmas isn’t far away. I admitted earlier in the week that I used to ban festive songs in my practice on the grounds that I hate them. The exception is Chris Rea’s ‘Driving Home For Christmas’ - mainly because I always associate the song with a lovely, magical practice I worked at one winter in the 80’s, situated in the middle of the Cotswolds. The song played on the way to, and from the practice and I do still feel nostalgic for the period I worked in the   practice which was housed in an abandoned church chapel in a charming little village.

It’s difficult to pinpoint when I began to despair of forced Yuletide cheer, but I think working in dentistry didn’t help me cure it.

I don’t think I have always hated Christmas. Although I started my working life as a provincial reporter, I switched to being a press photographer after a few years and although Christmas time was a pretty dispiriting time artistically speaking, it was still reasonably heart-warming.

About a month before the kids broke up from school, as the junior photographer, I’d be despatched to some far-flung primary or infant school nearly every day (it seemed), to take photographs of a nativity play dress rehearsal. I was always greeted warmly by the school staff, but cute though these kids were, they provided little in the way of exciting opportunities to boot my career towards the Fleet Street paparazzi pack, which I longed to belong to.

One day though in about 1975, I had been on a long run of school visits and I was frankly, bored. It was driving back from one of these dress rehearsals that I faked a UFO photograph that was published and got me into a lot of trouble with the Ministry of Defence and the BBC. That was a fun silver lining to the Christmas build-up, but that’s another long story. Suffice to say, I know from personal experience that the MOD was taking UFO sightings very seriously in the 1970’s, having had my negatives taken away unceremoniously, in a suitcase handcuffed to a military officer accompanied by an armed military policeman.

I had a couple of happy memories of Christmas-related stories while still a journalist. One time the Daily Mirror approached me for a photograph I’d taken for my paper of a bloke who had basically told Xmas revellers to go away and signed it ‘Scrooge.’ By the time The Mirror sent a reporter and photographer around to see him, he had shied away from further publicity (he ‘got the willies’ as my editor put it), so I got my first photograph in the national newspapers, by default. We made quite a bit of welcome dosh as the result of the sale of the picture, which we probably spent on boozy lunchtimes in the Swinging Sporran.


Christmas comes but once a year, And when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.


The other ‘happy’ memory from a newsy point of view, was from one lunchtime just before Christmas and we had a drink-laden festive lunch near Stratford-on-Avon.   We were in a minibus coming back from the event and a few miles ahead of us in the growing gloom was a faint glow, which grew and grew until the realisation hit us that the town in front of us was in the process of losing its main factory due to a massive fire. We were all drunk as skunks and none of us three photographers on board had a camera between us. (Remember, camera phones were at least a quarter of a century away).

I got out and tried to beg the local Boots to loan me a point and shoot Kodak instamatic. When they refused, I ended up running to the editor’s house and his wife found an old basic Halina camera and mercifully I caught the blaze on film with one negative to spare, while a mocking, well-equipped photographer from the Birmingham Evening Mail shouting “Good luck with that one mate” as he invited me to sniff his fully-loaded Nikon F with Photomic Head.


Christmas comes but once a year, And when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.


Those were relatively rare, but memorable pre-Christmas fun times. I can’t say I particularly had similarly fun experiences as a dentist.

On Twitter, I was called a Grinch this week when I mentioned my opposition to “Merry Christmas Everybody,” and its ilk, but I’ve lived with that song since 1973 and the sheen, for me, wore off by 1974.

Dental pre-Christmases for me, were usually filled with anxiety. I always seemed to be drowning in patients and extraordinary demands.

When I had my own practice, I was desperate to fulfil every patient’s pre-Christmas wish and so I’d go out of my way to complete that denture in time for Christmas, and do that crown that the patient had been putting off for the past couple of years, because she was getting engaged on Boxing Day.

There was no shortage of patients wanting the niggly toothache they had been nursing all year fixed permanently before the big day “So I can enjoy me turkey.” But you’ve all been there and done that.

One year I was on the Local Dental Committee’s on call rota for Boxing Day. One of my nurse’s volunteered to work with me and we saw 32 patients, all of them genuinely in need of emergency treatment. I’d guess three quarters of them said they didn’t want to bother us on Christmas Day. I found out later that the Christmas Day dentist saw three people.

One thing that I was never able to do, was be the life and soul of the party. I’m just not like that. I am probably a misanthrope, or just shy – I have never worked out which. I was never someone who revelled in joining groups. I was always uncomfortable among throngs of dentists and only tolerated a couple of BDA meetings in my whole career. CPD lectures were also something I didn’t enjoy, mainly because I’d have to engage in small dental talk with dentists. I would have welcomed Zoom with open arms and only wish that it had been around from 1988 onwards.

A wise old dentist once said to me: “Dentistry would be a great job if it wasn’t for the patients.”

But to be fair, it isn’t only a bore of dentists (the collective noun for dentists) that I avoided. In large groups, I have always withdrawn into a cocoon of resentment, never able to think of anything interesting or amusing to say as a valuable contribution to the jolly discourse. So most Christmas do’s were torture, and I usually sat, willing the evening to end as soon as possible without being assaulted by a resentful nurse.


Christmas comes but once a year, And when it comes, it brings fountains of pus.


In the early 90’s as an associate, I attended a meal at a practice I hated working in and spent the whole evening with a burning enmity, watching one of the principals pretend to be nice for the only day of the year. I observed him with a fascinated loathing, like I was watching a snake performing card tricks.

I once spent one freezing Christmas (1978) on a National Union of Journalists’ picket line during the provincial newspaper strike. It was still more enjoyable than most dental Christmas parties I’ve attended.

One year at another practice that I was very fond of and that actually inspired me to become a dentist, I got incredibly drunk and was caught by one of my bosses in the toilets, trying to dry my teeth under the blow hand-drier. It was ok though. He was fried himself anyway, and had forgotten about the incident by the following day, until someone helpfully reminded him.

That was the same evening that two of the practice hygienists fell out with each other after one of them, also juiced-up, decided to fill her colleague’s new suede high-heeled shoes with Merlot.

When I bought my own practice, we had a stab at a few Christmas do’s and although they superficially appeared to go down reasonably well with the staff, I wasn’t happy. Although a couple of years running I tried joining in the fun by writing jokey poems about staff members, I still felt devoid of Christmas spirit. That was the time that I decided that forced Yuletide yoking wasn’t for me and I abandoned the idea.

Instead, we all went on three-day weekend pre-Christmas breaks to Europe – a move that went down pretty well with staff, particularly since partners were all invited. The practice paid for the flights and hotels, but I wisely shied away from sponsoring the drink. The trips went down well and we had several, to places like Paris, Prague, Krakow, Dublin and Amsterdam.

I am not a great traveller and suffer, even in adulthood, with travel sickness. It was only when I passed my driving test that I was cured of car sickness, though for many years I had never been on either coaches or trains to test whether I had grown out of it. Our first trip was to Amsterdam and we were due to travel via the Chunnel on a coach trip. The coach was due to pick us up at midnight from my practice manager’s house and we all got in the mood by drinking copious quantities of wine – something I am similarly, not adept at.

We had been on the coach about five minutes when I realised I was going to be spectacularly ill. Two hours later, after all the pick-ups, we were only about 30 miles away from home. Somehow, I was managing to cope with the growing nausea using heavy breathing. I think someone must have noticed my discomfort and suggested a stop on the M4 and we pulled in. I did a pretty impressive Usain Bolt by all accounts to the service station, and made it to the toilets in time. While I was chucking up in my own individual show-off way that would have caused hearing loss in anyone a metre away, I could hear giggling from outside the cubicle door from some of the staff. I hadn’t realised my feet and legs were sticking out while my head was securely encased in the toilet bowl. This apparently made the weekend for my colleagues.

On our Paris trip, on the way back to the hotel late at night, we somehow got lost coming back from a restaurant. Fancying myself with my French, I approached a lady in her fifties and asked for directions to the Folies Bergère, which was close to our hotel. She beckoned us to follow. After about half an hour of following the lady around the street and finally realising we had gone in a big circle, I approached her again, only to overhear her repeating under her breath “Je suis malade, je suis malade.” (I am sick). We took a taxi.  

When I sold up and moved to the corporate as an associate, I was mildly troubled when the practice manager first mentioned the forthcoming Christmas do, sometime at the beginning of September. I was pleasantly surprised when I realised that my corporate’s idea of staff Christmas treats was a meal only, and no dancing.

This was music to my ears. I never feared another Christmas do ever again and filling up with Bailey’s and taking a taxi helped enormously, though I still failed to provide much in the way of amusing interjections.

At my new practice I was fortunate to be surrounded by highly amusing and lively young colleagues, so my lack of input wasn’t noticed – when you own the practice, there’s more expected of you.

The only fly-in-the-ointment was the emergence of ‘Secret Santa’ – a concept that could only have been forged by Satan in the bowels of Hell. Why should a 63 year-old grumpy dental surgeon know what a 16 year-old trainee dental nurse desires, for under a tenner?

I can’t imagine what will happen this year in practices, with the coronavirus having disrupted almost all normal Christmassy social intercourse. I just think I would probably have embraced the opportunity like a long-lost friend, keeping a socially distanced space between us of course.


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