Facing up to the dentist

Like a lot of people all over the world – hive mind at work – I’m reading Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. She has been obsessed with falconry since childhood, but after the sudden death of her father she takes on a new challenge: training a goshawk. Goshawks are big, wild birds, difficult to train, and extinct in Britain by the late nineteenth century. They were quietly reintroduced by falconers from the 1960s onwards.


It’s an extraordinary piece of work. I’ve found myself reading passages aloud in our empty house, stunned by the rhythm, power and informality of her writing. And – like many thousands of other people probably – I’ve found weird points of connection. The same reference points. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. And John Le Carre’s novels. She keeps coming back to the character Jim Prideaux of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Prideaux is the wounded ex-spy, filling in time by teaching languages at a fourth-rate boarding school in southern England: a big, wild, gentle man adored by his students, who wrings the neck of an injured owl without an apparent second thought. Le Carre’s Smiley novels are on our bookshelves, a fairly recent, guilty obsession of mine. Cold War romance. Why do I like them so much?

Helen Macdonald has thought of herself as a spy; her father used to joke about her potential. She is invited to show off her goshawk to the family of the Master of the Cambridge College at which she has a three-year fellowship. She can’t handle it. ‘My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have lost, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost… There’s a hush in my head; it grows louder. “I am not a spy,” I’d told my father, “I am a historian.” But watching everyone around the table, their faces entranced by my hawk, it seems that I am not even that any more. I am the Fool, I think dully… I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.’

That was last night: reading propped up on one elbow in bed before turning off the light. This morning, glumly contemplating a fairly routine visit to the dentist, I remember her words. I don’t know what to wear. I don’t need clothes to express my individuality this morning, I need clothes to get me up Collins Street with its hordes of smartly dressed business people and into the dentist’s waiting room with its neon lights and magazines. I want to look normal, I want to look like everybody else. Clothing as camouflage. Where are the smartly tailored trousers and the good jacket? They don’t appear to have arrived in my life. I’m an ageing woman with messy hair and an increasingly home-made wardrobe. The dentist will be polite and efficient as usual, but I will see myself through his Eastern Suburbs eyes. Eccentric, unpredictable, inappropriate. Once upon a time, I might even have rushed out to spend a stupid amount of money on office clothes, just to get me through the day. And then they would have hung in the wardrobe unworn for several years and ended up at the Brotherhood, unloved.

And the indignity of the whole procedure! Lying on one’s back with a virtual stranger probing the recesses of one’s mouth with sharp instruments, while a whole cliff-face of office windows looks on across twenty metres of city air. There’s a word I keep remembering and then forgetting; Julia Kristeva writes about it in Powers of Horror. She talks about the shudder in her whole body, faced with the skim that forms on the surface of warm milk. I know what the word is and what it means, but it moves out of reach, dances around at a distance, unretrievable. A hawk in a tree, refusing to come down to its handler. Not lost, just stubborn.

Abjection. I had to go on line to find the word. To me, it’s something to do with a breakdown in the surfaces of one’s consciousness, the permeable layers that protect the workings of the mind, filtering the chaotic external world into a manageable flow of information. Helen Macdonald writes about this absence of protection – I could quote on and on, but it’s a book that needs to be read as a whole. Abjection. The moments in one’s life – moments, years – when, as Margaret Atwood once put it, you ‘live like a peeled snail’. As defenceless as W H Auden’s Miss Gee, laid out naked and dead for dissection in front of laughing medical students.

The dentist issue is trivial. It is quite possible, in the later stages of life, to confront a small existential crisis (cool-eyed dentist; city crowds) without dissolving into panic. On this occasion, Donna Karan comes to the rescue. Her designs are the opposite of armour; they are fluid, dateless, comfortable. There’s an old Vogue design, a cowled smock, Vogue 1179, which I have made, I think, four times. One dud, one not great, one too dark for daytime wear for me, and the fourth: a stretchy synthetic with a bit of body to it, in a jazzy pattern of black, turquoise, gold and grey, from Clegs in Brunswick. It cheers me up. It tells the world I’m cheerful. I’ll pass for normal.


The pattern is most unfortunately out of print. Why can’t Vogue keep these things available? They’re classics, people are going to go on wanting to buy them. It isn’t even listed among the out of print patterns on the website. It can still be found on ebay from time to time. This morning it got me out of trouble: off to the dentist in half an hour’s time, not looking forward to this but not in a complete panic. Armoured.



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