When I was a child living in north-west London in the early 1960s, I used to accompany my mother on shopping expeditions in the West End. I loved going into the centre of London because I considered that Hampstead Garden Suburb, where we lived, was pretty, but pretty dull – a cemetery for the living! We used to take the Underground to Oxford Circus. Our first port of call after leaving the ‘tube’ station was Dickins and Jones, a now no longer existing department store on Regent Street. It closed in 2007, long after my mother died.
Like many other department stores, Dickins and Jones devoted its ground floor to displays of cosmetics and perfumes. On one visit, when we were walking through the over-fragrant ground floor of the store, a sales-lady working behind one of the many stalls, each representing a different cosmetics company, beckoned to me. I pointed towards myself, and she nodded, meaning she really did mean me. I walked over to her, and then without my saying anything, she said: “Sonny, never ever use after-shave lotion on your skin. Now, get along.” I have never forgotten her advice, nor disobeyed it. I was about twelve years old then.
As I moved into my teens, and I began needing to shave, I was inundated with gifts of after-shave. Well-meaning friends of my parents and adult relatives gave me numerous gifts of cuff-links, which I have never used, and copious bottles of after-shave, which I dared not use. The unopened bottles piled up in my wardrobe and gathered dust.
Many years later, I became a dental student. From the second year onwards, we treated real live patients. They had either referred themselves for free treatment at the dental hospital or they had been referred by general practitioners who could not handle their problems. Many of them made multiple visits. Treatment at the hands of students was often slow. Some grateful patients gave me gifts either during their course of treatment or at the last visit.
One of my patients was a young lady from the Far East. She was always accompanied by her little son, aged not more than four years. Whenever I gave his mother a local anaesthetic, he would pipe up: “Look Mama, dentist man coming with needle. Look Mama, dentist man… etc.” When her course of treatment ended, she presented me with what I regarded as a wonderful gift, a treasure. It was a Casio digital watch with a tiny calculator keyboard attached to it. This was given to me in the late 1970s, and these watches had only been available for a very short time.
Someone, who came to dinner with my parents in the 1970s, brought us a gift of a box of chocolates made by Floris Chocolates, a company that no longer exists. I remember that the chocolates were far, far better than any I had ever tasted. So, it was with some excitement that I unwrapped a gift which a happy patient had given me after I had made him a set of dentures at the dental school. It was a box labelled ‘Floris’. At the end of the day, I took my gift home, and opened it with great anticipation and high expectations. My heart sunk when I found that the box contained not chocolates, but small bottles of fragrant perfumes. I gifted these to a friend.
J, an attractive young lady, became one of my patients at the dental school. I asked her what she did for a living. She told me that she sold men’s fragrances at a leading London department store (not Dickins and Jones). She asked me: “Have you heard of Brut?” I said that I had heard of the company. “Well, I represent Brut at the store,” she told me. “Do you use fragrances?” she inquired politely. “No,” I answered. “Oh, that doesn’t surprise me. Hardly any doctors or dentists seem to use them.” I was sure how to interpret this and hoped that I was not smelling unpleasant. “I’ll bring you some next appointment,” she told me cheerfully.
On the next visit, the Brut seller, true to her word, presented me with a large box, saying: “See how you get on with these.” I took the box home at the end of the day and examined its contents. It was filled with little bottles labelled with names that I found mysterious: ‘pre-shower splash’, ‘shower splash’, after-shower splash’, pre-shave rinse’, ‘shaving splash’, and (the to be avoided) ‘after-shave lotion’. No instructions were provided, so this well-meant gift was consigned to the wardrobe. After what the lady in Dickins and Jones had advised me, I was not going to risk the after-shave lotion nor any of the other even more curiously named products.
With the exception of the cosmetic products, I have received many other gifts over the years, most of which have given me great pleasure. These gifts, useful or not, have been given by grateful patients who have either also paid me or have been treated free of charge courtesy of the NHS. More than my earnings, which were, of course, very important, even a simple heartfelt ‘thank you’ made me feel that doing dentistry was worthwhile.