Lucy Mangan shares her love for the glorious grotesquerie that is Roald Dahl’s The Twits in celebration of the dastardly (and ever so hairy) pair’s 35th anniversary.
Beer stealing. An old boy dropped his glass eye into the tankard. He then saw it looking up at him.
From such tiny, distressing acorns do fabulously diseased oak trees grow…
As discovered in the Roald Dahl Museum archive, scribbled down in one of Roald Dahl’s ideas books, filled with potential plots, characters and nuggets of story, is the idea of the glass eye in the beer. This went on to become the glorious grotesquerie that is The Twits.
I remember vividly it being read to us in primary school. The spaghetti worms! The Hugtight glue on the Big Dead Tree and – consequently – bird pie every week and one quartet of boys slipping out of their arbour-adhering trousers and running away “with their naked bottoms winking at the sun”! The penny-sized pieces of wood being added to Mrs Twit’s walking stick to make her think she’d got the shrinks! You think I had to look any of this up to refresh my memory? You underestimate the power of Dahl’s work on the deliciously-appalled six year old mind, my friend, you truly do.
The glass eye, of course, is Mrs Twit’s and turns up at the bottom of her unbeloved husband’s beer mug. Nice.
The Twits is the quintessence of Dahl. Here, the kind of revolting horrors with which other books are merely shot through are front-and-centre throughout in the awful forms of the two main characters and their disgusting activities and proclivities. It’s a pure shot of happiness/disgust for younger readers who don’t yet feel the need for a little light and shade in their stories – and indeed for older readers too up to the age of at least 40, I’d say – who occasionally feel that life and literature is altogether too full of grey areas and would like to drill back down to basics.
It is animated by some of Dahl’s most heartfelt concerns; namely, the wrongness of cruelty to animals (it is the caged Muggle-Wumps who finally seal their captors’ fates) and the vileness of beards. I will go to my grave without ever forgetting the sight of Quentin Blake’s close-up of the “hundreds of bits of old breakfasts and lunches and suppers sticking to the hairs around his face”. My husband currently has a beard. If he ever comes towards me with anything stuck in it, I perform an automatic drop-and-roll, out of the room and scramble upstairs until he’s checked in a mirror and pronounced the all-clear.
And in the end, of course, Dahl metes out perfect justice to all. The Muggle-Wumps go free and the Twits – well, I won’t spoil it for you just in case you haven’t read it yourself yet. But it was the most satisfying thing I’d read at the age of six and it’s probably still in the top ten now, a lifetime later.
The new edition of The Twits – still, according to a survey carried out this year by Renaissance Learning, the most read book in primary schools because, perfectly, children and books don’t change – comes with scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers. They smell of mouldy old food, apparently. I have never had a sense of smell, which I have occasionally had cause to regret, but not today. Stickers as well as the close-up look at the bits of cornflake, tinned sardine and Stilton round Mr Twit’s hairy mouth would have been a filthy bridge too far for my tiny brain. I hope you’re made of sterner stuff.
Follow Lucy on Twitter @LucyMangan.
Not content with starring in the smelliest book ever, The Twits are now making a stink in the app store. Have you played the disgustingly fun new game Twit Or Miss yet? Download it for free now.