My dad was not a big reader.
I'm not kidding. When questioned a few years ago, he told me that the last novel he read was Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat, in approximately 1967. Not a bad choice, but it wasn't even his. He was made to read it at school, shortly before turning in his text books to take up an apprenticeship at the age of fifteen.
My dad was good at technical stuff. He could do my GCSE maths homework without a second thought, decades after his own last maths lesson. But when I asked him why he didn't like to read, he said something I couldn't fathom: it just didn't appeal to him.
To me, this was like saying that he didn't see the appeal in breathing. You know, if breathing was actually fun and fulfilling as well as basically vital. On one level I was shocked, but on another I wasn't. My dad and I were worlds apart in many ways. We often didn't 'get' each other. For me, his lack of interest in fiction was yet another major difference in our respective outlooks, and in who we each were at our very core. I can't remember who I was before I loved reading. He couldn't remember ever liking it at all.
Last year, my dad got sick. At first he thought he had swine flu, but a few months passed and he didn't get better. He had cancer. In his last few months he was in hospital a lot, away from his guitar and his computer and his golf clubs. I joked with him about bringing him in some books to read. I guess I kind of hoped he'd say yes. He died five weeks ago today.
Since then, I've found memories of my childhood floating to the surface. Surprisingly, some of them involve my dad and... books. Roald Dahl books, to be exact. I've remembered reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and picturing Charlie Bucket looking exactly how my dad did in the few photos of him as a child. Why? Well, mostly because they both lived in the olden days, and because they both had bedridden grandparents living with them. (Although to be fair, my dad only had one of those, and she had her own bedroom.) I've also remembered the time my dad washed my six-year-old sister's hair for her, and complained that he couldn't get the shampoo out. Of course he couldn't. I'd read George's Marvellous Medicine, and been inspired to create a dubious mixture of my own... with the entire contents of my parents' bathroom cabinet. Despite being a pretty strict parent in some ways, he let that one slide.
And finally, I've remembered something else. My dad read us bedtime stories. And he liked The Twits.
Now, I didn't like The Twits. As a child, it was my least favourite Roald Dahl book. I thought it was icky. But my sister (she of the toothpaste-and-talcum-powder hair treatment) thought it was hilarious. And since I liked a bedtime story, on the nights my dad was reading that one to her I'd listen in. It was a pretty twisted tale, about a quite disgusting couple who played mean tricks on each other. Like getting the other one to eat worms disguised as spaghetti. Or tying so many balloons to the other that they nearly float off into space. But eventually, they get their just desserts, when their ill-treated pet monkeys play a nasty trick on them. And they don't live happily ever after.
When I remembered my dad reading this book to us, I decided to reread it myself. I asked myself, what did he see in it? What made this one appeal to a person who didn't usually see the appeal of reading? So I read it this week, and actually I was pleasantly surprised. Like much of Roald Dahl's work, it's darkly funny. It's the kind of book that's perfect for younger children, because it's a little bit gross and not at all sensible. It's spirited and beard-hating and odd, but charmingly so. It revels in naughtiness and in some ways it sets a bad example, but it has a good message at heart: if you're mean, you'll get your comeuppance. And you'll deserve it.
Verdict: The Twits is still not my favourite Roald Dahl book, but it is a classic. And it's perfect for reluctant readers. Even grown up ones.