This conversation actually happened, around 15 years ago. When the movies were released, I made a point of returning there and asking him what he thought of them. He hadn’t seen them. ‘They won’t be as good as the book’, he told me.
“What are you reading?”
“Shakespeare. Hamlet. Seen it many times, never actually read it”.
The Tuesday morning sunlight filtered into the bar through the open blinds like a knife into the chest of a cheerleader. I cast a quizzical eyebrow towards the ceiling partly out of challenge, partly out of curiosity.
Jimmy nursed a two –thirds full lager along the bar where he sat, weaving it from the wet spot, and pushed his excessive spectacles up to the bridge of his nose.
I closed the book with a thump and moved towards him behind the bar, causing one or two the regular empty souls to jump.
“How can you say that? He’s the most prolific writer in English history. Just the very fact that you were born here qualifies you to recognise him as a National Treasure”.
Jimmy moved back, up to his full height, his combover glued to his crown with sweat.
“I don’t care, Shakespeare’s shit.”
I put both hands out flat on the bar.
“Tell me why, in your own words, that Shakespeare’s shit”.
The answer provided me with free drinks for years to come whenever I told this story. I dined out on it for years.
“Because he didn’t write Lord of the Rings.”
“He didn’t write the Haynes manual for a 1974 Fiat Simca, either, but that doesn’t reflect badly on what he did write.”
There was a silence that fell on the bar like an unseen tree in a long forgotten forest.
“So what books DO you like, then?”
“Lord of the Rings.”
“Well, what else have you read?”
“You’ve never read anything other than Lord of the Rings”?
“Because it wouldn’t be as good as Lord of the Rings”.
I tried to let my mind catch up with the conversation, decided it wouldn’t do any good, and ploughed on anyway.
“So you’ve only ever read Lord of the Rings, and never bothered reading else…”
“Because it wouldn’t be as good.”
“This is a form of madness I’ve rarely encountered.”
Jimmy had a sip of his pint, and wiped some from the side of his mouth while I flattened a bar towel across the formica surface.
“What’s mad about it? It’s the best book ever written. I get to the end of the journey, then start again at the beginning, whenever I feel like reading a book. Sometimes I even read the appendices”.
“And it’s so good that you’ve never wanted to read anything else?”
“That’s right. Have you read it?”
“Then you need to. I’ll lend you a copy”.
“You’ve got more than one?”
He regarded me in the same way a priest eyeballs women’s magazines in WH Smiths.
“Of course. One for the beach, when I’m on holiday. One to keep in the car. One in the office. One next to the bed, for when I can’t sleep. You can borrow the beach one”.
“Lovely. You must have read ‘The Hobbit’, though?”
He waved a hand out. It sliced through dead air.
“Tried it. Didn’t like it. Wasn’t as good as Lord of the Rings. He got it right with that one”.
“But if you’ve never tried reading anything else, how can you say something’s shit?”
“Because it’s not Lord of the Rings”.
Someone called my name from the front bar, and I glided through the archway and served a pint. When I returned to the back bar, all that was left of Jimmy was an empty pint pot. I picked it up and planted it top down in the glass washer.
That was religion, right there. One book, nothing more, and anything else was shit, even if you’ve never read it.
The bar was quiet, save for murmurs at the far end. I pulled myself a half of bitter, drew up a stool alongside the optics, and went back to Hamlet, drinking the words with a deeper thirst than I had for the beer.