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Meeting Mr Ford

October 15, 2012

Six years ago, when I’d just started a Creative Writing course, I boarded a train from Birmingham to Manchester, randomly picked an available seat, and settled with my book (Ian Haywood’s Working Class Fiction from Chartism to Trainspotting). As we travelled north from Birmingham, a man leant across the aisle and asked, in a southern-US accent, if he could take a look at what I was reading. ‘Work away,’ I said. The man flicked through the book and to the woman next to him (his wife, I later discovered) he said ‘These are mainly British guys.’ He read for a few moments and then returned the book to me with a warm ‘thank you.’

On the table in front of him there sat an imposing WH Auden tome (it remained unopened), and, eavesdropping now, I thought I heard him mention something about Martin Amis, John Banville, and a barbecue party.

We were well into the journey when it finally dawned on me who I’d sat beside. Richard Ford! Richard ******* Ford! I’ve got a wee touch of face blindness, and that can be the only explanation for why I didn’t sooner recognise Mr Ford’s distinctive features (the stern mouth, the high forehead suggestive of intimidating intellect). Now I had recognised him, I was way too shy to say anything; instead, I watched and listened.

In front of him, next to the WH Auden book, he had filed-away his used condiments in an empty Styrofoam cup. He wore jeans, greying beat-up trainers, a rough cotton shirt unbuttoned at the neck. It didn’t seem strange that he was travelling standard class.

We were near Stoke-on-Trent when I found the courage to speak. The train had slowed to pass through the wee station in Stone, and Mrs Ford stood to visit the bathroom. ‘Mr Ford,’ I said, as he stepped into the aisle to let his wife pass, ‘I’m a big fan of your work.’ Of course, I was impossibly star struck and unable to form a coherent sentence, which makes Ford’s patience in sitting with me all the more remarkable. When he told me he was touring to launch the third Frank Bascombe novel, I – who knew that the second instalment, Independence Day, had been the first book to ever win the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award – stupidly asked ‘is it any good?’ Ford laughed, and then he thought about it, and then he said, ‘I don’t know! I try. You tell me.’ Then he inscribed and gave to me the one copy he had with him, the he’d been planning to read from in Manchester.

Is it any good? It’s another belter, and the copy he gave to me is one of my most treasured possessions.

Anyway, yesterday Richard Ford spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I finally had the chance to thank him. Ford was smart, witty, and thoughtful. What’s more – and this can’t be easy on a long tour, he gave the impression he wanted to be there. Afterwards, I queued at the signing desk with my well-thumbed hardback copy of his latest novel, Canada. To my surprise, Ford remembered our previous meeting. ‘I remember that well,’ he said. ‘You were doing a Creative Writing course, right?’

I was astounded that Ford, who must encounter thousands of appreciative readers, should remember our meeting on the train. But as I’ve thought more about it, I’ve decided perhaps it’s not so strange. See, when we were on the train, while I was summoning the courage to speak, one thing I noticed was how attentive Ford was to the world around him. I’ve rarely seen an adult so alert to his surroundings. I mean, for instance, that when the litter collector came through the train, while most passengers continued their activities oblivious to her presence, Ford had already seen her, greeted her, and was busy filling her refuse sack with his and other people’s rubbish.

You can learn technique and grammar and knowledge of literature, but maybe if there’s ‘a secret’ to writing, it’s to share Ford’s interest in – his attentiveness to – all that exists beyond yourself.

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