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Meeting Mr Ford

October 15, 2012

In 2006 Richard Ford gave me a signed copy of The Lay of the Land. Yesterday, I finally got to thank him for his kindness.

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 might 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.’

Who was this literary-minded American? On the table in front of him there sat an imposing WH Auden tome (one that remained unopened for the duration of the journey), and as I began to eavesdrop on his conversation, I thought I heard him mention meeting Martin Amis on the steps of the BBC, and something that sounded like – these fragments of conversation were barely audible above the noise of travel – John Banville’s barbecue party.

We were well into the journey when it finally dawned on me with whom I shared a carriage. I’ve long accepted that there’s something wrong with my capacity for facial recognition, and that can be the only explanation for why I did not sooner recognise Mr Ford’s distinctive features (the stern mouth, the high forehead suggestive of intimidating intellect), which should have been familiar to me from dust-jacket author photographs. And of course, once I did recognise him, I was far 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 did not 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,’ he said. Then he inscribed and gave to me the one copy he had with him, the copy from which he had intended to read in Manchester.

Is it any good? It’s masterful, of course. It’s one of my very favourite books, and the copy he gave to me is one of my most treasured possessions. Well, yesterday Richard Ford spoke at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and I finally had the chance to thank him. At his talk (which was cancelled at the last minute – dismay! – and then rescheduled two hours later – elation!) Ford was smart, witty, and thoughtful. What’s more – and this can’t be easy during a long book tour – he gave the impression that he was glad 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.

One 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 oneself.

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