By Richard O Smith

I’m never meeting celebrities again. In future, unless I’m actively working with a celebrity, I’ll be crossing the street without looking for oncoming traffic in my rush to avoid them. I suffered a mortifying humiliation – as you’ll see. Although it’s only partially (well, 99.9 per cent) my fault.

Last summer at Kellogg College I found myself standing next to an internationally famous author. Momentarily neither of us had anyone to talk to as we both held empty fizz flutes awkwardly. This ought to have been an ideal opportunity to engage in repartee as sparkling as our champagne. But there was a problem. With the champagne.

This is because they were serving that most dangerous of all the different types of alcohol: free alcohol. Especially given I’d just consumed five gratis glasses of the bubbling idiot-maker potion.

“Hello, my name is Risshhhard…and…er.” Four faults and a refusal just from attempting to say my name. It’s going well. “Ish a writerish too.” He likely didn’t want to hear about my writer’s peccadillos even if he could comprehend what language I was attempting to speak.

Several seconds too late, I stop talking. I withdraw myself, concentrating really, really hard not to walk into a wall that someone has inconsiderately left in the room.

Over a year after that self-induced humiliation I’m sitting in an auditorium at Brookes University awaiting an appearance by the same celebrity. The audience are instantly hushed by the house lights being lowered. He is introduced with: “Be appreciative to Oxford’s favourite living son.”

“Hey!” I catch myself thinking, “That’s a bit insensitive. I am in the audience too, you know, and can hear you.”

Philip Pullman – disappointingly not wearing dark materials – proves to be an engaging speaker; his sentences glisten with insights. He reveals his own daemon would be a magpie. “I’m a great fan of stealing,” he declares. That would explain the magpie choice. I pat my pocket to ensure my phone is safe. “What do other authors represent to you?” asks someone evidently trying a bit too hard to come across all Oxford-y. “Other stories are like a street of open houses with the residents away,” opines Pullman. Wow. Seen a plot or paragraph in a Philip Pullman book you recognise from elsewhere? Call Crimestoppers on 0800…

We’re treated to an exclusive about the next instalment of Oxford-set novel La Belle Sauvage that will depict its main character Lyra as a 20-year old Oxford undergraduate. And a bad tempered recalcitrant 15-year-old character called Alice will also figure in the story. “Every teacher has encountered an Alice,” comments Pullman, who was an Oxfordshire middle school teacher for over a decade.

Asked how he maintains his optimism, he replies: “Spending time with grandchildren and reading Proust.” Though I suspect he didn’t mean simultaneously – reading the pop-up edition of Proust’s 3,000-page bookshelf-buckling epic In Search of Lost Time to toddlers would be a tough gig.

Inevitably there are many in the audience requiring writing tips. They won’t be leaving disappointed. “Tone is fundamental in a story, structure is superficial.”

“I don’t like travel. Don’t like going anywhere. I prefer to stay at home and make things up.” Or, as his literary hero Proust put it – probably better – “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes.”

My plan is to ask Pullman to dedicate a copy of La Belle Sauvage for a friend’s birthday. However the title is French. And I don’t speak French. Whenever I try I mispronounce words and people laugh. At me. And not in a nice way. Next door’s daughter has laughed profusely at my French pronunciation before. She’s eight years old.

After queuing for 15 minutes I reach his signing table. Tripped by anxiety, I make a humiliating mistake. Vibrating with nervousness I ask: “Please can you dedicate my copy of La Belle Sausage ‘Happy Birthday, Grahame’ with an ‘e’ on the end.” A flicker of shock appears in his eyes. His look is easily decipherable: “You realise what you called the book?” He graciously signs it nonetheless. With an ‘e’ on the end.

Avoiding eye contact – and hopefully any further indignation – I scurry away, wondering if I should be covering my face while expecting my trousers to fall down clown-style to complete my ignominy. There’s not been any champagne to share the blame with this time.

You sausage, Richard.

l Richard O. Smith is the author of Oxford Examined: Town & Clown (£7.99, Signal Books)