Oxford students being the custodians of Western civilisation, I expect a big rollup of young tweed eager for a dose of great chamber music (between drinking games) at one of the city’s treasures, the ‘Oxford Coffee Concert’ series. Sure enough, they’re all here as they are every Sunday morning, disguised as geriatrics. Luckily the Zimmer frames and silver wigs don’t fool me; otherwise I might despair of my generation. There is fervour in the Carducci Quartet’s interpretations of three Shostakovich string quartets. Yet occasionally they strike me as a little too English — lacking the native anguish of those born into societies steeped in historical torment. Even so, the ambiguous triumph of the Twelfth Quartet makes me cry, as always. In the café afterwards, someone has left the Guardian on my table. I replace it with the Sunday Telegraph. Soon I’m approached by one of the young women from the concert, still convincingly got up as a crone. Gravely she counsels, ‘you mustn’t read that; it rots the brain.’
Monday’s talk by the Tibetan Prime Minister is cancelled. Probably for the best; the Chinese leadership can rest easy and continue to dispatch its princelings for a Masters in Autocratic Studies, or whatever it is they do here. The snowfall that evening muffles the world and spreads calm — a big hand patting everything on the shoulder.
The gym’s television monitor is showing Prime Minister’s Questions. It is muted. This does wonders for Mr Miliband. Sound or no sound, here I recognise a real debating chamber. Crowding MPs just about sit in each other’s laps as David Cameron and the opposition leader spar. No one looks like the smug recipient of a Dorothy Dixer. Later, combat of a more bodily kind at the Oxford Union, where the Prime Minister cut his teeth. There are cuts aplenty at ‘Town vs Gown’ fight night, as Oxford’s pugilists take on challengers from beyond college walls. Reality makes way for metaphor; debaters’ despatch boxes are replaced by the red and blue corners of a boxing ring. For one night only, a cross-section of British society descends on the Union. Fops in pink shirts and crested blazers jostle with bull-necked geezers who’ve come in after a few pints to see some toffs get a touch-up. ‘Hit ’im!’ hollers the rough nut to my right.
Next day, a seminar with towering former Australian High Court Justice Dyson Heydon (back at his alma mater between stints tackling trade unionists at the Royal Commission). A glare from those outsized spectacles would have any prizefighter eating canvas. The septuagenarian jurist speaks softly and carries a big intellectual stick. His occasional pronouncements draw the hushed attention reserved back home for a Richie Benaud pearl amidst the dross of the cricket commentary box. Heydon has an historian’s gift for storytelling; he deploys epithets like ‘melancholy’ to describe the human frailties that lead to dry legal disputes.
Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, is to give a speech in the evening at the Union. Afterwards there’ll be a debate on the motion that the Murdoch media empire should be broken up. It’s a bumper night of bêtes noires. The Union’s organisers have adopted the approach of the Kommandant in The Great Escape: ‘all our rotten eggs in one basket.’ No punches this time, but Union members are in for an evening with a brutality all its own. Ahead of me in the queue, undergraduates shore up their progressive bona fides with rounds of anticipatory denunciation. Inside, the hour of Le Pen’s scheduled arrival comes and goes. Bloodcurdling chants from ‘anti-fascist’ protesters in the street raise our level of unease. We’re told not to leave the chamber: ‘it’s unsafe outside’. Will she come at all? My neighbours fidget with translation headsets. The protests reach a crescendo. Barbarians are at the gate. Some try to scale the Union’s fence. Friends send me text messages saying they’ve been crushed in the melee. The place is in lockdown. Union stalwarts calm nerves, holding an impromptu debate on the motion that ‘this House has sympathy with the protesters’. One wag leaps to his feet in support: how can one have anything but sympathy for ignorant blighters whose speech-stifling efforts show they’ve misunderstood the very meaning of fascism?
More than an hour late, France’s far-right firebrand finally breaks through enemy lines. A rush of bodyguards whisks her through the chamber’s entrance. The crowd cheers. Then stops itself. Who are we applauding here? Le Pen is shaken, but not for long. Readjusting her shirt around a dreadnought girth, she throws back peroxide locks and lets fly. The West is at war. At war with fundamentalist Islam. Cut out this cancer! The oratory is uncomfortably mesmerising. She quotes Churchill and Disraeli. There are paeans to la liberté, 1789, the Glorious Revolution, national character, sovereignty, free speech: heights from which to rain fire and brimstone on the European Union, the political class, immigration, and especially Islamism. For what seems like a long moment, the woman threatening to snatch the keys to the Elysée looks me in the eye. Mascara and a blue that penetrates like the English winter. This is what it’s like to be in the thrall of a demagogue.
I purge the unpleasant aftertaste over dinner with a fellow Tory Nasty from the Antipodes. Amidst Oxford’s Ozymandian spires, her Australian irreverence is as refreshing as a beer on a hot day at the SCG. On seeing each other we reach for a phrase uttered by that other patriot, Barry McKenzie, as he admires the spectacle of his countrymen marooned in England and knocking back tinnies: ‘You little beauty! Human beings at last!’