A person wearing a face-muzzle, a baseball cap and socks adorned with the words ‘Hotter than Hell’ appeared at my side.
He or she (I had better be careful not to assign a gender) spoke sharply to me, like someone with power: ‘Why have you chosen to stand here?’ For a moment, I was taken in by the air of authority, but recovered myself and asked: ‘Who are you?’
To this I received no useful reply, but the person continued: ‘A lot of people would prefer it if you did not stand here.’
To which I replied that I was – for the moment – a free man and would stand anywhere I liked on the streets of my home city, thank you very much.
I had gone out on Tuesday afternoon in Oxford to observe the second of two recent demonstrations calling for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes.
It is probably because I used to be a foreign correspondent in Moscow and Washington that I feel I should take a close direct interest in events that are happening in my home town.
I can remember clearly taking part in Left-wing demonstrations, some of them pretty unruly, on these same streets more than half a century ago, when I was myself a revolutionary Marxist. I was fascinated to see how things had changed.
Basically, the causes I supported in the 1960s have won. Our 1968 protests were demonstrations of powerlessness, which is why they were rowdy. Today theirs are laps of honour.
On both recent occasions I’d fallen into perfectly civilised conversations with demonstrators, who had recognised me, knew I disagreed with them and wanted to talk about it. I’d also noticed what sort of people they were – overwhelmingly young, ethnically mixed, generally middle class.
And I was amused and a bit disturbed to see a rather stately middle-aged figure, with whom I’ve often had good-natured chats, transforming himself into a slogan-chanting, fist-pumping rabble-rouser. I am now not sure which is the real one, and which is the act.