Halfway down the High Street in Oxford, past the chain pubs and boutiques, stands a grandiose building in honey-coloured stone.
There, above the central arch, is the little statue of Oriel College’s benefactor, the Victorian diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes, after whom the building is named.
In truth, though, you’d never notice it were it not for the shrieking protesters who have made it a focal point in recent years. And in any case, the Rhodes Building contains something much more interesting.
To pick just one example, Lieutenant Ambrose Austin (left) landed by glider in Normandy on D-Day, aged 22. With the area swarming with German patrols, he was killed almost immediately. Michael Allmand (right) left Oxford early to join the Army and was attached to the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Two years later, during the infamously bloody Burma campaign, he led his company into an attack on a vital railway bridge
Turn through the doors and into the arch, and you see it almost immediately: a list of names, carved in the stone wall beneath the dates 1939 and 1945.
These are the young men of Oriel who died for their country during World War II. The are 78 of them in alphabetical order, from Richard Anstey and Geoffrey Arnold to Edward Worsley and William van Wyck.
Many of them were barely out of their teens. But when their country called, they were not found wanting.
Unflinching: Former Oriel student Alexander Cheale of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Rifles, who was 20 when he died on May 23, 1940
Inspired by the rhetoric of Sir Winston Churchill and buoyed by the songs of Dame Vera Lynn, they risked their lives in the service of freedom. But like so many young men in those terrible, glorious years, they never returned.
To pick just one example, Lieutenant Ambrose Austin landed by glider in Normandy on D-Day, aged 22. With the area swarming with German patrols, he was killed almost immediately.
According to an obituary in his school magazine: ‘He will be remembered most of all for the happy disposition which made him a host of friends, for the soundness that made one feel he must automatically bypass what was second-rate, and for the perfect form of his tackling on the footer field.’
Dated as those words may sound today, Austin’s personality shines through. Oriel is right to be proud of him.
It is the first name on the list, though, that really stands out. Michael Allmand went up to Oriel to study history in 1941, aged 18. Prodigiously clever, he founded a literary magazine and began writing a book about the 18th-century thinker Edmund Burke, the intellectual father of conservatism.
At the end of 1942, Allmand left Oxford early to join the Army and was attached to the 6th Gurkha Rifles. Two years later, during the infamously bloody Burma campaign, he led his company into an attack on a vital railway bridge.
As the citation for his richly deserved posthumous Victoria Cross put it: ‘Captain Allmand, although suffering from trench-foot, which made it difficult for him to walk, moved forward alone through deep mud and shell-holes and charged a Japanese machine-gun nest single-handed, but he was mortally wounded and died shortly afterwards.’
Our debt to Michael Allmand, and to all the young men on that Oxford memorial, will never fade.
For as long as Britain endures, their defiance of the twin monstrosities of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan will always inspire us. And it was their sacrifice I thought of on Wednesday evening when I heard that Oriel’s governing body, with unforgivable cowardice, had caved in to the activists demanding Rhodes’s statue must come down.
I thought of them again the next morning when I heard that Dame Vera, the soldiers’ darling in our darkest hour, had died at the age of 103.
With poignant timing, the news came with France’s President Emmanuel Macron on his way to London, where he was due to mark the 80th anniversary of Charles de Gaulle’s broadcast urging his countrymen to join the resistance against Nazi occupation.
This might have been a moment of tremendous cross-Channel pride. But even as our leaders remembered our struggle against Hitler’s tyranny, there was a grim reminder of the ranting, intolerant hysteria that has poisoned our own public life.
Only hours before President Macron’s arrival, workmen disinterred Churchill’s statue from its grey sarcophagus, where our wartime leader had been imprisoned to protect him from the rival mobs of anti-racist and far-Right protesters.
What, I wonder, would the men on that Oriel memorial make of the fact that we can no longer look our greatest Prime Minister in the face?
And what would they make of those young men and women on the other side of the Oxford archway, shouting and screaming that Rhodes must fall?
I know, of course, that the men who served in World War II were not all paragons. You have only to read some of their diaries to realise that, in many ways, they were youngsters like any other.
They drank and squabbled; they chased girls and broke the rules.
Only hours before President Macron’s arrival, workmen disinterred Churchill’s statue from its grey sarcophagus, where our wartime leader had been imprisoned to protect him from the rival mobs of anti-racist and far-Right protesters
Like so many students today, most of the men on that memorial were privileged. The majority, like Captain Allmand and Lieutenant Austin, were public schoolboys from middle-class families.
And even they were not immune to the siren calls of utopian idealism. There were plenty of student communists in Oxford before 1939, after all. But it is the differences, not the similarities, that are most striking.
Most of the young men who went off to fight in 1939 were deeply, quietly patriotic. They knew Britain was not perfect. But they loved it nonetheless, and were intensely proud of its history and culture.
They would have been horrified at the thought that 81 years later, mobs of their successors would be touring the country, intent on demolishing the statues of Britain’s greatest — if, of course, flawed — heroes.
They would have been appalled by the idea that in the future, students and academics would try to silence alternative opinions.
They would have laughed in disbelief at the idea that young activists would demand the toppling of Churchill, the cancellation of William Gladstone, the demolition of Sir Francis Drake, Sir Robert Peel and Admiral Lord Nelson.
And what they would surely find most unimaginable would be the idea that in the face of this infantile, hysterical nonsense, the Oxford authorities would limply roll over, promising to tear down the statue of Oriel’s greatest benefactor merely to appease the mob outside.
In the past few days, the contrast between the generations has been almost too excruciating to contemplate.
Today’s young activists never miss an opportunity to congratulate themselves on their unprecedented moral self-righteousness.
But there is nothing brave about posturing in the street during a pandemic. Nor is there anything idealistic about haranguing journalists — a mob of activists tried to intimidate the columnist Peter Hitchens in Oxford earlier this week — who might happen to disagree with their cause.
By contrast, the wartime generation were genuinely brave. They were stoical and resilient, modest and self-effacing.
Contrary to myth, they were not afraid to show their feelings. But they never believed their feelings were paramount, and refused to luxuriate in victimhood and self-pity. How many times have you heard a World War II veteran insist he was not especially heroic and was just ‘doing his bit’?
‘I’m not a hero,’ wrote Reg Twigg, who survived the Burma Railway, in his memoir Survivor On The River Kwai. ‘I survived the Railway because once there was nobody to tell me what to do, my tough childhood memories kicked in and I coped on my own.’
What a contrast with other news from Oxford this week! For it turns out dozens of students are suffering ‘traumatic effects’ after the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in Minneapolis this month.
I don’t dispute that his death was a shocking tragedy. Even so, I find it frankly unbelievable that Oxford dons are being encouraged to make allowances for these supposedly ‘mitigating circumstances’, which actually unfolded 4,000 miles away, if their students perform badly in exams. The poor darlings!
However will they cope with the outside world?
There’s more. Not unreasonably, we often think of Britain in 1939 as painfully class-bound. But in the face of the enemy, even the poshest public schoolboy found common cause with his working-class comrades, bound together by their deep love of country.
Would the same be true of the pampered youngsters who parade their principles up and down Oxford’s High Street? After all, they never miss an opportunity to dismiss white, working-class Britons as unenlightened racists, and to sneer at people they regard as their moral inferiors.
Nothing captures that better than the story of Ntokozo Qwabe, the South African-born Rhodes Scholar who founded Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement five years ago.
On his Facebook page, he bragged that when he was served by a white waitress, he took pleasure in telling her he would only give her a tip ‘when you return the land’. The waitress, he wrote, started shaking and burst ‘into typical white tears’.
In other words, a hugely privileged Rhodes Scholar took great delight in taunting and humiliating a poorly paid young woman so he could flaunt his supposedly progressive principles. How’s that for snobbery?
Narcissism in numbers: Students and protesters march in Oxford earlier this month to insist on the statue’s removal
And then, perhaps most depressingly of all, there is the issue of free speech. The young men on that Oriel memorial were fighting for freedom.
They gave their lives to defeat a regime that burned books, outlawed disagreement and murdered dissenters. And in Churchill, they had a leader who believed passionately in the principle of intellectual freedom.
Even when the British people kicked him out of Downing Street after VE Day, Churchill saw the silver lining.
‘They are perfectly entitled to vote as they please,’ he said. ‘This is democracy. This is what we’ve been fighting for.’
But today’s student activists see things differently. Dissenting opinions are not welcomed; they are silenced. Speakers who dare to question their cherished principles are ‘cancelled’ or ‘no-platformed’.
Even books some of these activists regard as objectionable are removed from the curriculum, to preserve the ‘safety’ of their delicate little minds.
According to The Guardian, a newspaper that once gave full-throated support to the slave-owning Confederacy and bitterly opposed the anti-slavery president Abraham Lincoln, the attack on free speech in our universities is merely a ‘Right-wing myth’.
But this is simply not true.
In the past few weeks alone, three academics have told me that they no longer teach Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad or Philip Larkin — three of the greatest writers who ever lived — for fear of being accused of racism. Is this really what the young men of Oxford fought for, all those years ago?
All this sounds pretty downbeat, I know. And it would be easy to draw a pessimistic conclusion.
Thanks to the corrosive effects of social media, the culture of narcissism seems unlikely to disappear. Young people are told, again and again, that they are special, they are different and they are victims.
They live in a world in which free speech is routinely dismissed by the supposedly progressive Left, and in which they are insulated from challenging views or competing values.
And depressingly, nobody has the courage to stand up to them.
Oxford, my own alma mater, has a truly shameful record of pandering to its most radical students, from the toppling of Cecil Rhodes to this week’s pathetic promise to ‘decolonise’ its maths and science degrees to make them more ‘inclusive and diverse’.
If even senior professors are too spineless to stand up for scholarship, standards and our own history, then what hope do we have?
But it would be wrong to conclude on such a gloomy note. For not all young people are as strident, ignorant and intolerant as the self-appointed censors parading through the centre of Oxford. Millions of youngsters are not students, and even most students aren’t activists.
Most young Britons are as sensible, open-minded and kind-hearted as they have ever been, as so many of them have shown during the coronavirus pandemic.
And if there is hope, it lies with this great, silent majority: the teenagers who keep their heads down, the students who just get on with studying, the ordinary, decent youngsters who don’t pretend to occupy some unassailable summit of moral superiority.
The ‘Secret People’, the writer G. K. Chesterton once called them. ‘We are the people of England,’ runs his poem, ‘and we have not spoken yet.’
It is they, not the self-righteous, intolerant minority, who are the true heirs to the heroes on the Oriel memorial.
I just hope they do find their voices before it’s too late.