Oxford is a magnet that attracts Academy Award winners, best-selling authors and Auschwitz survivors, but when they turn up it may not be quite as you imagined.

I’ve encountered Helen Mirren, Jeremy Irons, Mark Haddon and Zdenka Fantlova in unexpected circumstances over the years.

When I was a student I often hitch-hiked to the West End to catch a play on Saturdays. Helen Mirren was starring in a Chekhov play on Shaftesbury Avenue. She was vulnerable, sensitive and tender – very moving.

After the performance I took the tube to Hanger Lane and started to hitch a ride back to Oxford. A couple driving a sports car stopped to offer me a lift. I climbed into the cramped back space. It wasn’t exactly a seat.

The canvas roof of this convertible felt like it had been attacked by rats. My perch was somewhat windy and freezing.

To keep my mind off the cold I listened to the conversation of the couple about Hollywood, directors and acting. She called him Taylor and he called her Helen.

The couple decided to heat up the atmosphere by opening a bottle of Russian vodka. The woman took several gulps and then turned around to offer me a drink. It was a touching gesture especially from a person who appeared so hard-bitten. Then I recognised her and thought who was I to refuse a swig from Helen Mirren?

Last week I went to a talk of the Prison Phoenix Trust at St John’s College introduced by one of their patrons, Jeremy Irons.

On my arrival at the college lodge I met an old friend who arrived on a motorcycle. We wandered down to the auditorium to be greeted in the piazza by a solitary, intense man looking for a light.

“You don’t have a match by any chance?” as we shook our heads, he said “I didn’t think so; you don’t look like smokers.”

What exactly does a smoker look like. Here was a motorcycle man in leathers and I was recovering from pneumonia. “Yes, I’m sure we look far too healthy,” I joked and we walked into the auditorium. Jeremy Irons stood his ground to ask the next guests to light his fag.

Sitting in my doctor’s empty waiting room for a post-pneumonia check-up, I was huddled in a corner hoping to escape the notice of any other patient who might arrive.

Quietly a small man slipped into the room and sat huddled in the opposite corner. It was a cold day and he was wearing a couple of flannel shirts, blue denims with rolled up cuffs and scuffed shoes. He could have been a farmhand with the flu. When our eyes did eventually meet, he raised an eyebrow in greeting.

The last time I saw Mark Haddon was in the Green Room at the New Theatre about a month ago when the play of his book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, received a standing ovation and we were drinking Champagne.

Zdenka Fantlova is a survivor of six Nazi concentration camps. At 93 she is still giving talks about her experience with very graphic descriptions. She’s been to Oxford often and last week I chaired one of her discussions with audiences.

Zdenka had a fall recently at her home and suffered a concussion, so she took my arm for support when we went on stage.

She is elegant and eloquent. Her description of the last time she saw her father when the Gestapo arrested him at home was harrowing.

As an 18-year-old girl when she got out of the cattle crate of the train at Auschwitz, she had to stand in a long queue, five people abreast. She noticed that the old and sick were sent to the left and the strong to the right.

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  • Star names: Helen Mirren and Mark Haddon

Joseph Mengele, wearing white gloves, sealed their fate at the head of the queue with a flick of his finger. Zdenka’s mother was sent left. Zdenka grabbed her smaller sister and turned right. She never saw her mother again.

She also didn’t know about the gas chambers. After she met a friend who was a long-serving electrician inmate, she asked him where could her mother be. He smuggled her into a prohibited area, pointed to a big chimney with flames bursting out of it and said: “She went through that. All the people sent left on arrival went through the chimney on their first day here.”

Zdenka was finally rescued by a British soldier from Bergen-Belson after she crawled, crippled by typhoid, into a Red Cross van.

At the end of her talk I walked with Zdenka to the car. She carried a handbag in her right hand and used her umbrella as a walking stick in the left. I tried to take the umbrella and offered her my arm. She refused, preferring to walk independently.

After a few paces she lost her balance and fell backwards, sprawling on the cement pavement.

Zdenka cried out: “I’ve lost all my strength.”

But I knew that wasn’t the case because she was clutching my hand like a vice. When she got back on her feet, she shrugged off the incident and said again and again “I’ll be alright” – the same phrase she must have used when the Gestapo took her away, when her young lover was shot, when she walked 400km on a death march in the freezing cold wearing only an evening dress the guards at Auschwitz threw at her, when she managed to survive the unimaginable.

I could hear in those words – “I’ll be alright” – the echoes of her experience.

After she got back on her feet once again, I helped her into the Mercedes and waved goodbye.