A spectre on Bear Lane - review by Peter Davidson

Peter Davidson

Festal Lights & Darkness

A spectre on Bear Lane


Two days running this week, nightfall overtook me before I had finished sweeping up the fallen leaves. Winter Evening Oxford is its own province – the Thames Valley damp of ‘evening-afternoons’, the chill diffusing in the watery air. It has a literature of its own as well.

From this literature, the image which lingers in my mind is that of Matthew Arnold’s scholar-gipsy passing over the frosty causeway to South Hinksey, which is called the Devil’s Backbone. Then, climbing Cumnor Hill at nightfall, moving away from the city and from the life he had once lived there, the solitary wanderer takes one last look at the glowing windows below:

And thou hast climb’d the hill,
And gain’d the white brow of the Cumnor range;
Turn’d once to watch, while thick the snowflakes fall,
The line of festal light in Christ Church hall –
Then sought thy straw in some sequester’d grange.

This image seems to me as a distillation of the crepuscular poetics of the English 19th century, encompassing all the melancholy of a certain view of Victorian England: regret for the life abandoned, for belated arrivals, for chances not taken.

Alan Hollinghurst’s novel The Sparsholt Affair begins with a

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