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Tributes paid to Hampstead poet, critic and author Al Alvarez

PUBLISHED: 15:17 08 October 2019

Writer Al Alvarez in 2001

Writer Al Alvarez in 2001

© Nigel Sutton

Friends and family remembered the late literary figure Al Alvarez at his funeral on Saturday afternoon.

Hundreds of people packed into Christ Church in Hampstead Row, as poetry and verse was read in honour of Al, who died on September 23 aged 90.

Eulogies were read by his and his wife Anne's children, Luke and Kate. Friends including Professor David Pick and David Cornwell, better known as author John Le Carre addressed mourners. Another friend, composer Alfred Brendel provided music.

The poet, author and critic had lived in Hampstead for most of his life. His family moved to Glenilla Road shortly after he was born in 1929.

After getting a degree in English Literature from Oxford University, he became The Observer's poetry editor in 1956. During his editorship he championed the work of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell.

He and Plath were close. In the weeks before she died, she read her latest work to him, and they discussed suicide. Al had tried to kill himself two years before she did so in 1963.

In 2008, he told the Ham&High: "I knew about despair and depression, I knew where she was. We used to talk about it in a sort of jolly way. And then it happened and I was absolutely appalled and knocked back."

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Her death led him to write an book on suicide, The Savage God.

While nimble in thought, he was slightly less agile on foot. His love of climbing, helping "Feed the Rat," caused him to badly break his ankle more than 50 years ago. It made it tough to navigate his Flask Walk home, reaching the attic at the top where he liked to write.

However it did make another of his favourite outdoor pursuits all the more important, swimming in Hampstead's ponds.

According to his one-time neighbour, Piers Plowright, Al once compared its effect to that of a drink on Lee Marvin in the cowboy film Cat Ballou.

"He reckoned that if he had a few minutes in the pond, he would be firing on all cylinders," according to Mr Plowright.

In paying tribute to his friend, he said: "There was no pretentiousness. There was never a sense of 'Here I am with a very clever guy and I am not up to him'. He loved to hear from people with different experiences of life. His funeral was a cross section of society."

Arts critic and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg described him as "one of the most outstanding figures of his generation."

He said: "He was a brilliant and defining critic, a fine poet and a force for the pursuit of excellence in literature. He was hugely respected here and in the United States and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Add to that his adventures as a mountaineer, a conversationalist and a swimmer in Hampstead Pond and you have a very brief history of the life he led, which was undoubtedly and hugely enabled and enriched by his wife Anne."

He is survived by Anne, their children Kate and Luke, and their grandchildren.

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