The world according to Al Alvarez: poetry, poker and ponds swims
- Credit: Nigel Sutton
As the diary of his dips on the Heath is published, Al Alvarez mulls over the burden of ageing and the joys of getting all cold and wet
Writer, rock climber, poker player and pond swimmer Al Alvarez is permanently grounded in a wheelchair and hating it.
It was his ankle, broken more than 50 years ago in a climbing accident, and the fateful decision to be treated in a Caernarfon clinic he scathingly described as “the worst hospital in Great Britain from quite a strong shortlist” that first slowed down the self-confessed adrenalin junkie.
“If I could go back and find that incompetent Welsh doctor, I’d fucking kill him,” rails the 83-year-old with a grin.
When it became too painful to climb, he grew to rely on bracing dips in the chilly depths of the Heath’s ponds to sooth his aches and provide the watery equivalent of assaulting a cliff face.
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But a stroke, the damned leg and painful arthritis have even put a stop to that.
“The last four years have been pretty difficult,” he confesses over coffee at home in Flask Walk.
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“I couldn’t get upstairs. Just bloody getting out is the big challenge. Not funny. I’m missing the swimming hugely.
“I have to use a wheelchair. I can still play poker, but I don’t play with serious people anymore, I only play kids’ games.”
A decade ago, Alvarez started documenting his swims in a diary, recounting the joys of open-air dips close to nature, the camaraderie of his fellow swimmers and the healing “blessing” of the “amber water” that left him feeling reborn.
If Bridget Jones measures her days in cigarettes and calories, Alvarez records the water temperature, distance of swim, and exchanges with lifeguards and assortment of characters drawn to the ponds.
The diary was supposed to form part of a book on the frustrations of becoming increasingly unable to rely on a body that once took him to the top of mountains.
But the literary skills by which he once earned his living have also deserted him, and the diary stands alone, published today as Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal (Bloomsbury, £14.99)
“I’ve been swimming since I was 11,” he says. “I was a pupil at The Hall (in Hampstead) and I walked to the ponds one summer’s day and that was it.
“As you get old, being weightless in water is hugely important. It releases everything, gets things moving. I can’t stand swimming in a pool. Swimming outdoors is a lovely thing, it makes you feel great.”
Alvarez’ diary describes the sting of cold water that leaves bodies “pink as though fresh-boiled,” the geriatric machismo and “crazy pride” of plunging into the chilly depths: “The colder it gets, the tougher we feel.” And the invigorating moment of feeling fully alive: “I may be an old crock with an unreliable ankle, but I’m not beaten yet,” he writes triumphantly.
He shudders at summer days which bring out the crowds and make the water warm, preferring wintry swims: “Great for a hangover,” he chuckles.
“The book happened almost without my knowing it. I would come back from swimming and write a line or two.
“I love the social mix there. You see people you might otherwise not see. They are all very nice – I’m not sure whether that’s because they are at their best when swimming, or whether the people who swim are just nice.”
Brimming with Alvarez’ rebellious humour, the book includes a cast of characters from Anne, his beloved partner of 40 years, to north London friends like David Cornwell (aka John Le Carre) Torquil Norman, Alfred Brendel and a group of swimmers who still meet in a disused hut to shoot the breeze.
Alvarez was born into a wealthy Jewish family who moved to Glenilla Road when he was six months old. He’s barely left Hampstead since, except to be educated at Oundle School, where he credits the obligatory cold baths with giving him a taste for chilly bathing.
He studied at Oxford, earning a first in English literature, then between 1956 and 1966 when, for maybe the only time since the Romantics, poetry was briefly sexy, he was The Observer’s influential poetry editor, championing the work of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Thom Gunn and Robert Lowell.
“Poetry editor of The Observer – boy, was that rare, they had never had one before. I was Mr Poetry for a while in the literary world, which is not much of a position to be proud of but meant I could publish contemporary poems. It was a very good time and I was kind of useful,” he says modestly.
While poetry editing, he retained perspective by playing poker most weekends or climbing. With his dislike of closed worlds and mantra of carpe diem, he lived life to the full, among professional card players and crazy mountaineers – then wrote about it.
His books include Feeding The Rat, about climbing, The Biggest Game in Town, about poker, and The Savage God, an exploration of suicide inspired by Plath.
Alvarez was always going to find old age tough, or as he puts it, “a mega-piss off”.
“You lose energy, your concentration wavers. It’s an irony that the more athletic you are in life, the harder you age.”
Such a perceptive, self-aware writer cannot help but poignantly chart his own decline, the devastating loss of his former self, the disjointed feeling of being “cast out of life” and the deep sadness of losing interest in a world that once fascinated him.
“This book about old age seems more and more unlikely ever to be done,” he writes.
“I don’t write because I have nothing to say and no desire to say it. Yet the swimming remains delectable … this morning, the Heath is alive with the squirrels busily stocking up for winter, the brooding cormorants were back and the world is beautiful.”
“The older I get, the wearier and more decrepit I become and the harder it is to write about it. Only in cold water do I feel lively and competent. I swim, therefore I am.”
“Bodily decrepitude is the end of wisdom, the end of curiosity, the end of energy, intellectual as well as physical, the end of appetite and delight. Bodily decrepitude is a prison … with a boring and vindictive jailer who happens to be yourself.”
“What matters is the pond, the beauty and secrecy of this wild place in the middle of London that for 63 years has been like some undeserved and unexpected gift.”
“[Swimming is] like gearing up for a hard climb and the adrenalin rush of something risky and unpredictable, except there’s nothing risky about cold water and the adrenalin rush when you dive in is inevitable. Which is why I’m hooked on it.”
“I love the solitude, the silence, the cold. With the adrenalin rush of cold water, no weight on my ankle, and therefore no ache, I feel I am reclaiming my body, restoring it for a few minutes to how it used to be.”