Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal Al Alvarez

Bloomsbury, pp.273, £14.99, ISBN: 9781408841006

As someone slightly older than Al Alvarez, and also a regular swimmer — although not in the ice-edged Hampstead Heath pools into which he dived for over 60 years — I was initially disappointed by this book. For the first half it repeats too often the pleasures of extremity-numbing, cold, outdoor swimming when one is old. Alvarez’s outer and inner selves, in the first five or six years of this ten-year journal, rejoice with the ecstasy of swimming almost daily in water preferably just a few degrees above freezing, feeling the zing when he climbs out pink as a lobster and banters with the lifeguards.

But then, slowly and horrifyingly, he charts the not-so-gradual collapse of his once super-fit body. ‘What began as a swimming diary is turning into a chronicle of ageing.’ Although he still swims, ‘it seems to take longer to get my body working, my balance isn’t quite right… it’s a steady reminder of the sorry state I’m in and when I stagger in public… I feel like a sad old fool.’

When I admitted to The Spectator’s literary editor that I had never read Alvarez, who has written at least 25 books, he remarked gently that Alvarez and I might have something in common. Actually, apart from encroaching old age, swimming, writing for the New York Review of Books, and wearing green corduroys, there’s not much we share. What a life! I listened to Alvarez’s interview on Desert Islands Discs (long ago, with Sue Lawley) and admired how deftly he punctuated his life story with apt quotations. Pondlife is full of them too, including the heartbreaking one (from Pancho Villa!) standing alone under ‘Vale’ on the very last page: ‘Don’t let me die like this. Tell them I said something clever.’

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Few can write so well on so many subjects (most famously, perhaps, on his friend Sylvia Plath and suicide) as Alvarez does in a piece in 1965 on Soviet fiction for the New York Review. It begins with a first paragraph that says it all:

If there is one quality which holds this collection of novels together it is, with one exception, a certain lack of distinction. In a way, it is consoling to know that the same old humdrum sensibilities tick away in fiction on either side of the iron curtain, that mediocrity in the East is essentially no different from mediocrity in the West, that things are as gloomy and evasions as commonplace there as here. The only miracle is that, judging from the blurbs and dust-jackets, these novels have been taken so seriously west of the border; I suppose it is a sign of the cultural détente.

Alvarez knows lots of famous people — writers, mountaineers (he was one), musicians and poker players (perhaps he still plays), almost always referred to by their first names; there is a useful glossary at the beginning — rather as in War and Peace. Few are mentioned as affectionately as the lifeguards at the Hampstead pond; when he is very old and infirm they fit him out in a life jacket, sometimes swim with him, button up his trousers, tell him stories about how in the old days they used to box, and about the Krays. On his birthday they give him ‘a dirty book for the over fifties’.

Apart from the lifeguards, the only person whom he writes about at some length is his wife of over 40 years. Not too well herself, Anne, an eminent psychoanalyst, takes watchful care of her husband in his eventual wheelchair and walker. During his increasingly disabling ailments, his stroke, and ever-longer illnesses, she looks at him with distress; but as Alvarez says, ‘Better distress, however, than distaste.’ (I understand his occasional grumpiness, but he should have omitted the occasional malicious swipes at his first wife of many decades ago.)

Nearly 80, he says, ‘Bodily decrepitude is a prison. You are shut in with a boring and vindictive jailer, who happens to be yourself.’ Age has certainly knocked him about. He quotes Sylvia Plath, ‘I have fallen a long way’, but like the ageing ex-boxers at the Hampstead pond, Al Alvarez is down but not yet out.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated