THERE’S a soothing, repetitive rhythm to Al Alvarez’s new book, Pondlife, evocative of the very act this swimmer’s journal describes.
He arises feeling old, creaky, and decrepit, and is renewed by a dip in the chilly waters of Hampstead’s open air ponds. “You go in white and shaky and come out pink and happy, restored to the human race by cold water, fresh air and a little exercise.”
Alvarez, now 83, is a poet and author who, as the first poetry editor of the Observer, is perhaps most renowned for championing the work of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Until injury sidelined him, he was an avid mountaineer, and his book about the sport, Feeding the Rat, remains a classic depiction of the exhilaration of defying gravity by climbing. Alvarez also wrote about his other favourite sport, poker, in The Biggest Game in Town.
It’s been six years since we met, and for Alvarez, they’ve been rough, punctuated by strokes, and a long hospitalisation last year. “I scraped my both legs coming out of the pond, and took the skin off. My right foot healed within five days but the left foot – the one I injured climbing – just didn’t heal. So I’m kind of screwed. Since then I haven’t been able to swim, but I still go to the pond regularly to hang out and schmooze to the guys. I’d still love to swim – drives me crazy that I can’t. My guess is that the doctors won’t ever say yes to that.”
Bear in mind as you’re reading this that almost everything Alvarez says – up to and including, “If I drop dead now, who cares?” – is punctuated by hearty, wheezy laughter. And though age and illness have made it tougher for him to find the words sometimes, there’s a certain Anglo-Saxon expletive beginning with F that he has no trouble remembering, though courtly good manners keep him apologising as he does so.
Pondlife was conceived as a contemplation of old age, but the subject matter overtook its author. “Given the fact that I’m 83, getting this book out has to be some kind of wow. It’s absolutely nothing like the book I thought it was going to be, nothing at all. I thought I was going to write one of those rather solemn books that I occasionally do of going through what happens in old age, and so forth. I got more or less nowhere in that, but I kept this diary, where I wrote two lines at a time, every so often. Maybe because I got ill, I didn’t keep what I wrote altogether to myself, because I couldn’t really cope with it, so Anne got her hands on it, and thought there was a book in it.”
Anne Alvarez is a renowned child psychologist. They have a very happy marriage, which makes for a stark contrast with his first union, to DH Lawrence’s granddaughter. That marriage produced a son, but also such great unhappiness that when it ended, Alvarez attempted suicide, an experience that gave him the subject matter for The Savage God, which also examined his friend Plath’s suicide.
Long-term love is another subtext of Pondlife, with Alvarez writing, movingly: “After almost 45 years, our lives are so intertwined that I can’t even imagine being dead without her, let alone going on living without her.”
Sitting here in the cosy conservatory of the Hampstead home they’ve inhabited since 1968, he adds, “You’ve met my wife. She’s very good. It makes a huge difference. It matters. We have a very good marriage. We make each other giggle a lot. And you don’t get as angry – who gives a shit! You think, ‘Forty years!?’ You’re just glad to be alive and still together.”
The book’s organised chronologically, and in 2007 he writes: “I myself have always been too taken up in the risky business of living to bother with the business of dying, but premonitions are starting to creep in around the edges.” Time has passed. He’s been ill. Has anything changed? Does he spend much time worrying about death? “No, f**k the end! Ha! If you will forgive me again for my language. But what else can you say? I can’t understand people who are obsessed with it. The only certainty in life is that you are going to die, so enjoy it while you’ve got it. I think I’ve always done that. I had a lot of fun – a huge amount when I was young. I don’t see any cause to complain about fun.”
And life, while more circumscribed, is still good. He writes: “I began to realise that being an old man was not, after all, a posthumous existence. It was merely life of a different kind and I had better make the most of it while it lasted. My body may have been falling apart, but in some ways I had never felt more alive, and the world had never seemed more beautiful, more desirable, more poignant.”
Yes, it’s frustrating hearing doors slam shut forever, he tells me. “I think that’s called getting old. It’s horrible, basically. It’s frustrating. But if that’s how it is, that’s how it is. I’m quite pragmatic.”
Having said that he’s “ab-so-lu-tely” astonished to have a book out at his age, I ask his opinion of the announcement that his friend Philip Roth has put down his pen for good. “I read that, and it was a surprise, actually. I also thought that his last book wasn’t very good. Mark you, he’s made a huge amount of money, so he can say, ‘I’ve done enough’. We had one of those things where he sometimes sends me books, in pretty rough form, way before they’re published. And I think the last time [he did] I said I think he’d got this wrong, which is what I do, anyway, and why he’s sending them to me, surely. Maybe he agreed with me?” And he laughs even harder.
Talk turns to his son and daughter with Anne, and his son from that first, unhappy marriage. All three live in London. They’ve prospered in their careers – he’s very proud that they took his oft-repeated advice not to become a writer, because it’s a stinker of a life – and, he says proudly, they’re really lovely people. That must be very reassuring to him, as their dad, I say. Then, because all the best writers know the importance of a great ending, Alvarez looks me in the eye and says, “The point is, you know, I have had a terrific life and I have had a lot of fun, so I can’t start complaining now!”
• Pondlife, A Swimmer’s Journal, is out now from Bloomsbury, priced £14.99