Lifelines worth betting on

HOW CAN YOU RESIST A MAN who's not ashamed to wisecrack: "My wife is a child analyst: I needed someone to cope with my age group - 77 going on eight." Even more beguiling is the way Al Alvarez's conversation bounces along on a constant stream of giggles. Then again, maybe his magnetism emanates from his vigorous intellectual inquisitiveness, even if, as he insists, time has wrought a tectonic shift upon his approach to the arts and his life's work.

"All sorts of peculiar things seem to be happening to me in my advanced old age," he says over steaming wake-up cuppas in his Hampstead sitting room. "I can listen to music and look at art, but it doesn't seem to happen to me with poetry. Poetry is my great passion and I still write it, but I can't bring myself to read it anymore."

Startling words from the man who outraged many with the introduction to his influential anthology The New Poetry (1962, 1966), when he urged English poets to shake off their middle-class gentility and strive for something bolder. And who, as poetry editor for the Observer from 1959 to 1977, had the power to put people on the map, introducing Britain to the likes of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Zbigniew Herbert. Yet Alvarez reckons the "ear" may have its own lifespan.

"I'm sure you lose it. One of the reasons I gave up working for the Observer was because I haven't been able to see the really good new poets. The new poetry just leaves me absolutely cold. And I don't know why that is." Perhaps you became scunnered, I offer, but seeing his delight in rolling this new word around his mouth, I'm not sure that's the answer, either.

"Intellectual journalism is hard to do. There are very few venues for it and it's badly paid. Now that I'm an old man I can't actually write. I find it very difficult to write. It's like playing poker: I've played so many hands I know exactly what they've got, what they're pretending they've got, and so on. But one of the good things about getting old is you lose ambition. Everything else sucks." He breaks off to conjure two of my favourite ladies, reminding me that Bette Davis said: "Old age ain't for sissies," and Tallulah Bankhead remarked: "They don't make mirrors like they used to."

He laughs easily but walks with difficulty and a limp, thanks to shoddy medical treatment following a decades-ago mountaineering accident that steadily eroded the cartilage in his right ankle. This eventually put paid to climbing when he was around 60. "I'm an ex-athlete and I can hardly walk down the passage now," he says. "At my age you really are a dinosaur. Nobody gives a shit what you think. But I still love what you can do with words, absolutely adore it. And I think, purely as a writer, I've got much better as I've got older. I think that autobiography of mine [Where Did It All Go Right?, 1999] is better written than The Savage God [his seminal bestseller about suicide]. I really found my voice, which is what all of us are trying to do."

Fans will have a chance to judge for themselves with Risky Business, a collection of Alvarez's journalism that not only spans the length of his career, but the breadth of his interests, with essays about everything from risk, poker and exploration, to pieces about Philip Roth, Edward Lear and Jean Rhys.

But hang on a minute: did he just say he's given up poker? Alvarez looks at me as if I'd suggested taking a holiday from breathing. "Of course I'm playing poker, for God's sake! Does a bear ...," he waves his hand by way of etcetera. Nowadays, though, instead of finding him at the gaming tables of Las Vegas, where he's competed in the World Series of Poker, he's more likely to be sitting at his computer. He plays so many late-night online games that Anne, his wife, apparently equates the sound to a lullaby.

Though addictive, it's not as interesting as a live match. "You're missing half the information, though you can still tell about a person to some extent by watching their betting patterns. I think it favours the people who can do the maths instinctively, which I can't. I'm a very good poker player, but the real top pros, they may have straw in the corner of their mouths, be filthily dressed, but they can tell you every card that's available if it's a stud game and they can tell you to within two decimal places what the odds are of getting your card. They're scary. They really do the maths in their head. I can't do that, but I'm very good on reading people. So playing online is more tricky and less fun."

You might have predicted Alvarez's penchant for gambling by observing his tendency toward Groucho-ism. He repeatedly turned his back on clubs that wanted him as a member. Offered a position at his alma mater, Oxford (where he got a first), he turned it down. Ditto posts at universities in the US. He was a writer and reckoned he should be writing, even though freelance life was precarious.

There's been a lot of up and down and even today the question of money bedevils him. He jokes that they're sitting on a valuable asset: the trouble is, there's no way to sell their Hampstead home and carry on living in it. Back in 1965, in a single night, Alvarez won enough at poker to buy an E-type Jaguar as well as a bicycle for his son. But by 1968, when he was midway through The Savage God (an anticipated two-year project that took four), he was flat broke. "I had zero money, three kids and an American university offered me a visiting professorship for six months, paying $28,000. But my mother was sick and Anne and the children couldn't come, so I said thanks, but I can't. But I had no money. And they thought I was playing cute and wrote back and said they'd make it a distinguished professorship and $35,000. At that point the money was so ridiculous that of course I said no." Of course? I ask, baffled, since I'd have jumped on the next plane. "You see," he reasons unreasonably, "if they'd lowered the offer to $20,000 I'd probably have taken it. That was a sum I could cope with."

Equally baffling to some was his decision to turn his back on the literary intelligentsia. "My problem is not just that I do a job that's on the sidelines, not properly integrated into society, but originally I felt I didn't want to meet writers too much, because you get a nice guy and how do you deal with his writing? Then after Sylvia died, the malice and glee and bitchery that was floating about ... I kind of cut myself off from the literary world. And having decided that I didn't want to join the academic thing, and then decided I even less wanted to join the literary thing, I've been isolated. And there's this curious thing: here am I, an English writer with a very English background - my family's been here since 1770 or longer - but I realised when I was pulling together this collection that practically everything I wanted to keep had been written for America. OK, America has been very kind to me and I love it there and it totally changed my life, but I didn't choose to stay there, either."

At the heart of this pattern, it strikes me, is a push-pull dynamic, a conflict between intellect and action. Alvarez resolved his dilemma by finding a way to write brilliant, intelligent narratives about subjects such as flight, suicide, and even life on a North Sea oil rig. It's not surprising, then, that of all the accolades he's received, he cherishes a compliment from author Len Deighton, who said: "Al, you're the only real intellectual I know who's streetwise."

"My line, finally now, has been that I was always interested in what's out there. I like people who do things, like mending cars. It's interesting. You want to be around those people and then you want to see if you can do it. I'm curious about what things are like, what they look like."

Alvarez still regrets not getting to the Antarctic but, on the whole, he says, flashing me a broad grin: "If I drop dead this instant, I've had a wonderful time. A really good time. I'm a kind of serious guy, lots of talent, but somehow or another I kind of got interested in other stuff. I've climbed with the best climbers. I've played with the best poker players. I've been out on the North Sea ... I've at least had a look at the planet and seen what's on offer, and I think that really does matter."

• Risky Business: People, Pastimes, Poker and Books by Al Alvarez is published by Bloomsbury, price 12.99.

Al Alvarez on ...

Philip Roth: His brain is always switched on, his concentration is fierce, and the sharp black eyes ... miss nothing. The pleasure of his company is immense, but you need to be at your best not to disappoint him.

Sylvia Plath (inset): There was more life and liveliness and appetite in Plath writing about death than there is in the collected works of Philip Larkin writing about what a bitch it is to be alive.

Alan Ginsberg: There's no way you can read a Ginsberg poem on the page and get much aesthetic pleasure from it. It has to be declaimed, performed. By using verse as a vehicle for showmanship, he helped turn a minority art into a form of popular entertainment based on the cult of personality.

VS Pritchett: He was garrulous and funny, a small, tweedy man with a pipe, fizzing with energy and utterly lacking in self-importance ... He was addicted to writing like some people are addicted to the bottle.

Ted Hughes: He reminded me of Heathcliff - big-boned and brooding, with dark hair flopping forward over his craggy face, watchful eyes and an unexpectedly witty mouth. He seemed to have easy, immediate access to his sources of inspiration, a permanently open hotline to his unconscious.

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