Al Alvarez is a critic, essayist and poet whose many books include his study of suicide, The Savage God, which explores his relationship with Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and his own failed suicide attempt, The Biggest Game in Town, about his passion for poker, Feeding the Rat, on climbing, Where Did It All Go Right?, a memoir, and most recently, Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal. This latest book is a luminous and funny account of his daily trips to the Hampstead pond, and how the cold water miraculously, if only temporarily, halts the ageing process. Here he spoke to Granta’s Ted Hodgkinson about how boarding school gave him a taste for pitting himself against the unknown, why Beckett was wrong about old age and how time – and writing a journal – has changed his opinion of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. You can also read extracts from Pondlife below.

 
TH: The book is a great reminder that even in a city like London we’re never as far from nature, or for that matter a cormorant, as you might think. Would you say this proximity has been a source of replenishment for you?

AA: It’s good to know cormorants are close by, isn’t it? And yes, nature absolutely is a source of replenishment. I don’t know what I would have done without it. I live in Hampstead so nature is only just down the road. The place is full of interesting people too and there’s a lot going on outside my door. The characters I spend my time with down at the pond are a great source of life and stories too.

Is it fair to say, as you suggest in the journal, that the freezing baths you were forced to take at boarding school gave you a taste for cold water?

Yes, at Oundle I rather liked taking cold baths, even though in those days they did something rather unexpected, which was to run them the night before to let them cool down even more. And this was in midwinter as well as the summer. And always the windows were open. I don’t know how we survived it, but we did! When my wife Anne and I went back, about seven or eight years ago, it was kind of like going to a luxury hotel.

You also write that this cold water treatment, so to speak, prompted a desire to pit yourself against extremes and the unknown from early in your life. You say this led to your love of climbing, poker and, of course, poetry. Is poetry about pitting yourself against the unknown?

Poetry is certainly about pitting yourself against the unknown. The thing about a poem is that you’ve got to get it right. And you’ve got to get it all right. If there’s one word wrong, then the whole thing won’t work. It can be a 500 line or 5 line poem, it doesn’t matter. You get stuck on that word that isn’t right. You know the poem isn’t going to be finished until it all clicks into place. It is a kind of weird concoction. Though I seem to have stopped writing poetry.

But one of the inspiring things about the journal is that it’s a way of not stopping. It’s full of poetry and joy. There’s also a wonderfully irreverent streak to it – you take writers like Beckett to task.

The thing about Beckett is he’s a marvellous writer, but he’s very down on stuff, isn’t he? There’s all that wonderful non-talk he has in his plays, the contradictions that aren’t quite made into contradictions, but still, he did get it wrong occasionally. And yet Beckett can be wrong and totally right at the same time!

There are several writers who make repeated appearances in the journals, notably Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Has reflecting on your relationships with them now that some time has passed altered your perspective on them at all?

Yes, it has. I was rereading Plath the other day and she is a really an extremely fine, clever poet. In fact, I think Plath has turned out to be a much better poet than Hughes ever was. Of course he won all the prizes, and his name is on the stones in Poet’s Corner and OK, he’s pretty good, but not that good, whereas she gets better and better. Which is interesting because it didn’t occur to me in quite the same way before. I was in America recently and met great numbers of Plath fans, very few of which have actually read Ted. But when I came back and saw that Ted was the one in Poet’s Corner, I kept thinking, boy have we got it wrong. When they first got together, she’d read him and he really got her biting the bullet, so to speak. Her early stuff wasn’t very good, but the poems after she left him – or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that she threw him out – were extraordinary. It’s funny when I reflect on back then, there were these two young poets I really liked, but at some point in those last few years, something shifted for her. What had happened was that Ted had gone on doing what he knew how to do, in a kind of slightly automatic way, whereas Sylvia had that one extraordinary year where she wrote non-stop. At that point she shot ahead. In her early days she was rather boring as a poet. I read her first book, it was ok. It left you feeling she could have gone anywhere, but the last stuff, the last year of her life, it was just phenomenal what she suddenly turned out. What happened, quite simply, was that Ted left and she suddenly realised there was this well of anger and she got at that, she managed to write it. And at that point everything else just faded away.

I was the one that she brought the poems to when she and Ted were no longer together. She brought all those late poems to me. She felt I knew how to read them, which is true. And I suspect now, thinking it over, that she would write a poem and she and Ted would take it apart or vice versa. They had very intense conversations about each one. When they split up, she came to call on me, I was living down the road a bit, and she came carrying poems and I think I helped her just by being there. I think she needed that. So we swapped notes. She knew I was on Ted’s side, that I loved his poetry. But the stuff that she was unloading then was miles better.

Do you think she was writing in that last year for Ted or against him?

I think she was writing to be heard, that’s the main thing. She really wanted to put it down, and she did it wonderfully well. He was very, very good when they first got together, but she kind of moved past him. The stuff she was writing in the last year of her life is absolutely extraordinary. There are these poets – Keats was one, Yeats too because he changes suddenly . . .

Shakespeare makes a few appearances in the journal, particularly King Lear up on the heath. Your journal reminded me of what the Fool says at one point: ‘It’s a naughty night for swimming nuncle!’

I hadn’t thought of that line, very good! The Fool and Lear are such marvellous complimentary figures. There’s no one nearly as good as Shakespeare. And that is probably the saddest play ever.

You seem to feel at home with the other pond swimmers, many of whom are ex-athletes or people who have taken a lot of risks in their lives. What is it that makes you gravitate towards these kinds of characters?

The fact that I’ve done a lot of that stuff myself. I’ve done a lot of climbing, played a lot of poker. There’s an awful lot of laughing that goes on by the pond. I think anything is good for you that makes you laugh.

At one point you describe freezing water as a hostile element ‘almost like your first marriage’.

Ha! Did I say that? Totally right. My first marriage was a total fucking disaster. The second one has been wonderful. I think that’s the way round to do it.

Is there one part of your life you feel you could have done with more of?

I would like there to have been more poetry, but I can only do what I can do. But all in all, I’ve had a wonderful life. I certainly don’t have any regrets.

What would your advice would be to a young writer?

Have fun.

It’s a very racy author photo with lots of flesh on show just before you dive in. It’s definitely cropped though! You didn’t want to include the whole thing?

If only!

At what point did you realize that the journal you were writing was the book about ageing you’d been intending to write?

Funny you should mention that. It was my wife’s idea. I had some plan of writing a book about old age, but then I got a bit ill, and that seemed to give her the impetus to take over the job, I suppose.

So there was a Vera Nabokov at work here?

Yes, very much so.

Do you still go to the pond occasionally?

The last year has been awful for illness but I have been trying to get myself back to the point where I can go in again. The whole year I’ve been out which has driven me fucking crackers. What I’m doing now is what all those creeps do who don’t really swim, they just plunge in and get out. I want the illness to slip away and get back to it.

 

Extracts from Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.

2002

Wednesday 27 March. 52°F

The cormorants went a couple of weeks ago, the seagulls soon after. There were never more than half a dozen cormorants, but there were gulls by the hundreds. Occasionally, when I dived in, a great cloud of them would take off, squawking. My routine is to swim quickly to the twenty-five-yard barrier, head in water, doing the crawl, then turn onto my back and drift back more slowly, admiring the sky and the clouds and the weather. And there were the gulls, irritably banking and swerving, kicking up a fuss.

That was last week. Now the gulls have gone, the other birds are all nesting and the swans have taken over. They have made their nest on the far bank but want to keep the whole pond to themselves. Last week, too, the twenty-five-yard barrier was taken down and that changes the game: how long you stay in the water and how far you swim and how cold you want to get – now it’s up to you. The first trick is to swim where the swans are not because they don’t like intruders. There is a pair of Canada geese that have come in from the boating pond next door, maybe to nest, but whenever they drift into the swans’ ken they are spat at and chased away. Likewise the moorhens and coots, which keep well clear.

This morning the geese were on the jetty when I arrived. They waddled resentfully in front of me and half turned at the jetty’s end as though to take a stand. I said, ‘Fuck off’ and kept on coming. They flopped into the water, then drifted close in, waiting for me to go away. When I dived in after them, they fled.

*

Saturday 30 November. 48°F

I got there late, just as the fog was lifting and the pale sun was breaking through. And because I was late I had the place to myself. Just me and the gulls and the cormorants – five of them, all with their wings spread to dry, like heraldic emblems. Also a moorhen which paddled briefly alongside me on the first leg of the triangle, then decided it was frightened and veered off sharply. Now the weather is getting colder, the lifeguards keep the door of their hut shut and do their life-guarding from behind closed windows. 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. The water was chilly and sweet – cold enough to stay with me and make me shiver while I did some shopping later.

*

Monday 16 December. 40°F

I love these dark mornings. The midwinter solstice is approaching, cars still have their headlights on at 9.30 in the morning, the Heath is deserted, the water is as black as Grendel’s lake and very cold. When you dive in, everything contracts to the centre to keep the core warm, then flows outwards again when you get out. Hence the lobster flush, or, if you prefer, the healthy glow. I suppose this determination to survive adversity was something I picked when I was operated on as a baby and the need to test myself constantly followed from it. Whatever the cause, it’s now a habit of mind that makes me feel fully alive, second only to making love to Anne. The obligatory cold baths at Oundle every morning gave me the taste for cold water and I went on taking them the following year in that freezing little cottage that I shared with the school butler when I was teaching at Maidwell Hall. Rock climbing – feeding the rat – was a natural progression.

*

Sunday 28 September. 60°F

A slow and beautiful autumn, coming on by minute degrees. Today the water is a little fresher than yesterday and the breeze a little cooler, though not really enough to notice. There have been a few showers and it gets dark earlier, but the mornings feel lazy and warm enough out of the wind; the only chill comes up through your feet from the concrete. And the seagulls are back. They seem suddenly to be everywhere, eyeing you coldly as you swim, skimming low over your head, circling, calling. Just before I dived in yesterday the heron zoomed low over the water on its great clattering wings. Seeing him is always a sudden pleasure – I suppose because it seems so strange to meet such a shy, wild creature here in the middle of London. But, then, that’s one of the fascinations of these ponds; they, too, are bits of wild nature in the middle of town and, when winter comes, wild, cold and relatively untamed. What would I do without them?

*

2007

Wednesday 7 February. 37°F

A sequence of brilliant cold days at last. They start dark and foggy, then the fog lifts around ten and the whole world shines. Late last night, on my way back from the gala opening of Roy Houghton’s new poker club, the lorries were gritting the streets in Hampstead. This morning, though I was late arriving, there was still rime on the paths and jetty, ice around the far edges, and the women were using our pond because theirs was frozen over. But the sun shone, the water was delectable and I came away happy. Nevertheless, I have bad dreams. Not just the usual dreams about the usual indignities of old age – missed trains, lost friends, forgetfulness, indigence, shabby clothes in posh places, and shitty marks on my underpants – those are the kind of dreams I’ve always had, most of them are set in Glenilla Road and in my dreams I am still child. Now a new, late-flowering anxiety is emerging: the guilt of not having done what I could with what I’ve been given. Bertrand Russell’s first reaction to old age, in the early days of the Cold War, was to advocate a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Soviet Russia; then he did an about turn and became a leading figure in the CND. This was at a time when young and old all thought our days were numbered and some Dr Strangelove, ours or theirs, was going to press the button and blow the lot of us to smithereens. I was young back then, arrogant and contemptuous of the old, and I remember thinking, Russell’s attitudes are about age, not politics: faced with death, first he wants to eliminate it by destroying it before it destroys him; now he sees that can’t be done so he wants to delay it forever: ban the bomb and ban death along with it. Forty-five years later, I begin to see what he meant. Once the countdown begins death is on your mind, like it or not. 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. When I was a child I ate whatever I was given – with Nanny in charge I had no alternative – but I had a horror of butchers’ shops, which is understandable since I had been on a butcher’s slab when I was a baby. During the war, there was a butcher on Finchley Road, near the top of West End Lane, who sold unrationed horsemeat. I used to go on my bike to buy the stuff for my mother’s dog. The place was hung with big, dark-fleshed carcases that smelled bad and I always had to wait in a long queue to be served. That shop gave me bad dreams for years and even now butchers’ shops still make me queasy. Recently, that queasiness is back. I’m no vegetarian, but I’ve stopped eating steak and I shudder at the idea of slaughtering an animal to eat, though eat it I do. I think this new-found delicacy began a few years ago during the foot-and-mouth epidemic when every evening news featured smouldering pyres of dead animals. Now it’s back again with an avian flu scare and the slaughter of 18,000 turkeys. Imagine it: 18,000 gassed carcases piled like rubbish into lorries and trundled off to the incinerator. I missed the holocaust of the Jews by sheer luck and now, when I’m running out of time, there’s another holocaust on the television every night. Sylvia wrote, ‘Dying is an art, like everything else’, and Claudio, in Measure for Measure, boasts, ‘I will encounter darkness as a bride, / And hug it in mine arms’. Strong poetry but sheer youthful braggadocio, as hollow as Peter Pan’s ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’. Dying is not an adventure, it’s a termination, not so much a big deal as the end of all big deals. Though I may well change my mind later, for me, at this moment, the hard part is not the dying, it’s the decrepitude that precedes it, starting with the loss of the basic physical skills (in my case, walking) you have hitherto taken for granted. Then there are the perpetual aches and pains that accompany old age. If you wake up without them, they say, it means you’re dead. But after a certain age, you never do wake up without them and you have to rejig your life to accommodate them. Here’s the paradox: your body becomes steadily more troublesome just at that point when the world, which you are soon to leave, becomes sweeter, more poignant, more beautiful, more desirable.

 

© 2013, Al Alvarez. Published by Bloomsbury at £14.99

Photograph by walnut whippet

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