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 here.

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.


Photograph by Phil Adams

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