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?
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.
An extract from Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal by Al Alvarez, published by Bloomsbury at £14.99, © 2013, Al Alvarez.
Photograph by David Rosen