Saturday, July 13, 2013

Al Alvarez  Pondlife.

Pondlife.  Al Alvarez. 2013.  Bloomsbury.  Pp 273.  $39.99

Ken Strongman

Poignant, funny, sad, penetrating, deadly honest, even a touch magnificent, “Pondlife” may well be Al Alvarez’s final book.  He is now in his eighties and has been a poet, novelist, literary critic, rock-climber and international poker player.  He lives in London’s Hampstead and for most of his life has swum regularly in the ponds of Hampstead and Highgate.  These ponds are wonderful bits of North London, in the true sense of being filled with some of nature’s wonders if you are fortunate enough to experience them.

“Pondlife” then is a diary of sorts, subtitled “A swimmer’s journal”, it chronicles Al’s experiences of swimming in the pond during the mornings from 2002 to 2011, when he became 80.  It is about his sheer delight in swimming in all weathers, from the heat of some of those summers to the ice-breaking cold of the winters.  There is his sense of joy at being out and experiencing all of those weathers, of diving into the water and having his body heat suck into his bodily core and then swoosh to the outer levels as soon as he emerged from the water.  He tells of the adrenaline rush that only this and sex can bring to him.

More than this however, this book tells of the decline of a man whose physicality has been central to his life.  He might have made his living as a writer, but his essential self has centred on athleticism. Throughout his seventies, so this physicality faded, from an ankle that increasingly could not bear his weight, through arthritis to an eventual minor stroke.  So, at one moment he is full of the joy of life and particularly life in the Hampstead ponds, and at the next he rails against the ravages of age. 

Alvarez could easily have become bitter as his diary progressed, but he merely became angry that old age could not be fought and so sometimes also becomes very sorry for himself.  But this self-pity never lasted more than a day or two.  Even as he describes himself becoming more and more decrepit, so he still struggled to the ponds and with the eventual help of the lifeguards and other aging friends would always dive in the water, swim for a few metres and then float peacefully back, even in the snow and freezing fog.  This constantly rejuvenated him, albeit for briefer and briefer moments.

“Pondlife” is also a tender account of Alvarez’s love for his wife, Ann, and for his children and his friends.  It is a moving book, almost unbearably so at times.  It is simply written and yet rich in imagery.  It is a truly bittersweet experience.  But if Alvarez had the guts to write it then we should have the guts to read it.

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