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Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal by Al Alvarez – review


A watery testament to the frailties of old age

Al Alvarez has always been one of literature's hard men: a poet, yes, but also a rock climber, a poker player, a scrutineer of suicides. On the face of it, his most recent book and, by his own admission, probably his last, lets him conform to type. It's a journal he kept between 2002 and 2009 (the year he turned 80), in which he describes more or less daily dips in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. "For a little while," he tells us, "between taking your clothes off and putting them back on, you are a 'naked, unaccommodated man', feeling the weather on your skin. It's a mild form of rock climbing: it strips away the comforts and protections that Shakespeare called 'additions'." Hard, see. Especially when it's snowing, the ponds are coated with ice, and there's a decent chance of getting attacked by a swan.

As things turn out, Pondlife is a good deal more nuanced and vulnerable than this. Sure, there are moments of wilful machismo, when he takes a swipe at "wimps" who stay away because the water is freezing. But the bulk of the book has very little to do with this sort of thing, being much more focused on the frailties of old age, on how swimming releases him from the pain of a crocked ankle that has dogged him for many years, and on the fading of lifelong pleasures. (He was six months old when his parents moved to Hampstead and he has swum in the ponds since he was 11.) It is, in other words, a journal of leave-taking as well as "a swimmer's journal", and parts of it – especially in the second half – are sympathetic and touching.

It requires a bit of patience to reach these rewards – not so much due to the male posturing, but because Alvarez seems to have begun writing the journal much more casually than he ends it. The language is pretty ordinary (the water is almost always "fresh and sweet"). The literary allusions are predictable (Lear and Yeats and Beckett for old age, MacNeice for "the drunkenness of things being various"). The main ingredients of the entries stay more or less the same: the same attention to the weather and the temperature of the water; the same glances at swans, herons and coots; the same rolling over to watch planes overhead; the same pretty leaves falling into the water (or not).

Occasionally there are breaks in the routine – when Alvarez goes to his house in Italy with his wife Anne; when he gets excited about a poker game; when he buys a new car; when he writes a review for the NYRB. But all these interruptions are made to seem just that, interruptions, which means that before he dives back gratefully into the water again, he doesn't take much trouble to expatiate on terrestrial life. This sort of concentration has produced very good books in the past, not least Thoreau's Walden. But while the pond in that masterpiece becomes a means of exploring the wide world, the water in Pondlife provides no equivalent sense of expansion.

And yet. Although Alvarez grumbles about age and decay from the start, his journal also changes as it goes along. Swimming itself becomes an even more urgent necessity – as a way of keeping death at bay – and the ponds become not so much "England's last outpost", manned by a bunch of hardy and likeable eccentrics, as a way of dramatising his defiance. Here, in a dim-lit world of wheelchairs, persistent pain, a stroke and the death of friends, existence becomes more precious as it grows more precarious. The plainness of Alvarez's language works to his advantage; it lets us see the courage in restraint. The same goes for the last few pages – which do not so much bring things to a conclusion as peter out, and (given the reasons) add to the poignancy rather than seeming an artistic failure.

In the process, Alvarez laments that he no longer has the energy to finish a book that he's been commissioned to write about old age. But he has written it, of course, and this is it – not so much Pondlife as "Swan Song". By the time it stumbles into silence at last, even the macho elements of the earlier pages seem altered – and seem a part of the understandable animal rejection of everything they cannot alter or restrain.

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