Al Alvarez: A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man


Of all the characters I have encountered at the pond over the years, he has made the greatest impression. He was squat and bald and old and hunched with bow legs and the remnants of a barrel chest. His stubbly beard was white. At the time he walked with the aid of a stick.

But what set him apart, what shone through as special, were the features of his face, his voice and his laugh. His eyes were like small bright currants twinkling impishly with humour and vitality and all the many lines of his face were bent between them and the upturned corners of his mouth in a grin of perpetual amusement and pleasure. His voice was like a slice of fruitcake – rich and fortified with brandy with the gleeful titter of a child. Every sentence began or ended with a laugh.

“There are two temperatures of the water in winter – below fifty it’s cold, and below forty it’s fucking cold!” A laugh.

A black haired middle-aged man with an introverted air was drying himself nearby. He looked up and said quietly,

“You know it’s Yom Kippur today.”

“Is it?” Responded the old man. “When I was a boy I asked my father what type of Jews we were. He said, ‘We’re the kind that tries not to eat bacon on Fridays.’ ” Another laugh.

I saw him from time to time over the following years, his single stick replaced by two and finally by a frame, his walk reduced to a painful manoeuvre. But he remained undaunted, his smile undimmed, his laugh as life affirming.

I discovered that his name was Al Alvarez and that he was a poet and writer of some repute, once friend to Ted Hughes and his wife Sylvia Plath, and a mentor of sorts to the latter after their break-up. The life-guards would make a fuss of him. At first I thought it was because of who he was, but it wasn’t, or rather it was – exactly because of who he was, not what he had achieved or who he may have known.

I was told he had once been a rock climber and a poker player, done things which thrived on risk. These he had let go of but he still made the pilgrimage to the pond – spring, summer, autumn, winter – casting aside his sticks and dropping into the waters like a rock. He published a book recently on these antics entitled, Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal – really a chronicle of old age set against the back drop of Highgate Pond and Hampstead Heath.

I spotted another book of his in the living room of an acquaintance. I took it away but have never gotten round to giving it back. It was The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, and is a cultural exploration of the act framed against his own unsuccessful attempt more than forty years ago, and that of his friend, Sylvia Plath. It was a funny thing though to think of this seemingly indomitable man as a failed suicide because never in my life have I met someone who was so consciously grateful and full of the joy of existence but who was unconsciously magnanimous at casting it at all who came within his orbit.