Bloomsbury, £14.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal, By Al Alvarez

A swimmer’s journal that charts the emotional ripples beneath daily life

Despite its title, Pondlife is not in the end a book about either swimming or London wildlife; although it is full of warmly realised descriptions of both. Poet and critic Al Alvarez has been swimming in the Hampstead ponds since he was three. In his sixties, forced by an old injury to abandon a serious climbing habit, he began going there daily for his exercise fix. In his seventies he started keeping a journal of those visits.

The journal covers the years 2002 to 2011, and was always intended for publication. Alvarez refers to this project periodically, sometimes complaining that he’s finding the book difficult to write. Yet what he has written feels intimate and authentic. Pondlife never slips into self-conscious fine writing. And, insofar as it is a memoir, there seems to be little window-dressing.

Later entries portray the frustrations and indignities of age with uncompromising straightforwardness. By the time we read that, “I’m trapped in and by this foolish, failing wreck of a body and can’t get loose or see beyond it”, we have followed and understood every step in the escalation of difficulties and losses that warrants this protest.  For Alvarez helps us to understand ageing in a way that few writers have. In making it daily and incremental, he renders it recognisable. At times, reading this book is like wearing one of those weighted vests designed to show you what pregnancy, or age, is really like. In 2003, “I turned my ankle within moments of walking onto the Heath and thereafter the wretched thing became the centre of my attention”; by 2006, “when I got up for a pee in the middle of the night neither leg seemed to be working properly”.

Alvarez himself refers to this as a “book on old age”. It is a subtle, careful portrait of what age does, and as such should be required reading for anyone who is engaged with older people and with ageing: so that’s all of us. But this lucid and moving journal is about more than just one thing. It is also a study of writing, and a portrait of a particular kind of Hampstead life; it deals with the natural world and even the poker-playing for which Alvarez is legendary. 

Uniting these apparently disparate elements is the life well lived. As the author says, “This is the land of the living. Pure delight.” Part of this particular well-lived life is its literary distinction. As Alvarez struggles with deadlines and attends literary functions, his judgements can be hilariously sharp, but the portrait of pragmatic hard work that emerges would be useful reading for many a tyro. 

Such a life has its rewards: the house in Italy, and the roster of interesting friends (though I would have placed the glossary that identifies them more discreetly at the back of the book). But, as philosophers down the ages have pointed out, the good life is an internal rather than an external state of affairs. The repetitive journal form, and Alvarez’s regular swims, are most akin to meditation. Anyone with a similar experience of daily outdoor exercise – running the dog across fields, suburban jogging – will recognise the sense of deepened intimacy with place and the natural world that he notes with a light, but accurate, touch.

Pondlife is full of gulls, swans and heron as well as, occasionally, “A lop-sided moon stranded in all this brightness”. There are near-daily records of water temperature and distances swum, functional details which provide quiet verisimilitude. Yet the book’s vivid sense of lived reality owes itself to Alvarez’s gift for looking outward, beyond the psyche and its obsessions. His writing is filled with attention and enthusiasm. Viewed on a sunny March day, “The whole city is shining. The promised land.” The reader has an uncanny sense of being inside the writer’s experience and sharing it, even of looking out through his eyes.

It’s this exceptional evocation of complicity that makes the passages about physical frailty so moving. We’ve learnt what it feels like to be the ghost trapped in a failing machine.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?