Bloomsbury £14.99

Review: Pondlife: A Swimmer's Journal, By Al Alvarez

Journey with gritted teeth through hell and cold water

Al Alvarez – poet, critic, mountaineer, all-night poker fiend – was 11 when first he swam in the waters of Hampstead Heath. Now, some seven decades later, he's still immersing himself in the often freezing London ponds, only now it's more as a balm to his aching limbs than to his adrenalin compulsion.

Pondlife begins in 2002 as a journal of the daily dips he takes, but becomes, over the course of the nine years that it covers, an agitated meditation on senescence and a pugnacious swipe at the maladies that lay him low.

"When in doubt, grit your teeth and do it," is his maxim during those early passages in which he pegs out life at the ponds. With each entry comes a Helen Fielding-esque catalogue of date, temperature, birds that flit in and away, and descriptions of the water (invariably "sweet" and "refreshing"). It appears to be deliberately monotonous in order, not only to evoke the sense that Alvarez treats these swims as part of his everyday ablutions, but also, perhaps, to make the moment when his infirmity means that he can no longer partake in them all the more jolting to the system.

While there is some satisfaction to be had from the poet's description of the rhythm of incremental change in his surroundings – as subtle, often, as ripples in the pond – it is when Alvarez moves out of the water that he truly engages. It is not the number of famous people populating his anecdotes that is of such interest (though there are many), nor his relationship with the pool lifeguards (love him, though they do). Rather, it is the near-collapse of body and mind that change his prose from the gently poetic to the wrenchingly poignant.

It begins with his gammy ankle – a legacy of his rock-climbing days – which, by the end of 2003, has "swollen to elephant size" and been joined by the disobedience of housemaid's knee, making it hard even to hobble. Asked by an elderly passer-by if he needs help, Alvarez writes: "I would have kicked him in the crutch if I hadn't known I'd topple over if I tried" – a vituperative inner monologue that he will soon bring to bear on himself.

His ankle becomes increasingly unreliable; he trips over uneven paving stones and suffers nasty cuts from falls. His health declines to the extent that, "I feel cut off from my real life. For my imagination to kick in and my language to come alive, I need to feel alive physically."

His decrepitude worsens after a stroke. It is notable that the diary entries become less and less frequent, though the luminescence of a remarkable mind remains. Not least in his fulminations at both his body – "There are 90-year-olds who move better than I do. I'm not just depressed by the state I am in. I am outraged" – and the way he is treated – most notably when the NHS makes the extraordinary decision to take away his blue badge for not being incapacitated enough.

The final pages are an artistic triumph, and worth the reading alone; the rawness and linguistic economy with which he describes staring into the abyss is exquisite – and exquisitely distressing. If this is the last we are to read of Alvarez's words, then it is the most almightily affecting send-off. "Vale," he concludes the journal, quoting Villa: "Don't let me die like this. Tell them I said something clever." That, he most certainly has.

Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
Arts and Entertainment
Swiss guards stand in the Sistine Chapel, which is to be lit, and protected, by 7,000 LEDs
artSistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer, Lord Alan Sugar, Karren Brady are returning for The Apprentice series 10

TV
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Angelina Jolie and Winona Ryder star in 'Girl, Interrupted'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas Pynchon in 1955, left, and Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of his novel, Inherent Vice

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Nicole Scherzinger will join the cast of Cats

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Fans were left surprised by the death on Sunday night's season 26 premiere

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Watson has become the latest target of the 4Chan nude hacking scandal

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lady Mary goes hunting with suitor Lord Gillingham

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

    Time to stop running

    At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence