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Risky Business: People, Pastimes, Poker and Books, by Al Alvarez

Chips for Ava Gardner

Writing of Philip Roth and his "relentless dedication to the craft of fiction", Al Alvarez notes that they have been friends since 1959, when they were both "edgy young men with failing marriages and a nose for trouble, who believed, as literary folk did back in the high-minded Fifties, that literature was the most honourable of all callings and were baffled when life didn't work out as books had led us to expect". Alvarez is no longer young and no longer "edgy" - he seems notably at ease with himself and called his autobiography Where Did It All Go Right? - but he remains fascinated by male bonding, by the literary life, and by lives and literature which are somehow "on the edge".

This collection of profiles, criticism and reportage includes a few rather ephemeral reviews, but most of it is marvellous. The earliest piece, "Beyond the Gentility Principle" (1962), savaged the timid English poets who still seemed to believe that "gentility, decency and all the other social totems will eventually muddle through". Even horror films, Alvarez noted disdainfully, were "more in tune with contemporary anxiety".

A much more recent essay on "Risk" celebrates the adrenaline rush of dangerous pursuits and describes a night he and a friend almost froze to death on a mountain, forced to "sit it out on a minuscule ledge - each of us had one buttock on, one buttock off". They sang, joked and recited limericks to keep their spirits up. "In retrospect," he comments typically, "it may have been the coldest night I have ever sat through, but I have spent far gloomier ones warm in bed with the wrong woman."

Along with climbing, poker has proved Alvarez's favourite form of "risky business", a game which helped confirm his status as "one of the boys" and proved crucial in overcoming "the deep ignorance that often goes with excessive education". The book includes some great vignettes of life on the poker circuit: the professionals who "walk around in cheap nylon bomber jackets and soiled tee shirts" and then "fish about in the pockets of their tattered jeans and pull out enough money to support an average family for a year"; the ambitious amateur who sat down at the table wearing "wraparound dark glasses and earphones clapped to his head" to ensure he gave nothing away. There is also a great profile of a star called Eric Drache, who explains his technique for fleecing suckers ("My goal is to make people feel it's very classy to lose") and reduces absolutely everything to the laws of probability: "If a girl's got Aids, you've got to go to bed with her 700 times to have a 50-50 chance of catching it. Well, there's no one in the whole wide world that a poker player is going to sleep with 700 times!"

Quite different but equally compelling are the profiles of Alvarez's friends Roth, Alfred Brendel - who sometimes invites him round for a private pre-recital run-through - and Torquil Norman. The last of these, a leading toy manufacturer and passionate amateur pilot, is a typically English eccentric who looks like "the friendly giant in a children's story" and is quite unable to resist a grand gesture. When his favourite film star, Ava Gardner, died, he decided to honour her memory by organising a champagne lunch in a fish-and-chip shop.

Alvarez writes well about American fiction and Eastern European poetry, but a recurring theme is different styles of Englishness. At the age of nine, the future novelist Malcolm Lowry contracted an infection at boarding school, yet "his mother refused to have him home during the holidays, finding his bandaged eyes too unattractive to be endured." Far more general was the cult of imperial fortitude induced by "the bleakness, discomfort and harsh discipline of the Public School system". One of the great literary monuments to this is Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World, when three men set off in total darkness and temperatures dropping to 77 degrees below zero to try and collect Emperor penguin eggs.

It was, in Cherry-Gerrard's own words, "the weirdest bird's-nesting expedition that has ever been or ever will be". Alvarez is amused by the English who refused to learn anything from the Inuit and retained their cocked hats and brass buttons even in the polar regions. He is fascinated by the explorers' brand of "moral fibre", which often amounted to "something very like depression, some quirk of nature or nurture that convince[d] them that the world is an unremittingly stern and hostile place and bleakness is their natural environment". And he is thrilled by the "perfect balance of precision and pleasure" which informs the writing in The Worst Journey in the World. Much the same could be said about his own prose in this compelling and wide-ranging book.

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