this is not a review: pondlife by al alvarez


I’ve been talking a lot about this book ever since having read it in less than 24 hours, unheard of fast for me. Mind you, it’s written as diary entries so it’s hardly heavy going. And, just to be clear, it’s not the speed at which I read Pondlife  that I’ve been talking about, although I mention it every time, but the quirky wonderfulness of its pages.9781408841006

As I said, diary entries. Each noting the temperature of the Hampstead Heath ponds where the author has been swimming daily, and year round, for something like sixty years. Seventy by the time we get to the end of the book (which goes from 2003 to 2011). This is referred to as ‘cold water swimming’… also madness, but the former is the official term. Have I mentioned that the ponds are outside?

I mean, they’re ponds. Ducks and everything. (Also magpies, grebes, moorhens, thrush, coots, swifts, hawks, heron, terns and more; he watches them as he backstrokes his return to shore and his descriptions of them are some of the loveliest bits of the book.)

“The terns were fishing for breakfast: soar, pause, then the sudden plunge. They seem to fall apart as they hit the water and, for a moment, they’re gone. Then they surge out and beat upwards again, scattering drops of light. If angels existed they would look like terns…”

The water temperatures in January and February go down to  30′ F.  This does not deter the cold water aficionados (of which, surprisingly, there are more than just Alvarez)… they happily report that on the coldest days the water is actually warmer than the air, as if making the obvious case for slipping into your Speedo and joining them for a dip.

Thing is they don’t ‘dip’. Some wear wetsuits (Alvarez is a purest; he goes in bare nekkid but for the swim trunks) but all swim, that is, stay in for many, many minutes. Alvarez spends as close to an hour in the water as he can… the time does shorten in the coldest temps.

At first I read this as braggadocio. It felt like the swimmers were competing, that the reason they never miss a day, or rarely, is because they don’t want to be seen by the other kids as wimps. After all, you don’t swim year round outdoors unless you pride yourself on your heartiness. And there are those that surely do it from some exterior motivation like that, but I don’t think Alvarez is one of them or, if he did, he changed his focus somewhere along the line.

He has a bum ankle, a source of much annoyance to him. Walking becomes increasingly difficult over the eight year span of the ‘diary’ and the only time he doesn’t hurt is when he’s swimming. He refers often to the way the cold water rejuvenates, makes him feel ‘reborn’ and how it feels to emerge from it.

“…you are… naked… feeling the weather on your skin… it strips away the comforts and protections that Shakespeare called ‘additions’.”

He is also having a difficult time accepting the changes that come with age. An ex-athlete and serious rock climber, he hates having to slow down, give things up. The swimming is the last of his athletic pursuits, and while that’s the book’s overall theme, and perhaps his original idea for keeping notes, as the years pass, he changes in ways he couldn’t have expected and seems almost reluctant to share those bits, as if the book was becoming something he hadn’t planned. Of course these are the best moments, witnessing the study of his own reluctance.

“I like the water cold. It reminds me I’m still alive.”

This could be about swimming, about his passion for it, his solace from it or addiction to it (because surely it’s that), but it turns out it’s about something else entirely, something that, I’m pretty sure, comes to him as a surprise in the writing. If you ask me, it’s about the way cold water makes some things disappear while bringing others into sharp focus. It’s a way of seeing and feeling the world. Some people run. Some meditate.

He admits that he’s keeping a journal with the idea of it becoming a book, although doesn’t ever delve deeply into his own psyche so I sometimes wondered what it was that he wanted to record (I would have liked a little more reflection, actually; and I would have LOVED knowing about the psyching up that’s necessary to dive into water at 30 F). Still, something in the very fact that he’s sharing these private moments suggests he’s exposing the very essence of who he is. Ultimately, this intimacy without personal details, is what I liked best, leaving interpretation of pain and pleasure up to the reader. What I liked least was his curmudgeonly way of seeing past his aging body… but that may be an unfair judgement; he complains but he also hobbles—after recovering from a stroke, and still with a painful ankle—through snow and across ice to swim alone in frigid water.

The structure of the book should be mentioned for its magical qualities—the repeated reports of weather, birds, flora, fauna, water temps, ankle soreness—sounds dull but is just the thing that kept me reading. I’ll admit that early on when, for the umpteenth time he began with weather, I considered giving up, or at least skimming the rest of the book, but then I’d decide to read just one more entry and then the next. That’s the magical part. Bordering on the hypnotic, something about the rhythm created in that structure mirrors the act of swimming… that movement through what seems to be nothing new… only to come out oddly refreshed.


Support indies: Pondlife  can be purchased on-line at Blue Heron Books. 

2 thoughts on “this is not a review: pondlife by al alvarez

  1. This isn’t the sort of book I’d normally pick up to read, and you’ve intrigued me. I’ll look for it. Swimming was a huge part of my life a million years ago – in the pool for competition and the lake or the Pacific for pleasure. Only occasionally in cold water, and that never more than for a few squealing seconds. Hats off to Alvarez for lasting up to an hour. It must become something like a meditation.

    1. It’s definitely a book you need to be in the mood for. Nothing actually ‘happens’ and any personal revelation or even emotion to a degree, is very low key. But I like the water too, and cold water has its appeal (though not as cold as he likes it). I think any swimmer would appreciate it on some level. Anyway, if you read it, please let me know your thoughts…

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