If it doesn’t sound like a book that would go straight for the jugular, it’s because it doesn’t. Al Alvarez’s Pondlife, a book I picked up in the library for no other reason than its pretty cover, starts off pleasantly enough. In its first half Alvarez documents his experiences as a swimmer in Hampstead Heath’s swimming pond. Notes include encounters with birds, particularly swans, and vivid descriptions of fellow swimmers.
Nothing deters Alvarez from his beloved exercise, not even snow on the jetty and the limitation of his swimming space by frost. I couldn’t help shivering as I read his descriptions. Why on earth would someone do this to themselves? The mercury has just dropped below 20°C and I’m already struggling to cope. Part of my enjoyment of this book came from the realization that I was reading it in August, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a jumper, with a fleece blanket nearby should I need it.
Then again, I know the feeling Alvarez describes all too well. When he exclaims that swimming makes him feel reborn and miraculously seems to cure all mental and physical ailments, I can only nod in agreement. Recalling how I made it through last year’s winter by bundling up three times a week to go out for a run. The first five minutes were five minutes of agony. Always. But then my body began to warm up and the experience became enjoyable. Nothing beats coming home and walking into the shower with a face too numb to smile and the skin of your legs red and raw. At least if you’re a lunatic, as Alvarez cheerfully calls himself.
This alone would have made Pondlife an excellent book. But halfway through it takes a turn neither I nor Alvarez – presumably – could foresee. At the start of the book Alvarez is 73 years old and in relatively good health. As the narrative progresses, however, his bad ankle begins to bother him more and more, followed by his entire leg. Rapidly decreasing mobility ensues, then a stroke, a stay in hospital, and a darkly comic battle to get his Blue Badge back. Meanwhile, Alvarez continues to swim as often as he can, even if it means using the wheelchair he detests so much he compares it to the plague to get to the water.
I’ve been working as a health care professional for almost a year now, almost entirely by accident, and some of the people I love most are struggling with their health as we speak. Maybe that’s why this part of the book affected me so much. Having seen how easy it is to fall into the trap of taking elderly or disabled people less seriously, I swore long ago not to go down that route and treat every patient I encounter with the respect and dignity they deserve. This seems so blatantly obvious that I’m embarrassed to write it down. As many people with health or mobility problems can tell you, however, ageism and ableism are problems they encounter every day.
While Alvarez refuses to feel sorry for himself he does not maintain a false sense of optimism either. He is infuriated by his increasing fragility, angry about his inability to get to the pond on his own, frustrated by other people’s tendency to treat him like a weak old man. “Brutal honesty” is a cliché overused by critics, but Alvarez certainly is honest, and the result is brutal. “I can’t write. I can’t write. I can’t write”, Alvarez states towards the end of the book. There’s no sentimentality in his words. Just anger at the decaying body he is forced to inhabit and the devastating effects of his poor physical health on his ability to do what he does best.
Maybe Pondlife hit me so hard because it describes one of my worst fears: to lose control, my independence, my ability to fend for myself. This can, and will, happen to you too, Alvarez appears to say, even if he never says it explicitly. There’s no soothing advice, no happy ending, no suggestion that everything’s going to be alright.
If that sounds depressing, the more I think about it, it isn’t for me. For me this book is, as its title suggests, about life. Celebrate it while you can. Don’t waste your time on things that don’t matter in the end. Go for a swim in the freezing cold, or whatever makes you feel alive and young again, before it’s too late.
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