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Al Alvarez, the Men’s Pond’s Orwell

Poet and poker player wrote for the Observer and authored several books

26 September, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

Al Alvarez was ‘pond royalty‘ [Photo: Ruth Corney]

A POET, journalist, critic, editor, poker player, climber and regular in the Men’s Pond on Hampstead Heath – Al Alvarez, who has died aged 90, was known as the “Pond’s Orwell” by regulars at the Men’s Pond on the Heath, a sign of the respect he has held.

In a long career, he penned books on everything from poker to literary criticism, and held the post of the Observer’s poetry editor during a period of British poetry when the pre-war writers were handing the baton on to more modern forms and styles.

Lifeguard Dan Fawkes, who has worked at the ponds for 25 years and knew Al, said: “We got to know him well. He was a good friend to us all. He was greatly loved by everyone. He’d come and sit for a chat and you would realise you were rubbing shoulders with some one who had an extraordinary life. He had known some really quite highbrow people – he was friends with the likes of Philip Roth – but he could connect with anyone. He was just so easy to talk to.”

After Al had a stroke, lifeguards arranged for him to be dropped off at the pond’s gates so he could still visit. They would help him get changed in to his trunks and then put him into a life jacket.

“We’d aid him so he could get in to the water, and we’d go in for a swim with him,” says Mr Fawkes. “Then we’d help him out again and help him get dressed. We knew how important it was for him to be able to have that little plunge. Throwing himself in the pond was the last of his buzzes, after he had got unsteady on his feet and could no longer rock climb. That’s how much everyone here loved him.”

Al was born in 1929 and grew up in Hampstead – he recalled swimming on the Heath as a child. His family had earned their livelihoods in the rag trade and property.

He went to school at Oundle in Northampton­shire, where he boxed and played rugby, and then read English at Oxford in 1949. He set up the Critical Society at his college, Corpus Christi, and would then launch into career that was a mixture of book writing, academic work, poetry and criticism, and then, in the 1960s, becoming the Observer’s poetry editor.

He was close friends with Sylvia Plath and championed her writing.

He married his first wife, Ursula Barr, in 1956. They had one son, Adam. They split up after five years, and in 1966 he married Anne Adams, with whom he had two children, Luke and Kate.

Al had got involved in rock climbing while at school – as well as poker. Both would be lifelong passions, with Al a key member of a weekly Tuesday night poker game hosted at the homes of a number of other writers.

He wrote about playing cards in The Biggest Game In Town (1983) and rock climbing in Feeding the Rat (1988). Al was never part of a bookish set, and was known for his ability to treat the sacred cows in British literature with a sense of detachment so he would not be blinded by reputation. And he eventually got round to writing about his beloved pond: in 2013, he wrote Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal, in which spoke of how dips improved his health and spirits.

He was generous with his time – he was asked by the New Journal to read at a fundraiser for Brookfield School. There he joked he had never known what made a good poker player, and said if he had worked it out, “I wouldn’t be sitting here now…”

Back at the pond, he was made a member of the Highgate Lifebuoys club and would look forward to drinking a post-dip tea with swim­mers from all walks of life.

“He really was pond royalty,” added Mr Fawkes.

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