Al Alvarez, writer, poet, critic and self-confessed adrenaline junkie: born 5th August 1929; died 23rd September 2019.
Only one book has moved me to tears on its first page – The Savage God by Al Alvarez, who has died aged 90.
A frank, insightful study of suicide it was typical of Al’s approach to life and literature in its uncompromising determination to explore the aspects that genteel folk shy away from. With his boxer’s nose and his high brow Al was a pugnacious intellectual who felt and thought about his existence deeply, particularly when the stakes were at their highest.
Born in Hampstead in 1929 into a well-established Jewish family, he attended school at The Hall and then Oundle. However he never felt part of the establishment: “I am a Londoner, heart and soul, not an Englishman.”
As a child he underwent a series of operations and had to wear a lead boot to correct a deformed ankle. His response to this set the pattern for his life: “I was a fragile child,” he recalled, “so I made a point of ceasing to be one. I took up mountain-climbing, rugby and boxing.” He broke his nose boxing and, in a cruel twist of fate, would eventually shatter his other ankle climbing.
At Oundle he excelled both on the sports-field and academically, but narrowly escaped expulsion for breaking all the rules, and in 1949 went up to Oxford as a scholar, to read English. There the “not quite English” Al Alvarez rebelled even harder. He founded the Critical Society, whose manifesto opened: “In Oxford current literary criticism is both vague and ineffective.”
He disdained its lack of intellectual rigour and “high-table chat” so, despite gaining a First, rejected life as an academic to pursue life in the raw.
As a literary critic he did more to shake-up and re-mould the study of English than anyone of his generation. A fine poet himself, he was the poetry editor of The Observer for a decade between 1956 – 66. There he lambasted the cosy “gentility principle” of leading British poets like John Betjeman and Philip Larkin, championing instead the emotional authenticity of confessional poets including Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. He distilled his attack in his polemic introduction to 1962’s anthology The New Poetry. It was a self-confessed “fuck them” to the “London old boy’s circuit” and earned him a lot of enemies. But The New Poetry was also a hugely influential bestseller and went on to become a standard text at schools and universities.
Al expanded on his doctrine, that critical intelligence is forged in the white heat of extreme personal experience, in a series of books of what he called “fully existential criticism” that began with the publication of “The Savage God: A Study of Suicide” in 1971. The book ends with a meditation on his own aborted and Sylvia Plath’s successful attempts at taking their lives. They were close friends, both struggling to cope with marriage breakdowns, and Al not only did much to establish her reputation as a poet but was one of the last people to see Plath alive.
Other books in the “fully existential” genre followed, including Life After Marriage (1982) about divorce – which includes the memorable line “divorce transforms habit into drama”; The Biggest Game in Town (1983), about poker, a lifelong passion of his -“I don’t gamble, I play cards (and) I never bet on anything I can’t shuffle”: and Feeding The Rat (1988), quite possibly the greatest book ever written about climbing and the gnawing compulsion at the heart of it.
Al was a legend at Harrison’s Rocks, the crag in Kent where many of Britain’s best climbers cut their teeth, not least for relishing the falls he took. To me and other young climbers there, this seemed counter-intuitive, until you understood his rationale, at which point it all made sense and spurred us on to new heights:
“To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully. It puts domestic problems back into proportion and adds an element of seriousness to your drab, routine life. Perhaps this is one reason why climbing has become increasingly hard as society has become increasingly, disproportionately, coddling.” After all “when there is no peril in the fight, there is no glory in the triumph.”
Although he could no longer climb after shattering his ankle aged 63, he found some of the same frisson and much the same camaraderie in swimming year-round in the ponds on Hampstead Heath. It also provided relief from the pain in his ankles and his final book Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal (2013), is a poignant meditation on the rigours of ageing.
Al and his beloved second wife Anne married in 1966 and made their home in Flask Walk where they spent many happy years raising their family and entertaining their many friends, including Mike King, Alfred Brendel and John Le Carre – who described Al as “an impassioned husband and a family man.”
At Al’s funeral, at Christchurch on October 5th, he and other friends, neighbours and his two surviving children, Luke and Kate, celebrated time spent sharing Al’s passion for living. They described epic climbing adventures, poker nights, Al’s lifelong love of poetry and music, unforgettable dinner parties and Al’s incorrigibly inventive use of the F word. I doubt I was the only one who left, to the strains of Ella and Louis singing They Can’t Take That Away From Me, imagining I could hear Al’s throaty chuckle.
His 1999 autobiography is titled Where Did It All Go Right? I would answer that it was in the insights he shared through his writing after he got back from the edge.