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In deep water
February 22, 2013
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Al Alvarez – poet, critic, mountaineer, all-night poker fiend – was 11 when first he swam in the waters of Hampstead Heath. Now, some seven decades later, he’s still immersing himself in the often freezing London ponds, only now it’s more as a balm to his aching limbs than to his adrenalin compulsion.
 
Pondlife begins in 2002 as a journal of the daily dips he takes, but becomes, over the course of the nine years that it covers, an agitated meditation on senescence and a pugnacious swipe at the maladies that lay him low.
 
While there is some satisfaction to be had from the poet’s description of the rhythm of incremental change in his surroundings – as subtle, often, as ripples in the pond – it is when Alvarez moves out of the water that he truly engages.
 
It begins with his gammy ankle – a legacy of his rock-climbing days – which, by the end of 2003, has “swollen to elephant size” and been joined by the disobedience of housemaid’s knee, making it hard even to hobble. Asked by an elderly passer-by if he needs help, Alvarez writes: “I would have kicked him in the crutch if I hadn’t known I’d topple over if I tried” – a vituperative inner monologue that he will soon bring to bear on himself.
 
His ankle becomes increasingly unreliable; he trips over uneven paving stones and suffers nasty cuts from falls. His health declines to the extent that, “I feel cut off from my real life. For my imagination to kick in and my language to come alive, I need to feel alive physically.”
 
His decrepitude worsens after a stroke. It is notable that the diary entries become less and less frequent, though the luminescence of a remarkable mind remains. Not least in his fulminations at both his body – “There are 90-year-olds who move better than I do. I’m not just depressed by the state I am in. I am outraged” – and the way he is treated – most notably when the NHS makes the extraordinary decision to take away his blue badge for not being incapacitated enough.
 
The final pages are an artistic triumph, and worth the reading alone; the rawness and linguistic economy with which he describes staring into the abyss is exquisite – and exquisitely distressing. If this is the last we are to read of Alvarez’s words, then it is the most almightily affecting send-off. “Vale,” he concludes the journal, quoting Villa: “Don’t let me die like this. Tell them I said something clever.” That, he most certainly has.
 
Selected Poems
by Tony Harrison

Class warfare, the last vestiges of Empire, generational conflict, the importance of the dialect of Northern England, international politics, fathers and sons, mothers and sons: Tony Harrison ranges through them all, with rage and fearlessness.
 
It is almost 30 years since the publication of v., the poem that probably brought him to public consciousness more than any other because of its liberal use of swear words; a furious yet also sad diatribe against the social attitudes of the Thatcher era. It marked Harrison as a political poet but his stage work, comprising translations of classics and libretti for opera, has occupied his considerable poetic powers just as much. A moving, revealing, important collection.
 
A Great Big Shining Star
by Niall Griffiths

The teenage heroine of Niall Griffiths’s new novel is one of those whose consumption of Closer, Grazia and the rest builds a lust for access to that world that comes to seem almost like a sense of entitlement. Gracie Allcock is pretty enough, but with a nose job, then a bust job, why shouldn’t she have what Katie Price has, or at least Jodie Marsh?
 
To be fair, Griffiths is less interested in the experience of celebrity from the inside than in the mindset of the people who lap it up. This is where the second narrative voice comes in, that of 42-year-old Kurt, failed father and caretaker at the local primary school. Griffiths’s incantatory style has always been his strongest card, and it is put to good use, but it’s a shame that the ending seems equally familiar from his previous books.
 
Chasing Venus
by Andrea Wulf

Last summer’s transit of Venus, when our sister planet could be seen as a tiny black circle crossing the massive fiery disc of the Sun, was an engaging lesson in astronomy. For those in the right spot and the inclination to arise at 4.30am, the solar system was transformed into a giant orrery.

If the 2012 transit was a graphic illustration of what we already know, the unusually adjacent transits of 1761 and 1769 provided a vital opportunity to advance scientific knowledge. Andrea Wulf’s thrilling book describes an international effort to observe the transit around the world even though the participating nations were at war.By comparing the times taken for the transit of Venus from a number of locations, it was possible to discover the distance of the Earth from the Sun, as Wulf explains, “using relatively simple trigonometry”.

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