Guest post by Chris Beardsley
Who is Al Alvarez?
That’s a good question. Although Al has been a published writer for over 60 years, he is still hard to categorise and even harder to pin down. He has been, at varying times of his life (and sometimes all at the same time) an academic, newspaper poetry critic, novelist, rock-climber, open-water swimmer and poker player. And he has written about all of it, thoughtfully and in great detail.
His obsession with combining writing and action in his life is probably why, although I have read many of his books and articles, the book by Al that I find most inspiring is still his autobiography, intriguingly titled “Where did it all go right?”
Let me tell you a bit about Al and how it all went right for him.
The man of letters
Alfred “Al” Alvarez was born in England in 1929 and as of the last time I checked, was still going strong. He went to Oxford to read English in 1948 and graduated with a first class honours degree three years later, which was pretty impressive back then. He was, he later admits, obsessed with being precociously clever, which apparently everyone at Oxford was at that time.
After a brief spell in which he flitted between Oxford and Princeton, writing his doctorate, he started work as the poetry editor for “The Observer,” the British Sunday newspaper favoured by liberals, academics and teachers.
As a poetry critic, Alvarez quickly became both famous and influential. He was swiftly drawn into the new establishment circles and very soon had the distinction of knowing some of the greatest literary lights of the Twentieth Century, including Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and W H Auden. He became a good friend of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, who were married, and even found himself portrayed on screen in the 2003 film Sylvia.
In 1960, Penguin, a popular publisher of English literature, invited him to publish a volume of the new poetry, which was published in 1962 and received critical reviews. It was the springboard that allowed him to spend much of the rest of his life writing independently for himself and for various publications.
The man of action
Much of Al’s autobiography is concerned with his family history, his early life and his literary criticism. But, while Al also talks about his climbing exploits in is autobiography, he actually talks more about the process of writing a book about climbing, called “Feeding the Rat.” We’ll come on to the funny title in a moment but, first of all, we should recognise that climbing was an important therapy for Al. He describes his attraction to climbing as follows:
“For a brief period… I have to be directly responsible for my actions, without evasions, without excuses. In the beautiful, silent, useless world of the mountains, I can sometimes achieve a certain brief clarity.”
Essentially, Al is talking here about living in the moment, or mindfulness. It’s now a fairly well-known and popular concept for improving people’s quality of life, but for Al’s generation it was pretty radical.
But you know all about that stuff already so let’s come back to that funny title. After all, Al called his book “Feeding the Rat,” for a reason. It was because “feeding the rat,” was the favourite saying of his climbing partner, the talented Mo Anthoine. What on earth did Mo mean?
Mo held that, to be truly content in life, you needed to align your own beliefs about yourself with what you are actually capable of. Having unrealistic expectations of yourself was a ticket to unhappiness.
Mo believed that you could reset your expectations to be very close to your actual ability by putting yourself in challenging situations, in which you performed to the best of your ability and found out where your limits were. Mo called this experience “feeding the rat.”
So Al climbed to feed his rat. He climbed to find out where his limits were. He climbed so that he could adjust his expectations to fit reality rather than allowing them free reign to make him unhappy.
So, where did it all go right?
Well, you might be forgiven at this point to assume that I am going to talk about the importance of being self-sufficient, self-employed, mindful of the present moment, and above all, of “feeding your rat.” But actually I’m not. Life is often stranger than fiction. It actually only went right for Al not long after it all went wrong.
Shortly after starting his ten-year stint as poetry editor for The Observer, Al married. Unfortunately, it was an ill-matched relationship and things went downhill quickly. The imploding relationship and the pressure of constant international travel combined with his own perfectionism to cause the intellectual’s bane, chronic depression. After several months, it got the better of him and he attempted suicide in the Christmas of 1960. At the time, he was only 31 years old.
Al survived the attempt and, as he pulled himself back together, he found himself travelling again, this time to visit his young son in Rome, where his ex-wife had settled with her new partner. On one of these difficult trips, he hurriedly grabbed a book to read off the bookshelf on his way out of the door to catch a flight. It turned out to be “Bleak House” by Dickens.
On the flight over, and in the lonely evenings he spent in his hotel room in Rome, Al discovered something he had not known for a long time: the simple pleasure of reading. It was, he says, a true Road to Damascus moment. And it wasn’t just reading he had forgotten to take the time to enjoy, it was the rest of his life too.
All at once, Al stopped trying to impress everyone by being clever, stopped working his ass off trying to be perfect and started permitting himself to enjoy life. Not long afterwards, he remarried, this time to the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. The following year, his Penguin anthology was published and he became much more financially independent. He used his time to travel, climb, play poker and write about things he was interested in.
In his own words, right at the end of his autobiography, Al says:
“I sometimes feel I’ve led my life back to front, atoning for my sins before I’ve committed them. My first thirty years, when almost nothing went right, were purgatory. The last forty have passed in no time at all.”
The thing I find so fascinating and inspirational is that the only thing that changed for Al that night in Rome was his own mental attitude. When he talks about his first thirty years going badly, he actually achieved a huge amount (like a First Class honours degree from Oxford, a great job and a huge reputation as a literary critic). He just didn’t value it at the time. He probably achieved less in his latter forty years, but he had learned how to enjoy life. And learning how to enjoy life changed everything.
And that is where it all went right.
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