My wonderful wife recently returned from a weekend away with books as gifts for the increase in doggy care I had needed to provide while she was away. Hanging out with the dog and being rewarded with books? Life is sweet.
She knows me well; one of her choices was Pondlife by Al Alvarez. His is a name I’d never come across before. But with its beautiful design, muted pallet and bold reflected silhouette of a bird mid take-off, and promise of a book concerned with a lifelong habit of getting outdoors, this would have been the book in my hand had I been in the shop.
I’ve long felt that cold water swimming is the missing element from my life. Although I always feel completely invigorated by surrounding myself in cold water, the number of occasions per year I actually get myself in the Solent or Channel can always be counted on the digits of just my hands, often one. Constant disappointment. So the journal of a man who has spent the vast chunk of his life with regular swims in London ponds was something I was keen to dive into (*groan*).
Much of the book consisted of crystalline descriptions of the ever changing weather, from the invigorating winter waters to the liquid cooler than air in summer, as he swam the ponds across Highbury and Highgate. The coots, swans, moorhens, seagulls and terns provide accompaniment to his account of the years as they circle, alongside mammalian fellows, swimmers and lifeguards that people his days. At its heart however, this was a book about ageing rather than swimming, a meditation of the physical effect of a life spent living.
Alverez battles against his increasing decrepitude, angrily insistent his increasingly fragile and unstable body keep moving him between the water and home, an admirable attitude to be emulated. I’m not sure if I took his story too closely to heart, but last week I gave myself a significant gluteal strain and have been hobbling around, slowly recovering, ever since. It’s shocking to have your mobility stolen so suddenly, emphasising how mindlessly accepting of a functioning body my usual mindset is. I’ve embraced the slow recovery, ensuring I keep getting out, appreciating the enforced slow pace, taking more time over the light on a leaf, the moss covered trunk, the paths less travelled.
We seem have troubles as a society discussing death, even more so the long years of diminishing mobility beforehand, the gift and curse of modern palliative care. I couldn’t help but think of those in a similar situation but without the strong social network that Alvarez built for himself throughout his life. With an ever increasing proportion of of society consisting of the elderly, care in its widest terms must become much more central to how we organise ourselves. As for me, I’ll learn to better appreciate and protect my freedom of movement while I still have it, and look forward to the water close by me when I don’t.