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The Art of Al Alvarez

Updated: Jun 10

A tribute to Al Alvarez by one of our Festival Film short-listers finds more than one link between Hampstead Heath and The Ogre.

Somehow, I missed the news of the death of Al Alvarez this September. To be brutally honest, if you'd have asked me beforehand, I would probably have thought he passed on some years ago. Had I been paying attention, I of course would have known that he was still alive and kicking (until 2012 literally: the breaststroke kick in Hampstead Ponds in sub-zero temperatures) into his tenth decade.

Probably best known to the world at large as a poet, critic and journalist, most climbers will know him as the author of Feeding the Rat; a portrait of Mo Anthoine and meditation on climbing, risk, and the nature of the games we play. Saddened by the belated news, I found my dog-eared copy, reread it almost at a single sitting, and was prompted to rouse out some of his other books I'd somehow never got around to.

Alvarez relaxing at home in North London, being interviewed for the film The Home For Broken Toys
Al Alvarez at home in The Home For Broken Toys

Most climbing books, it's fair to say, gain their appeal from the derring-do they describe rather than from intrinsic literary merit. As a young man, like others in the early grip of the same obsession, I devoured all the climbing literature I could lay my hands on – from Whymper's Scrambles amongst the Alps onwards. Yet it was only when I came upon Feeding the Rat that I found a book that showed what a book ostensibly about climbing could convey about the nature of risk, obsession, friendship and adventure.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Alvarez was never, as he was the first to admit, 'a climber of the first rank', but he was unsurpassed as a chronicler and connoisseur of the climbing life and its attendant themes. His preoccupation with risky business extended through his life – his other favourite recreation was high-stakes poker. According to his friends, ‘he was a good poker player – but not world-class,’ but his book The Biggest Game in Town is frequently described as the best book ever written about poker, and it spawned a minor sub-genre of 'poker literature'.

By coincidence or not, Alvarez's influence is threaded through the London Mountain Film Festival.

Mo Anthoine, the primary subject of Feeding the Rat, was instrumental in saving the bacon of one of the weekend's most illustrious speakers on that epic Ogre trip - Doug Scott - and that of his expedition colleague Sir Chris Bonington. Alvarez himself appears in one of the films entered for this festival (and must surely be selected), spritely and articulate as ever at ninety. The Home for Broken Toys features a Sunday morning Hampstead open-water swimming group, the creation of which was inspired by Alvarez.

In times like these when to be a career adventurer involves having an eye for the Facebook post, the film footage, the Instagram reach, the sponsorship opportunities and so on, Alvarez's books and his life are a reminder that chronicling the adventure can be more than just a means to fund the next one. It can be, for want of a better word, art.

Alvarez’s last book, Pondlife – the inspiration for filmmaker Holly Butcher to make The Home for Broken Toys – is a case in point, making a gripping read out of the unpromising material of an old man swimming in the same spot repeatedly for seven years. Somehow in Alvarez's hands, it becomes a poignant treatise on age, endurance, nature, and still, above all, adventure.

Catch him if you can in The Home for Broken Toys. I'm not sure they make them like him anymore.

By Sam Huby

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