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Al Alvarez

Photograph by Eamonn McCabe

When we published our print edition, Al Alvarez kindly allowed us to use an extract from his book, The Writer's Voice. I gave him his copy personally then wrote the following diary entry:


A sunny day, making Hampstead look even more high-end than usual. Al Alvarez lives, almost literally, a stone's throw away from the shops in a ground floor flat (he's 87) that's full of books. On reflection, that was the most telling detail for me: not the books themselves but the fact that they all seemed to have aged into the one colour. There was an original Sidney Nolan on the wall of his study – a crayon image in the flyleaf of a book that he had drawn as a wedding present – and a photo of two men on the bookcase, one of whom is Alfred Brendel. The carer showed me in, and there he was, looking like an old pirate. His legs don't work - he has that look of being welded to the chair that old people get - and his hands have swollen into potato tubers but there was still a glint in his eye; it comes and goes. (At one point he was trying to remember a name and he looked bewildered. He was searching upwards just as though he was trying to catch his breath.) He was reading a newspaper, which made it easier, somehow, for me to show him the magazine. He looked at it then looked at me and grinned.

"Is that all you want?"

I made sure that it was, and I do have regrets. He offered me a proper drink and I turned it down; I told him that I didn't want to overstay my welcome. More, I didn't ask him about people like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, which I might have done. But I was right, I think, to quit while I was ahead. We talked about Hampstead ("I've been here all my fucking life!") and then poetry for a while ("It gives you up", he said; "you don't give it up") and about his own writing. I explained about the magazine and I told him that, in a lot of ways, he was our presiding spirit.

He said: "I thought I was..."



"No!", I said, and I told him about all of the people that I know that read him. He pushed his chest out slightly and sat up in his chair.

"I can't tell you how much that cheers me up", he said.

So. I got out of there before I could muck it up. There was a sense of anti-climax, of course; it had been a gratifying exchange but it had been an awkward one, too, what with those moments when we briefly ran aground. It was definitely best to quit while I was ahead."

I still wish I'd had that scotch. Here is the extract that we placed right at the front of the magazine. It states with exceptional clearness what I think every writer is (or should be) aspiring towards even if they can't, quite, put it into words.

Alan Humm

The Writer's Voice

"What happens when you sit down with a book? Why do you do it? What's the pleasure in it? Why do books, poems, even fragments go on being read years, sometimes centuries, after they were written, and look like they will continue to be read no matter how many times the death of literature is announced?

I'm not talking about transmitting or acquiring information. On the contrary, at this present moment of change, when the industrial revolution has been superseded by a revolution in information technology, facts and figures have never been easier to come by, although now they are packaged in an appropriately new form. Computers, for example, no longer come with handbooks; all that kind of information is built in; if you want to know how to do something, you click "Help" and, if necessary, print up what you find for future reference. Eventually, I assume, that is how most reference books will be, and the advantages, in terms of economy and convenience, are greater than the drawbacks. Staring at a computer screen in your living room may be no substitute for the silence and calm of a library, and surfing the Web with Google is not as satisfying as rummaging in the stacks, but for those who can't afford to buy, say, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and lack the yard or two of shelf space to accommodate it, it is better to have the work on CD-ROM or the Web, complete with sounds and moving pictures and hyperlinks, than not to have it at all.

Computers may be convenient and efficient, but they are not quite the neutral instruments they seem to be, and the subtle deformations they create in our attitude to language can be dangerous to literature:

"A philologist and his wife for dinner… His ambition is to determine, by the use of electrical computation machines, the basic structure of language. Word values and evocations can be determined, he tells me, by machinery, and thus successful poetry can be written by machines. So we get back to the obsolescence of the sentiments. I think of my own sense of language, its intimacy, its mysteriousness, its power to evoke, in a catarrhal pronunciation, the sea winds that blow across Venice or in a hard "A" the massif beyond Kitzbühel. But this, he tells me, is all sentimentality. The importance of these machines, the drive to legislate, to calibrate words like "hope", "courage", all the terms we use for the spirit."

John Cheever wrote that some time in the 1950s, long before computers were just another domestic accessory, even before they had a proper name. The philologist's reductive arrogance and the author's outraged response are opposing reactions to a simple truth that still applies: information and imaginative writing are different forms of knowledge, demanding different skills and wholly different attitudes to language.

In order to acquire facts efficiently, scan a synopsis, or gut a newspaper, you have to master the art of reading diagonally. Real literature is about something else entirely and it's immune to speedreading. That is, it's not about information, although you may gather information along the way. It's not even about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures. Imaginative literature is about listening to a voice. When you read a novel the voice is telling you a story; when you read a poem it's usually talking about what its owner is feeling; but neither the medium nor the message is the point. The point is that the voice is unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communing with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way. It may be talking to you from centuries ago or from a few years back or, as it were, from across the room – bang up-to-date in the here and now. The historical details are secondary; all that really matters is that you hear it – an undeniable presence in your head, and still very much alive, no matter how long ago the words were spoken:

"Western wind, when wilt thou blow

That the small rain down can rain?

Christ, if my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!"

Nobody knows who wrote that poem or even precisely when he wrote it (probably early in the sixteenth century). But whoever it was is still very much alive – lonely, miserable, hunkered down against the foul weather and a long way from home, yearning for spring and warmth and his girl. Across a gap of five centuries, the man is still our contemporary.

Writing, I mean, is literally a lively art as well as a creative one. Writers don't just "hold, as 'twere, a mirror up to nature" by creating an imitation of life; they create a moment of life itself. That anonymous poet has left the sound of his voice on the air as distinctly as, say, van Eyck fixed forever the tender marriage of Arnolfini and his wife in paint. The poem breathes from the page as vividly as the long-dead faces and their little dog breathe from the canvas. But it is a two-way pact: the writer makes himself heard and the reader listens in – or, more accurately, the writer works to find or create a voice that will stretch out to the reader, make him prick his ears and attend.

From The Writer’s Voice. Published by Bloomsbury.

From 1956 to 1966, Al Alvarez was the poetry editor and critic for The Observer, where he introduced British readers to John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Zbigniew Herbert and Miroslav Holub. He is best known for his study of suicide, The Savage God. His last book was Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal.

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