Al Alvarez, Who Brought Us “Feeding the Rat,” Dies at 90

Climber, writer and expert Poker player was peer of Bonington, popularized Sylvia Plath

By Leyla Brittan | October 1st, 2019

Al Alvarez, rock climber and man of letters, at BMC Conference, Buxton, March 2, 1974. Photo: John Cleare / Mountain Camera Picture Library.

Al Alvarez and Mo Anthoine woke around 3:00 a.m. on a tiny ledge on the north face of the Cima Grande. Something had changed.

“The moon was down, the valley far below was a pool of ink,” Alvarez would later write in “Feeding the Rat,” a 1988 profile of his friend and longtime climbing partner Anthoine, which took the form of both a New Yorker article and a nonfiction book. “The silence, too, had deepened, become impenetrable. We huddled together, trying to work out what had happened. Then Mo said, ‘The waterfall’s frozen.’ At that point, I concluded that our luck had run out and we, too, would soon be frozen.”

That book popularized the phrase “feeding the rat,” Anthoine’s description of the innate craving for adventure and discomfort that drives climbers: “The rat is you, really,” he told Alvarez. “It’s the other you, and it’s being fed by the you that you think you are. And they are often very different people…. You have to keep feeding the brute, just for your own peace of mind and even if you did blow it at least there wouldn’t be that great unknown. But to snuff it without knowing who you are and what you are capable of—I can’t think of anything sadder than that.”

Al Alvarez was a poet, novelist, essayist, and critic, as well as a rock climber, poker player and music lover; these various pursuits inspired his numerous nonfiction books over the years. He was born in London in 1929 and was educated at Oundle School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He was an accomplished and independent-thinking student who questioned teaching methods and standards of literary criticism. After graduating, he taught at Oxford and in the United States, at Princeton University, before becoming a full-time writer in his late 20s.

In 1956, Alvarez married Ursula Barr, the granddaughter of Frieda Lawrence—the wife of D.H. Lawrence, an author whom Alvarez greatly admired at the time (but later repudiated). Ursula and Alvarez had one son and divorced five years later. In 1966, he married Anne Adams; they had two children together.

Alvarez was a lifelong climber. Photo: John Cleare.

Alvarez loved to climb, although he was never among the frontrunners in the sport. In Feeding the Rat, he wrote, “Every move has to be worked out by a kind of physical strategy, in terms of effort, balance, and consequences. It is like playing chess with your body.”

The mountaineer Sir Christian Bonington, early in his own climbing career, often climbed with Alvarez at Harrison’s Rocks. In a phone interview with Rock and Ice, Sir Bonington describes Alvarez as a “very enthusiastic” climber with a “great zest for life.” He says, “He had a superb intellect. He was a hugely creative person in his own writing, his own poetry. He was a fascinating, stimulating person to be around.”

Alvarez began to play poker regularly as his first marriage unraveled and continued to play once or twice a week for decades, according to the Washington Post. Sir Bonington occasionally joined Alvarez and his literary friends in the game. “Al was, of course, a very good poker player. I was an average poker player,” he says. The group of writers was making good money and consequently often played with high stakes: “Playing poker with him was very, very exciting and at times terrifying.”

Geoff Birtles, former editor of High magazine, recalls, “Al was such gentle company with a deeply fascinating personality, a very modest superstar.”

He frequented Harrison’s Rocks, a sandstone crag south of London and some of the only outdoor climbing in the area. “He has been described, wrongly I think, as a mountaineer,” says John Cleare, an old climbing and travel partner. “He was a rock climber, the less walking or plodding up-hill the better.”

 

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Other climbing friends and peers included Jim Curran, Don Whillans, and Alvarez’s close friend Ian MacNaught-Davis.

Alvarez met Mo Anthoine in the summer of 1964 in the Dolomites, where they teamed up when their original partners bailed. On the Comici route up the north face of Cima Grande, the pair was caught in a snowstorm and spent a night freezing and attempting to keep each other awake and functioning—by talking, singing, punching each other to restore circulation, and smoking—on a tiny ledge 500 feet below the summit. The experience, Alvarez wrote, “registered very high on my epic scale and hardly at all on Mo’s.”

By his late 50s, Alvarez as a climber was generally limited to what he described in Feeding the Rat as “short, inconsequential routes” with Anthoine, for old times’ sake. The exception was a six-man climb up the Old Man of Hoy, a sea stack off the north coast of Scotland.

George Band, one of the six, later wrote of Alvarez on the climb: “On the second pitch Mo had left a sling dangling as an extra foothold but Al didn’t need it and crack widened above until one was straddled inside as in a chimney. Above, it was blocked by a roof, but the rope snaked up through a diminishing slit on to the outer wall which overhung. I could hardly believe that was the only way. Fortunately for me, previous parties had left slings or wooden wedges in place here and there and I had no scruples about using them. … I soon thankfully joined Al—my guardian angel—crouched in a niche amid coils of rope. We had climbed the crux.”

 

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Alvarez’s account, in Feeding the Rat, was a little different: he described his tortured struggle with the crux, his own use of the slings and wedges, and his realization that he was no longer in shape to climb. After that experience, he proclaimed that his rat had overeaten: “I think he just died,” he told Anthoine.

Alvarez remained a prolific writer throughout his life. In an obituary for Alvarez, the Guardian reported that in poetry, “he never achieved the reputation his admirers felt he warranted,” but “did much for the careers of other poets and even more to reshape received ideas about the form.”

One of these poets was Sylvia Plath, a personal friend: he appears as a character in the 2003 film Sylvia about her life. In 1971, Alvarez published The Savage God, a study of literary suicide which included his recollection of Plath’s death, as well as his own suicide attempt as his marriage failed. Other nonfiction titles included Life After Marriage (1982), on divorce, including his own; The Biggest Game in Town (1983), on poker; Offshore (1986), on the oil industry; Night (1995), on dreams; and Where Did it All Go Right?, a 1999 autobiography.

Alvarez spent his final years in Hampstead, north London, where he had grown up. In 2013, he published Pondlife: A Swimmer’s Journal, in which he described his daily swimming routine in the ponds there.

Alvarez died on September 23, at age 90, from viral pneumonia. He is survived by Anne and their children, Kate and Luke, as well as four grandchildren.


 

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