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Remembering Charles Sprawson

I was saddened to hear the news that Charles Sprawson passed this week. His book, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as a Hero is my favourite swimming book. If I was marooned on a desert island, this is the book I would want washed up with me. Because not only would it entertain me with tales of heroic swimmers and feed me words from literature greats, it would inspire me to swim the ocean in front of me to survive.

This was Charles’ only book, he famously wrote it and then disappeared. There was always hope of a second, but it never came. Last year I was lucky enough to meet Charles in person at a relaunch event after Penguin reprinted and reissued the cult read. It wasn’t expected that he would be there. Charles wasn’t in good health, but to my surprise and joy, there in the audience he sat. He was notably not well, finding our conversation difficult. But he was kind, polite and signed my battered old copy of the book. I wrote a piece for Outdoor Swimmer shortly after and here it is. Rest in peace Charles, may there be water where you rest.

The swimmer as hero

Ella Foote meets Charles Sprawson, her literary swimming hero and author of Haunts of the Black Masseur.

If you are anything like me, being able to identify your favourite book, film or piece of music is almost impossible. There are far too many great books and often they inspire the great films. Music is associated so much with memory and nostalgia, the first notes of a song being able to transport you back in time. Identifying one book, one film, one song – impossible! However, if I had to take just one book with me if I was washed up on a desert island, it would be Haunts of the Black Masseur.

Published over 25 years ago, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero has been reprinted and relaunched. The book has become somewhat iconic, a first in what has grown into a huge range of swimming books in recent years. The author, Charles Sprawson, wrote and delivered the book and when it was first published, received sensational reviews. “People hadn’t read a biography of an idea like this before – a biography of an obsession,” says Nicholas Pearson, his original book editor. “It seemed to us such a peculiar book. Publishers like to put things in places and boxes and it wasn’t clear what this thing was.” Author and journalist Alex Preston says: “It is like a memoir smuggled into something else. You see glimpses of Charles, but only glimpses. Someone once said of Proust, ‘that all great books establish their own genre.’ I feel like this was the first in what is now a huge range of swim-moirs.”

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Terrifying and exhilarating

My copy of the original book, which had a black and white cover with a swallow diver image and photographs stitched into the body, has burnt and parched pages from the sun. It was one of four books I took on a solo trip to Italy in 2014 and it became the only book I read. I can’t remember how I discovered the book, but it was a holiday I took after a summer I spent long-distance swimming. I had recently completed the Henley Bridge to Bridge 14k and OSS Dart 10k, I had gone to Italy to rest my shoulders. I remember very vividly turning the corners of pages and scribbling in the margin while I lay on the rough volcanic stone looking over the Bay of Naples. I had taken some local advice to explore Regina Giovanna – Baths of Queen Giovanna, an emerald pool of seawater enclosed by cliffs and a rocky beach. It had taken a few attempts to find the courage to swim through the crack in the cliff out to the sea and I felt like I was in a swimming paradise. That holiday became a swimming trip like no other. It was designed to be a rest, but instead, with Charles’s swimming book as my companion, I became braver and bolder than I had ever been before. I followed another hunch to Capri, knocked on a stranger’s door and in broken Italian asked to be taken to swim in the great caves of the island – alone! What followed was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating swimming days of my life.

Acqua Felice

It was in the pages of Haunts of the Black Masseur I discovered how Captain Webb, the first recorded person to swim the English Channel, died attempting to swim across the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. I learnt how the appetite to swim further, longer, harder and faster was an addiction that could never be satisfied and it changed my approach to swimming. The book was where I found a whole collection of other writers and their words on the love of water. It became a book that I understood to my core and the author, if we were to ever meet, would understand me better than anyone. Perhaps I am over romanticising it, maybe it is the nostalgia of how the book became the inspiration for such a magical experience in Italy – acqua felice (happy water).

The book is a must-read for all those who love swimming and love the water. “It is a book about writers and their attitude about water,” says Nicholas. “The whole thing feels like watery ideas washing all over you. It has literary ripples running through it – but it is more about people.” To me it is a book about obsession, the deep need in us as swimmers to dive in and explore, the unexplainable pull to water – accept this book finds a way to describe the mystery. Charles learnt to swim in India and bathed in the flooded vaults of a palace. A central part of the book is his account of swimming the Hellespont (a narrow, natural strait in north-western Turkey that forms part of the continental boundary between Europe and Asia), a swim now iconic and popular for swimmers today. There is a whole section dedicated to the swallow dive and Nicholas describes how in his early years of friendship with Charles he would talk of swimming in a deep pool on the edge of the desert. “Charles told me he swallow dived from a great height into this pool,” says Nicholas. “An image that has stuck with me all these years and then recently I was sent a photograph of that moment – Charles diving, doing a wonderful swallow dive into this pool.”

Eccentric individualists

After the book was published, Charles was commissioned to write a second, this time about extreme swimmers. But he never completed it. He became ill with throat cancer, then other things began to go wrong, loss of memory and forgetfulness. Then in 2016 he picked up an infection that caused hallucinations which led him to be hospitalised. Dreams of a swimterview with my swimming hero were not to be. I attended the launch event at Lutyens & Rubinstein bookshop in Notting Hill to hear Nicholas and Alex discuss the book and to my surprise and joy, Charles made an appearance. While he couldn’t hear a lot of my fan-girl waffle, it was a pleasure to meet the man behind the book. He was kind and polite, signing my battered copy and posed for a photo. The audience, a mix of old friends, colleagues, family and fans were grateful to see him on his feet. At 77 and not in best health, the second book may be out of his reach. But the one book is rich enough to last the decades, I think he should find peace in that.

Finding passages of Charles’s words in the book is a challenge, so many other writers’ narratives flow through his own. But his description of the swimmer as, “someone rather remote and divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed…” is something I see in myself and others. He goes on to explain that swimming appeals “to the introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” I think we can all relate to this.

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Outdoor Swimmer is the magazine for outdoor swimmers by outdoor swimmers. We write about fabulous wild swimming locations, amazing swim challenges, swim training advice and swimming gear reviews.