In Praise of the Greatest Book About Swimming Ever Written
Daniel Shailer on Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero
I was introduced to Haunts in a Carnaby Street café. I’ve always enjoyed swimming, but at the time I had set my sights on a particularly Big Swim, so I reached out to anyone who could tell me about Big Swimming. Among the different blogs and swim-y social media groups, my search turned up Bertie Portal, King’s Speech actor, so I was meeting him for a coffee.
After talking about Big Swimming at length, we turned to a different type of swimming: less battling across sub-zero seas from country to country, more localized and reciprocal. A type of swimming more about being somewhere than getting somewhere else.
I was taking things pretty seriously at the time (in preparation for my Big Swim) so I noted down the names of each swimmable river, quiet beach and hidden Cornish cove he mentioned. Like many wild swimmers, Bertie travels with trunks and towel in the boot, just in case an inviting patch of water presents itself.
At some point he will have mentioned Waterlog, by Roger Deakin: the book rightly recognized as joint fountainhead and bible of wild swimming in the United Kingdom. Then Bertie mentioned Charles Sprawson and his much less succinctly-titled Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero.
I now know of Haunts as a strange, swim-y, cult book. In it, Sprawson works his way through every writer or artist to have ever so much as mentioned swimming. Through the eccentric swimmers who commit their lives to rivers, lakes and seas, Sprawson comes to understand the role of swimming in cultures as disparate as Weimar Germany and Japan’s Samurais. Like a conspiracy theorist he connects rough sea shingle to the class of boarding-school boys imposing themselves on politics to this day; he draws a line from octopus porn to waterfall swimming. Perhaps his greatest achievement is not that he includes so much, but that his connections, even at their most strained, are always persuasive.
Haunts is a catalogue, a library and a personal story of Sprawson’s swimming life. It’s unwieldy and uncategorizable. Like your favorite English teacher who never quite stuck to the syllabus, it’s a dying breed. It’s nigh on impossible to imagine a book like Haunts being published today and yet—in his own way—Sprawson laid the ground for the massively popular renaissance of “blue” nature writing we enjoy today. For Ella Foote, swimmer and editor of the Outdoor Swimmer Magazine, it is the “go-to swim book” over the many great “watery reads” filling up bookstores today.
The conviction that Sprawson’s own swimming—in Greek springs, “flooded subterranean vaults” of Karachi, India and (most heroically) across the Hellespont between Europe and Asia—might make interesting reading makes Haunts undoubtedly the forebear of its much more popular younger brother, Waterlog.
Sprawson’s understanding of water as site of physical and cultural healing anticipates a whole sub-genre of nature cure writing, but most clearly Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun. His understanding of watery obsession, of swimming as return to an idyllic childhood before suffering, sees its fruition in The River by Olivia Laing. Its completionist, collector’s impulse is carried on in Anna Iltnere’s popular social media channel Sea Library.
Haunts is an understated behemoth of blue books.
But no, when Bertie brought it up I hadn’t heard of it. It might have been a queer book, Bertie can’t remember. I wouldn’t know about that. Worth a read, according to Bertie, in any case.
Without realizing at the time, I was collating a mental list of swimmer heroes in preparation for my Big Swim. Rowing across the Atlantic and taking on the English Channel, Bertie made a natural addition. I was ready for Sprawson’s book to fill out my list and I wasn’t disappointed. He begins with the stuff of legends: blond, long-limbed, Australian Olympian Murray Rose syncing his front crawl with Glen Miller’s In the Mood in a magical era when records would come crashing down by seven seconds at a time; Captain Matthew Webb swimming breaststroke for 22 hours from England to France.
Haunts of the Black Masseur quickly turns into something different. In the same breath as gold medals and international glory, Sprawson turns to stories of voyeurism, bankruptcy and watery death. To him, “hero” is not so much a measure of bravery or do-goodism (necessarily) but of obsession. As he assembles his cast of heroes—from Byron and Goethe to Akira Kurosawa—he writes of the swimmer as protagonist: swimmers that have grown heroic in their own heads.
In his foreword he sketches out “a vague conception 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 […] introverted and eccentric individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” He writes, more than anything, of obsession.
Sprawson’s writing itself is a testament to his own species of obsession. Stylistically, each chapter is a case study in the embedded quotation, weaving what can only have been door-stopping sheaves of notes into lucid, unchecked prose. At the time of researching, Sprawson was lecturing in classics at what is now King Saud University in Saudi Arabia—a post he applied to while working as a lifeguard at a “dismal and dirty” Paddington pool. He writes as if his immense feat of compilation began as a way to kill time:
As there was nothing else to do I made extensive notes on everything I read.
The heat, the parched atmosphere and the non-existence of pools made me acutely aware of the slightest trace of water, any passing reference to swimming. […] Novels and poetry seemed to revolve around water and swimming, in a way that was quite out of proportion to the author’s intention.
The compulsion to find and include any detail of swimming leads Sprawson from seaside peep shows to Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon. All the big hitters are there: Homer, Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Arnold and Byron (a lot of Byron). But Sprawson is just as enthusiastic chasing down the smaller, forgotten names.
He was my first introduction as an English student to Arthur Hugh-Clough, an invaluable poet who slips between the cracks of Romantic and Victorian modules in most sensible syllabi. For all the airtime Byron gets in synopsis and blurbs, Sprawson dedicates as much energy to Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo): a relative artistic irrelevancy and indecipherable narcissist (“No one, he regretted, admired as much as he did the distinction of his mind, the boyish slenderness of his body”). Why? because Rolfe liked swimming enough to put it in writing.
Sprawson himself admits that his devoted research led him at times to the limits of “crazed irrelevancy.” But this supercomputer, ctrl+F ability leads Haunts to its most fascinating digressions. In a paragraph-long footnote to a fleeting mention of a Rupert Brooke poem “in which he assumed the identity of a fish” (“The Fish”), Sprawson takes it on himself to whip round every writer he knows with marine sympathies: “Borrow longed to be a fish as did Denton Welch on hot nights in China. Shelley returned crayfish to the Thames after buying them and [Benjamin] Haydon was astonished by the paradox of his cruel treatment of women, his consideration for fish. […] Corvo felt himself a crab. Kingsley ‘made principally of fish bones.’”
In this capacity Sprawson moves through millennia like a benevolent librarian, pulling out “submarine images” in Shelley’s poetry and finding in Gerard Manley Hopkins a swimmer-poet who “analysed waves as if he was enclosed within them.” For Ella Foote, again, “the detail of swimming history, literature and swimming legends is unlike anything that has been published since. It’s an education for anyone interested in the water.”
Nor does Haunts ever read like a list. For Steven Munatones, an international marathon swimming great and founder of the World Open Water Swimming Association, Sprawson’s chief achievement lies in “connect[ing] so many dots in the open water with all sorts of seemingly incongruent characters in history.” Rarely are the connections “readily apparent,” but even more rarely does Sprawson lose grip of his “tightly woven, magically rhythmic […] profoundly impactful prose.”
Like Foote and Munatones, Haunts finds its most outspoken fans at the crossroad of artists, writers, and swimmers. It counts Deakin and Liptrot as admirers, along with Christopher Woodward: director of the Garden Museum and only person to have swum 50 miles from Cornwall to the Scilly Isles. Not only is it undoubtedly clear that Sprawson himself was a swimmer, from the delight he takes in the most physical descriptions of water, he was also finely attuned (even 30 years ago) to the greatest threat the wild swimming community faces today.
Throughout Haunts, Sprawson nurtures an underlying melancholy, which comes to the surface when he describes those particular haunts which have been destroyed. On the south coast of India the “streams and waterfalls depicted in the Daniell engravings […] have been reduced by dams to a faint trickle,” just as at the Bagni di Lucca pool in Italy (frequented by Shelley and then Robert Browning), “the torrent has been reduced to a sluggish flow by a dam and its water stained a virulent green” from factory outflows and “the sewage pipes of local villages. Swimming is no longer advisable.” In a scene particularly familiar to river swimmers across the UK, Sprawson regrets of Clitumnus Spring that “the site has been acquired by an adjoining café and […] enclosed with wire fencing.”
It’s hard to gauge exactly what Sprawson’s tone is in these moments: resignation certainly, but not anger or the petition-wielding agitation of groups like Surfers Against Sewage today. After all, for most of the time Sprawson spent on Haunts, swimming was reduced to an act of remembrance in the Arab desert.
But reading the rest of the book makes it clear how keenly Sprawson will have felt the loss of such treasured blue spaces. For a man for whom water could be all things to all people, it was primarily a resource of complete spiritual liberation, however transient. This is nowhere clearer than his descriptions of Victorian beaches: where men could turn into fish and (even in the most prudish of societies) all could be single by the seaside.
Ultimately, the most compelling description of Haunts—its obsessive structure, unrivaled scope and quiet tragedy—comes from Sprawson himself. In his final swim of the book, he visits the ruins of ancient Roman baths in Gafsa, Tunisia, in the wake of French Nobel novelist, André Gide. A local emerges to show him round and they crawl together “down a tunnel above a sluice of ancient brickwork laid tongue-and-groove, which opened out on a labyrinth of subterranean chambers filled with the running streams of the spring, medicinal baths built by the Romans, where obscure figures lay and groaned in the darkness.”
It’s all there: the rabbit hole obsession, the digressive “chambers” of knowledge and the scores of “obscure figures” uncovered by research and revitalised by Sprawson’s golden-touch prose. In one swim there is the sense of ravishing adventure and of uncomplicated male companionship that runs throughout Haunts.
Benevolently, Sprawson allows us to enjoy this last swim fully before landing a final note of dejection: “the medicinal properties of the place had been diminished by the odours of some lavatories installed in the far corners. … And so, in the space of a few yards, the sacred springs of Gafsa, those laughing, chattering, amorous waters of the Romans that well up here in a river of warmth and purity, had been reduced to those of a Cloaca Maxima.”
In the 30 years since Sprawson wrote his only book, many more poet-swimmers have arrived, and many more watering holes have been destroyed. In one sense his task will have grown larger, the other tragically smaller. In his complete appreciation for the cultural and individual healing swimming can perform, Charles Sprawson understood exactly what we have to lose when we lose our shared blue spaces.