Charles Sprawson remembered – the swimmer as hero

22nd January, 2020

Swimmers share their tributes to Charles Sprawson, swimmer and author

The author of Haunts of the Black Masseur has died at the age of 78. He had been suffering from vascular dementia as was documented in the BBC Radio 2 programme Searching for Swimming Pools (first aired last year and still available online).

Originally published in 1992, Haunts of the Black Masseur became a cult classic and paving the way for other swimming and nature books. It has found a wider audience as outdoor swimming grows in popularity and was republished in 2018. Haunts of the Black Masseur remains his only published work, but with it he leaves behind the legacy of a book that had a profound impact on everyone who read it and for anyone who met Charles Sprawson himself, memories of a charming passionate individual.

“The outdoor swimming world is full of generous, maverick, free spirited, people,’ says OSS Creative Director Kate Rew, ‘but even by those standards Sprawson came across as a wonderful original. His book was a gentle reminder that the swimming experience – and the obsession it often generates – is universal, shared by other humans throughout history and all over the world. A generous, insightful invocation of the human spirit, and what it means to swim”.

In tribute, OSS spoke to swimmers about the impact Charles Sprawson and his writing had on them.

“Charles was a true gentleman, revered in our family as he is in swimming circles. My Mother says she will never forget him doing jackknife dives off the springboard, into the pool of the prep school where his Father was headmaster. Mum must have been nine years old. My clearest memory of him is sitting in the Chelsea Arts Club about ten years ago, polite and charming but not really engaged until the topic turned to swimming, when he became intensely animated and interested.” Rosie Nottage, Charles’ niece, who swims with Wiltshire Wild Swimmers.

“Haunts of the Black Masseur came along at just the right time for me, when I had begun to swim more and more obsessively. It explained to me so brilliantly many of the reasons I swim, and the reasons centuries of people had swum before me. It’s easy to underestimate the levels of research in the book, which would have been impressive and unique even in the online age, but when you consider Sprawson did all this in a pre-Google era, it’s staggering. I think the other unique thing about the book is that it’s massively personal and passionate, but he somehow manages to leave his own ego out of it almost completely. Like almost all my favourite non-fiction books, the theme of it would never have sounded appealing or bankable to a publisher’s marketing department as a pitch, but it works, and he tells all these tales of swimming heroics and tragedies throughout the ages in a way that fits together seamlessly and feels like it desperately needed to be done”. Author Tom Cox, who writes about nature, folklore and cats (amongst other things) and is a passionate wild swimmer.

“In particular Charles Sprawson’s depiction of his swim with his daughter and Hellespont, the strait that separates Asian Turkey for European Turkey, is beautifully written and utterly inspiring. Yet the book is way more than just the first modern ‘swimoir’. The way it blends the writer’s escapades with nuggets from novel and history defined a trend in literary non-fiction. It is arguably the catalyst behind not just swimming classics like Roger Deakin’s Waterlog, but the work of nature writers like Robert Macfarlane”. Journalist and outdoor swimmer Ashley Norris.

“As a self-confessed lover of all things aquatic, for years I’d wondered why people (myself included) were not only inexplicably drawn to water, but how simply being in it lifted their spirits. Then twenty or so years ago a friend recommended I read Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson and suddenly, it all made sense. All the feelings I’d had about swimming, diving or just being immersed were crystallised. From the marble and gold Greco Roman palaces of bathing, Byron crossing the Bosphorous, fully-armoured Samurai swimming rivers with their war banners to Mark Spitz’s Olympic triumph, Sprawson relates this fantastic watery history with wonder and awe, and makes you feel like you are slotting into a noble tradition. Now I get it – all swimmers are heroes”. OSS Secretary Simon Kerslake, who can be relied upon to passionately recommend Haunts of the Black Masseur on Facebook, and at any other chance.

“I only became friends with Charles towards the end of his life, but I was lucky to spend time with him during several of the lucid oases that opened up in his illness, where we were able to speak about books and swimming, about his life and his plans for the future. Haunts of the Black Masseur left such indelible marks on me. As everyone knows who has read this glorious, joyful paean to the water and the body within it, it changes the way you look at the world. I didn’t really know how much I loved swimming until I met Charles and now I treasure the fact that every time I lower myself into a river, or stride into the sea, Charles is there with me. I’ve been enormously touched by the tributes that have come in following Charles’s death. The one that spoke loudest to me was from someone on Twitter who said: “Haunts of the Black Masseur carries within it one of life’s great messages: find something you love as much as Charles Sprawson loved swimming.” Alex Preston, journalist who interviewed Charles for the BBC radio documentary.

Justine Harvey, January 2020