Saturday, 11 January 2020

Britain says "Farewell" old Prince of Wild Water Swimmers, Charles Sprawson.

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Charles Sprawson, who retained the air of a charming, handsome patrician, into his later years and has died at the age of 78, was born during the Second World War in the summer 1941 in Karachi, the capital of the Pakistani province of Sindh in British controlled India. He was the son of Ann and Eric, a RAF captain, stationed in India and he himself born there, since his father, Major-General Sir Cuthbert Sprawson, had served as an Honorary Surgeon to the Viceroy and Director of the Indian Medical Service.

In 1942 the family transferred to Britain where Eric joined Bomber Command as a Squadron leader and flew many missions over Germany and France before being shot down and bailing out over Caen and had walked through the town twice when it was full of Germans, before being picked up by D-Day forces. After being demobbed at the end of the War Eric took the family back to India where he served as Headmaster of Rajkumar College, Raipur.

Sport played a big part in the Sprawson family. Charles' mother had been an England Squash International player, while his father had played for Rugby against Marlborough at Lord’s in 1928.
Charles himself now learnt to swim in the College pool and also recalled :
"I used to swim in Indian rivers. Dark green, opaque, muddy rivers. I used to gaze down at these rivers, when we went by train over bridges. I always longed to be in the river below."

"Then father went to Benghazi on the North coast of Africa. Not far away was the old Greek city of Cyrene which lay beneath the waves and every Christmas we'd travel there and I'd swim down and almost walk among the old colonnades and porticos and it was my experiences there that made me somehow link swimming with the ancient classical world."

With the coming of India's independence in 1947, Eric's headmastership came to an end and the family again returned to Britain where Eric took up a post at the boys' public school, Repton, before returning, yet again, to the Sub-Continent and newly independent Pakistan, to become the first headmaster of Sargodha, a feeder school for the Pakistan Air Force.

Charles now stayed in London with his grandmother in Holland Park before being packed off as a boarder at Tormore Preparatory School, near Deal in Kent, founded in 1907 as a school 'for young gentlemen'. He captained his school team in cricket, rugger and football and absorbed a classical education under the tuition of Myles Raven, brother of the novelist Simon Raven and was inspired by Gilbert Highet's 'Poets in a Landscape' with its visions of Arcadia.

When he was ten in 1951, Charles won a scholarship to Tonbridge Independent Boys' School, where he was, once again, a boarder and added squash and tennis to his sporting prowess and in 1959, he took up his place at Trinity College, Dublin, to read Classics. As a student he allowed himself plenty of time to enjoy travel and adventure, play squash for Ireland and take advantage of his dashing good looks to enjoy the company of the opposite sex. The writer Jeremy Lewis, a close friend at Trinity, recalled that Charles had a penchant for fixing companions with his penetrating blue eyes while at the same time interrogating them about their sexual exploits.

Having graduated in 1962 he stayed on for a further year to study for his Masters degree and then took himself of to a London which was just about to start 'swinging' and got himself a job as an attendant at a swimming baths in Paddington. His marriage to Anne Fenton in 1966 was followed by him answering a Latin advertisement in 'The Times' for a post as a lecturer in 'classical culture' at a University in Rijad, Saudi Arabia.

Now living in the Gulf with Anne and still in his twenties, he started collecting references to swimming in literature, perhaps in reaction to living in an arid environment and climate of extreme heat. On one occasion he demonstrated both his ability in diving and cool head, when a local stuntman was preparing to execute a death-defying circus feat of diving off a 30 metre cliff into a waterhole in front of awestruck spectators. While the stuntman was being swathed in protective bandages before the jump, Charles stepped forward in his swimming trunks and confidently executed the dive in front of the crowd. On another occasion he was arrested by a dessert patrol after being caught among the sand dunes dancing alone to the music of 'La Bamba' played on a portable gramaphone.

Back in Britain, in 1970, at the age of 29, he took up a job as the Director at 'Frost & Reed', an art gallery in Bristol and then in 1980 set himself self-employed itinerant art dealer, specialising in Victoriana. On visits to the Channel Island of Jersey, his car loaded with oil paintings, he stayed at the Prince of Wales hotel in Greve de Lecq located on the beach where he could swim before breakfast. Along with books, swimming was and remained at the heart of his life.

He had, for instance, spent much of his time on his trips to America, swimming up and down legendary Hollywood pools into which he had somehow insinuated himself. He was obsessed with swimming wherever Tennessee Williams swam, had read his 1946 short story, ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’, tracked down the baths of the New Orleans Athletic Club, where Williams swam and then met a black masseur and did the same, albeit with another masseur.

Charles' literary career began when he fell in with Alan Moss who persuaded him to write an article on the great German tennis player, Gottfried van Cramm, whose involvement in a homosexual scandal caused his persecution by the Nazis.

His old friend Jeremy Lewis painted a picture of him in these years : 'Irrespective of the weather or the occasion, he would be dressed in an open-neck shirt, a dark blue, sleeveless pullover, thick-ribbed corduroy trousers and gym shoes. An avid attender of literary parties, whether invited or not, he refused to adapt his clothing for even the grandest occasion.' He went on : 'A friend of Petra and mine, Charles had for years, swam silently in and out of our lives like a disconcerting, blue-eyed shark. A sportsman, a classicist and an authority on low life in Hamburg, Paris and Amsterdam.'

In emulation of Byron, while on holiday in Turkey with Anne and their 3 daughters, he swam the the Hellespont, the four-mile strait that connects Europe to Asia. On his first attempt “Within seconds of entering the water I was enveloped in waves and dragged sideways, but managed to cling to some rocks, from where I groped my way back to the shore, to the vast amusement of the passengers lining the decks of the departing ferry.”

He successfully completed the swim accompanied by one of his daughters, who, being young and blonde, received a little medal and certificate from the Turkish tug-boat captain supervising the crossing, while Charles got nothing. She declined, on another occasion, however, to accompany him across the estuary of the Tagus in Lisbon, also swum by Byron. This time he was picked up by the naval police as a suspected drugs smuggler.

It was after he had written another piece for the London Magazine in which he had interwoven unusual swimming lore about Byron, Rupert Brooke and Leni Riefenstahl with his own experiences that Jonathan Cape made the suggestion that he should write a full length book on the subject. To this purpose he met Jeremy and Alan Moss, who both referred to him as 'The Swimmer', in Rome with the aim to travel around for a few weeks in search of sacred pools and glowing Claudian scenes to provide research for a book about literature and swimming.

For inspiration, Charles had brought his copy of Highet's 'Poets in a Landscape' which set the lives and loves of 6 Roman poets against the idyllic pastoral scenes in which they grew up. Jeremy observed that 'Charles felt it his duty to immerse himself in any water with literary and mythological associations.' Charles systematically visited the Egarian Spring, where they found the Roman basin still intact, but the spring itself littered with rubbish and brightly coloured rags. At Horace's villa, Charles went in search of the Bandusian Spring and 'returned two hour later with his trousers plastered in mud to his thighs.' The waterfalls of the Villa Gregoriana smelt of sewage  and The waterfalls of the Villa Gregoriana had been turned off and Clitumnus, the most sacred spring, had a motorway running along one side.

In his book, 'Haunts of the Black Masseur : The Swimmer as Hero', published by Pantheon Books in New York in 1992 he wrote : 'I became passionate about swimming when a child in India and North Africa. In the course of writing my book I became aware that many others were similarly affected by swimming, most of them much more so than I. So I began to identify them from their characters and writings. They were usually misfits, idealists for whom water was a refuge from everyday life and swimming was a mystic, spiritual experience, an attempt in some cases to recover contact with the classical past, to get in touch again with a pagan existence. I tried to swim where they swam, particularly Byron.'

It was, and still is, a masterful work of cultural history in which Charles explored the meaning that different cultures have attached to water from classical Greece and Imperial Rome to nineteenth-century England and Germany and the States and Japan in the twentieth century. Literary heroes who were wild swimmers were brought to life : Byron leaping dramatically into the surf at Shelley’s beach funeral; Edgar Allen Poe’s lone and mysterious river-swims; Rupert Brooke swimming naked with Virginia Woolf; Hart Crane swallow-diving to his death in the Bay of Mexico.

It ranged across the windswept beaches of English seaside towns, Niagara Falls, the First World War landings at Gallipoli. It was informed by the literature of Swinburne, Goethe, Scott Fitzgerald and Yukio Mishima and the films of Reifenstahl and Vigo an and delved in and out of Olympic history.

The book received critical acclaim : JG Ballard called it 'an exhilarating plunge into some of the deepest pools inside our heads' and Iris Murdoch said ‘This splendid and wholly original book is as zestful as a plunge in champagne' and the Guardian 'A luminously romantic history of swimming.’ But it was 'The New Yorker' which identified that 'it is the submarine presence of Sprawson’s own personality which creates the book’s strangely mesmeric quality.'

As is so often the case, Charles was fĂȘted and then forgotten.

Then in 2004, when Charles was 65, Charles collaborated with Canadian filmmaker Jeff McKay to produce an hour long documentary which brought his classic book to life. The viewer was invited to accompany Charles as he swam the Hellespont, the Tiber, the English Channel and Antarctica. Jeff commented : "He had to swim the Tiber. Once it was crystal clear, but the cloaca maxima sewer has a lot to answer for – by the time Sprawson arrived, it was filthy. So that when he started to strip off, then dived in, even the boatmen paused mid oar and yelled a warning. On he went, his head bobbing up in the river amid a flotilla of used condoms. He was very sick afterwards, but he swam the Tiber."

Charles used the film to extol the beauty of the swallow dive : "The prolonged symmetry of the dive. The arms flung out like the spread wings of a bird or some mythological figure. I think the swallow is diving in its purest form. It's so superior, in my view, to the flicks and twists of modern diving, which are too fleeting and quick for the eye to follow."

Charles was struck by personal misfortune in the years that followed : in 2009, his wife Anne was killed in a car crash in Crete; Charles himself was treated for cancer of the throat. One bright spot was that he saw 'Haunts' receive a new lease of life when it was reissued by Vintage in 2013 with a new introduction from the writer Amy Liptrot. He worked on a second book, 'Among Jagged Tears' about Slovenian endurance swimmer,Martin Strel, but it in remained in draft form and in 2017 he said “I write slowly so my books take a long time…Of course, then I got ill." His illness was vascular dementia.

Senior Editor at Vintage Classics Nick Skidmore, who republished Haunts in 2018 said that Charles was "a true adventurer-author" and was "Exquisitely erudite, intrepid and charmingly self-assured - he seemed to have gracefully swallow-dived into the antiquity he so brilliantly brought to life on the page. His one and only book, the Haunts of the Black Masseur, radically altered what was possible with non-fiction inquiry, and paved the way for the recent revival in writing about swimming, not to mention nature writing. Haunts of the Black Masseur will endure as a modern classic – a monument to a writer whose passionate, searching spirit can never be exhausted."

In 2019 BBC Radio 4 made a poignant documentary about Charles' life in a nursing home entitled 'Searching for swimming pools' which was described as a 'portrait of lifelong obsession, the debilitating effects of dementia and the transformative power of swimming'. Producer Paul Smith, introduced Charles as he was then : searching for his words and wandering the corridors looking for swimming pools, opening doors in the hope of finding shimmering water to plunge into and Charles as he once was, fluent in language, a writer passionate about his love of swimming.

On hearing the news of his death his friend and fellow author Alex Preston, called him “a majestic writer, a brilliant mind, a great friend”, and 'Haunts of the Black Masseur' “the best book about swimming, perhaps the best book about any sport, ever written. hope that wherever Charles is now, he is doing what made him happiest – swimming.”

"The swimmer is a romantic figure who throws himself naked into something so mysterious to me - water. Swimming over great depth, naked, you seem vulnerable. It's the mixture of the unknown, danger, darkness and the envelopment by this black masseur."

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