Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero
by Charles Sprawson
Pantheon, 307 pp., $22.00
I am not in the athletic sense a keen swimmer, but I am a devoted one. On hot days in the Oxford summer my husband and I usually manage to slip into the Thames a mile or two above Oxford, where the hay in the water meadows is still owned and cut on the medieval strip system. The art is to draw no attention to oneself but to cruise quietly by the reeds like a water rat: seeing and unseen from that angle, one can hear the sedge warblers’ mysterious little melodies, and sometimes a cuckoo flies cuckooing over our heads, or a kingfisher flashes past. Very poetical. And how much more so than a swimming pool, which is just a machine for exercising in.
I fancy Mr. Sprawson would agree with me about this. Packed with fascinating tales of swimming exploits in history and literature, and with accounts of immersion in lochs, fjords, straits, and torrents all over the world, his splendid and wholly original book is as zestful as a plunge in champagne. Alan Ross published the short piece with which it began in his London Magazine; and Mr. Sprawson called on me and on other writers to see if we had anything interesting to tell him about our swimming experiences. His own stories, and those of his friends and family, turn out to be far more interesting. Tutored by the captain of a Turkish pilot tug, he learned how to swim the Hellespont, making allowance for tide and currents, and on his final successful crossing he was accompanied by his daughter. Rather unfairly, I thought, the Turkish skipper gave her a little medal and certificate, while her father had to be content with his own personal sense of achievement. While the experience of total immersion should be, like baptism, a rite of joyful equality, it must be admitted that to be young and blonde and beautiful is just as much of a social advantage in the water as it is everywhere else.
Having graduated in the Bosphorus, like Byron, Mr. Sprawson went on to tackle the Tagus estuary at Lisbon, a much more demanding swim as it turned out, and one endangered by giant tankers as well as unpredictable tides. Normally he is not fussy, as I am not myself, about the quality of the water he swims in; although all bathers would of course prefer a green pure foaming element to a stagnant one. But the pollution in the Lisbon estuary was too much for him, and together with the tides and the tankers it forced him to abandon the swim. No less than the hero on dry land, the hero in the water can be as distinguished by glorious failure as by success. Unguided by Hero’s torch, Leander failed to make it one night across the Hellespont; and his distraught inamorata is said to have plunged in to share his fate. Women can be heroes in the water as much as men; but I …