I’ve never been a wild swimmer. [Perhaps I’ve never been a wild anything ?] But swimming was part of my childhood. In the mid and late 1950s, we went, usually with my father and older brother to a variety of swimming pools. Some were municipal indoor baths, most often a 25 yard pool with greenish water and lots of white tiles. Wandsworth Baths, where we went from primary school, sited next to the polluted river Wandle and opposite Young’s Brewery, whose beer had not yet been ‘discovered’ by CAMRA, was not atypical. The baths at Bradford-on-Avon, where my grand-parents lived, next to the river Avon, were similar. And also one of the several pools in nearby Bath. Which also housed the more distinctive Cross Bath, a small oval shaped pool sourced by warm spring water. The British weather limited opportunities for outdoor pools. St George’s Park in Wandsworth was the nearest. The Surbiton Lagoon, built in 1934, off the Kingston By-Pass, was a more self-consciously 1930s experience. Guildford Lido, where we only ever went once, was a similar between-the-wars creation. The water in the outdoor pool at Batheaston was always cold. And so it was at Weston-Super-Mare, a wind-swept, salt-water pool, complete with high diving boards, a stone’s throw from Weston’s enormous sandy beach. When the tide goes out the water retreats halfway to Cardiff.
Stopping on our way north last month at Muir of Ord has occasioned this burst of nostalgia. It could well pass as a one-horse town. Though no horse was in evidence. But it has a wonderfully old-fashioned charity shop. Where I bought for 50p a perfectly decent copy of Haunts of the Black Masseur by the eccentric Charles Sprawson. Republished by Vintage in 2018.
Sprawson’s book begins with memories of his exotic and peripatetic upbringing. He was born in Karachi, then part of British India, during the Second World War, and his father was a colonial headmaster, first in India and then in Libya. Sprawson writes of bathing in the “flooded subterranean vaults” of the palace of the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, who was a pupil at his father’s school, and later among the sunken Greek ruins of Cyrene in North Africa. After being educated at Tonbridge and then at Trinity College, Dublin, he worked as pool attendant at the Dorchester Baths, Bayswater, and then took up an appointment [the job was advertised in Latin in the personal column of The Times] teaching classics at the University of Riyadh.
An early chapter in the book deals with swimming in Greek and Roman culture. For the Greeks water possessed magical, mysterious, and sometimes sinister properties. There was a spring that could make you mad, another that could make you teetotal for life. In another Hera renewed her virginity every year. The baths built by the Romans in Britain were the last to be built in this country before the Industrial Revolution. In Rome alone there were over 800 public baths. some of them able to accommodate over 1,000 people. Almost all the Roman emperors built baths. The Baths of Diocletian were built by Christians over seven years; and those who were still Christian on its completion were put to death. Many of the Baths became the haunts of homosexuals and voyeurs. Those who were genitally well endowed apparently evoked applause from fellow bathers ! But after the fall of Rome, water lost something of its allure, and began to be thought of as a breeding ground for rats, a source of plague and of disease.
Writers and swimmers
For several centuries, Sprawson claims, there are few instances of swimming in England. Few people swam in rivers, and virtually no-one swam in the sea. In 1689 mention is first made of Parsons’s Pleasure, the naked-bathing place on the river Cherwell in Oxford. From the middle of the 18th century young aristocrats were embarking on the Grand Tour, and enthusiasts were encouraged by classical writers to trace the routes of ancient springs and rivers. For Shelley the inspiration behind his swimming was essentially classical; he was given to reading Greek texts by waterfalls, and was absorbed in the myths of Narcissus and Hermaphrodite. He had never learned to swim at Eton, and was drowned in the sea off Viareggio, with a volume of Sophocles in his hand.
Close to where Shelley drowned there is a plinth dedicated to ‘Lord Byron, Notable English Swimmer and Poet’. Byron, who swam in Scotland in his youth in the Dee and the Don, and then at school at Harrow, was extraordinarily proud of his swimming. Leigh Hunt’s first view of Byron was of him swimming in the Thames “rehearsing the part of Leander under the auspices of Mr Jackson the prizefighter”. Byron also swam frequently from Ravenna and in Venice where he was known as ‘the English fish’. [In 1933 his quasi-descendant, Robert Byron, swam at the Venice Lido, in “water that tasted like hot saliva , and cigar ends floated into one’s mouth”.] The self-styled Baron Corvo, attracted by the warm water and the naked boys, swam half a dozen times a day in Venice.
In emulation of Byron, Sprawson flies toTurkey to swim the Hellespont. His first attempt is a failure. But his second attempt, swimming with his daughter, is successful. And his daughter is presented with a purple-ribboned medallion and has her photo taken for the local paper. Sprawson also follows Byron in attempting to swim across the Tagus estuary at Lisbon. This time without his daughter. But he is picked up by a patrol boat and they have never heard of Byron.
In the writing of Swinburne, Goethe, Poe, Coleridge, Clough and, most of all, Byron, swimming represents freedom and self-dissolution, a way of making contact with the classical past but also with earlier, simpler stages of life. Sprawson writes that the “sense of the classical Golden Age merged in the minds of these swimmers into the unruffled, radiant years of their childhood, whose loss so many of them mourned … ” For Swinburne swimming and flogging were the two experiences of Eton life that were most closely engraved on his memory. [And his backside ?] This erotic affinity with water was shared by French writers that include Flaubert and Paul Valéry.
The first Swimming Association in England was formed by a group of Old Etonians in 1828. Before a swimming pool was built in the 1950s, Etonians bathed in the river. Where the banks were long prowled by the louche and learned classicist Oscar Browning, dismissed by a brave headmaster. Cyril Connolly recalled walking hand-in-hand to the bathing places as one of the most intense experiences of Eton days, experiences that haunted his later life and doomed him to permanent adolescence.
After he acquired lodgings close to the Vicarage in Grantchester, Rupert Brooke became a regular swimmer in the river Cam. He often bathed at night, like Byron, above the sluice-gates by the light of a bicycle lamp. It was here that he swam naked with Virginia Woolf, in dark water “smelling of mint and of mud”. Gallipoli was a swimmer’s war. Brooke never had a chance to swim the Hellespont, but he enjoyed swimming several times at the Dardanelles before he died.
The wider world
A later section deals with Nordic swimming: with the ascendancy of the Swedish divers at the 1900 Paris Olympics; with the revolutionary camerawork of Riefenstahl’s Olympische Spiele, filmed at the Berlin Olympics of 1936; at the place of swimming in German Romanticism. And the penultimate chapter of the book charts the American Dream: Longfellow’s Hiawatha plunging “beneath the bubbling surface”; the paintings of Thomas Eakins; Jack London’s passion for boxers and swimmers. John Cheever’s short story ‘The Swimmer’, about a man deciding to swim home eight miles across his neighbours’ pools, was filmed with Burt Lancaster, who needed three months of swimming lessons to get over his mild hydrophobia. The great Sutro Baths of San Francisco were built in 1896; it was the largest glass-roofed building in existence, full of Palm trees, stuffed anacondas, a tropical beach, restaurants, and seven separate pools overlooking the ocean that held two million gallons of sea-water. The baths were dismantled in 1966.
The problem of trunks
Everyone swam naked until bathing grew in popularity in the middle of the Victorian age. When mixed bathing was allowed at Llandudno, it met with general disapproval. Marie Lloyd sang: “Belle, along with Beau, went swimming in a throng/A terrible thing, but a regular thing on the naughty Continong”. The imposition of any form of clothing was strongly resisted in some quarters. The reserved Francis Kilvert, as a young curate, records in his diary how on holiday in Weston-super-Mare people were swimming naked. Which encouraged him to do the same the next morning. “There was a delicious sense of freedom in stripping in the open air and running naked down to the sea …” Two years later however in the more respectable resort of Shanklin on the Isle of Wight, he discovered he had to adopt the “detestable habit of bathing in drawers. If ladies don’t like to see men naked, then why don’t they keep away from the sight”.
It reminds me that in Jonathan Coe’s book The Rotters’ Club, Benjamin Trotter, as a sixth-form schoolboy, offers up a swift prayer when he realises that he has left his swimming things at home. And thereby risks having to swim naked. When a pair of trunks materialise in the changing rooms unexpectedly he becomes a Christian believer. Until a more louche explanation is revealed. I had a similar experience in my first year at CH, when my trunks went missing. So I had to swim naked in swimming classes for a few weeks. It might have scarred me for life. But amazingly it is a painless memory. And I have no scar tissue.
I first encountered the name of Charles Sprawson in Kindred Spirits by Jeremy Lewis, erstwhile publisher and commissioning editor for The Oldie. Sprawson and Lewis were friends from university. Jeremy Lewis writes: “Charles had for some years swum in and out of our life like a disconcerting, blue-eyed shark, a sportsman, a classicist, and an authority on low life in Hamburg, Paris, and Amsterdam. He had, after leaving Trinity, Dublin, taught classics at a university in Saudi Arabia, where he was arrested by the Desert Patrol for dancing alone and naked among the sand-dunes to ‘La Bamba’ on a portable gramophone, and upstaged a bandaged and goggled Stuntman by strolling up, towel on his arm, and casually diving ninety feet into a waterhole – a regular occurrence as far as Charles was concerned …”.
Haunts of the Black Masseur is the only thing Strawson wrote, except for an article about the German pre-war tennis player von Cramm, commissioned by Alan Ross for the London Magazine. It is a weird and wonderful book, which attracted a bit of a cult following in the UK and in the States. And was perhaps the precursor of Roger Deakins’ highly entertaining book Waterlog. I greatly enjoy dipping into both books. But I still have no real desire to plunge into the nearest loch.