Of obsessive swimmers

Charles Sprawson’s book 'Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero', written nearly three decades ago is a pioneering effort, combining literature, cultural and sporting history with autobiography, a genre that is popular today, opening a window to a private passion while dealing with larger issues that are universal.

Australian swimmer Dawn Fraser, who in 1962 became the first woman to swim the 100 metres in less than a minute, once claimed she could have broken every record in the book if allowed to swim naked.   -  Getty Images

The loneliness of the long distance runner is nothing compared to that of the long distance swimmer. One accepts that purely on faith, since neither activity comes naturally or easily to me. Or, at all, in fact. In school, where there was an excellent swimming pool and an adequate if bored instructor (and swimming was part of the school week, for about an hour and a half every Monday), I turned my back on it, opting to play football instead. They should never have given us that option.

I know about the obsessive swimmers in literature: Byron, Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe, Tennessee Williams, and, closer to our times, Iris Murdoch and Vikram Seth who swam in the Serpentine in the cold of winter (backstroke, he has told us). John Cheever called swimming the “apex” of his day, and even wrote a memorable short story, ‘The Swimmer’. Shelley drowned in a boating accident during a storm in the Gulf of Spezia, aged 29.

For the poet Paul Valery, his “sole pastime, only sport, was the purest of all: swimming…. I discover and recognise myself here… My body becomes the direct instrument of my mind, the author of its ideas...” This quote is from Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson, one of the quirkiest and passionate and fascinating books on sport. And obsession. It is a reminder that sport need not always be competitive to leave its impression in the minds of those who love it. Sprawson, who learnt to swim in India (he later taught the Classics in West Asia) also swam the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) like Byron did. Early on he writes of swimming — something that applies to all sports — that “rhythm reduces effort.” Swimming in the ancient world, and later as a sport at the Olympics seems a natural progression. But there’s swimming and swimming. In the wild, and in lanes. Clothed and unclothed. The Australian Dawn Fraser once claimed she could have broken every record in the book if allowed to swim naked.

Nudity, says Sprawson, originated at the ancient Olympics when a swimmer, Orsippus, dropped his loin cloth and thus gained a clear advantage.

About another obsessed swimmer, the author writes, “In the middle of the Russian winter, Alexander Pushkin would rise early, run down to the river, break the ice with his fist and plunge into the freezing water.”

The philosopher Wittgenstein, drew an interesting analogy between swimming and philosophy: “Just as one’s body has a natural tendency towards the surface, and one has to make an exertion to get to the bottom — so it is with thinking.”

Sprawson’s book, written nearly three decades ago is a pioneering effort, combining literature, cultural and sporting history with autobiography, a genre that is popular today, opening a window to a private passion while dealing with larger issues that are universal. Meanwhile, it is no consolation personally to know that Shelley didn’t learn how to swim, nor did Caligula.

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