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Haunts of the Black Masseur is a dazzling introduction to the great swimming heroes: Byron leaping into the surf at Shelley's beach funeral, Hart Crane, swallow-diving to his death in the Bay of Mexico, Ulysses, Leander, Weismuller and many more. In lively prose bursting with anecdote, Charles Sprawson leads us into a watery world populated by lithe demi-Gods - one that has obsessed humans from the ancient Greeks and Romans, to Yeats, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and David Hockney. Original, enticing and dripping with references to literature, film, art and Olympic history, this cult swimming classic pays sparkling tribute to water and the cultural meanings we attach to it.

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Book Details

ISBN: 9780099223313
ISBN-10: 0099223317
Format: Paperback
(198mm x 130mm x 21mm)
Pages: 336
Imprint: Vintage
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 17-Jun-1993
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


UK Kirkus Review » All too rarely does a book of striking originality float to the surface; this is one. Sprawson, a swimming devotee, has written a truly remarkable study that investigates humankind's often ambivalent relationship with water. Sprawson's marvellously mellifluous prose is so persuasive it should turn even the most resolute landlubber into an eager convert. The Greeks were celebrated for their worhsip of water, the Romans took this one step further, with over 800 pools available to the Roman citizen. Subsequent cultures shunned the water before its attraction for the Romantics brought it back into fashion. The way enthusiasm for swimming has ebbed and flowed through time is fascinating and the book is populated with a vast array of colourful characters who bring this history vibrantly to life. Shelley and Byron, Tennessee Williams and Scott Fitzgerald are just a few of the literary greats who grace these pages, a short story from Williams inspiring the ususual title. Equally riveting are the stories of lesser known personalities, people like the adventurous Captain Charles Webb who drowned trying to cross the Niagara Falls and Annette Kellermann, a champion swimmer and peformer of underwater ballets, both of whom were instrumental in shaping bathing as a popular pastime. Sprawson's own obsession with the water threads its way beguilingly through the narrative. Invoking an eclectic and astonishingly wide range of references from classical antiquity to contemporary culture and stretching from Japan to Hollywood, this portrait of the swimmer in all his infinite guises transforms a potentially specialist subject into something of universal appeal. Read this and head straight for the nearerst pool. (Kirkus UK)

US Kirkus Review » One of the strangest and most stylish books of the year: a cultural history of swimming, by a dealer in 19th-century paintings. Sprawson learned to swim as a boy in India, at a school where his English father was headmaster. He still swims today, and one of the many pleasures of this aquatic rhapsody is his occasional foray into autobiography, as he struggles across the Hellespont (now clogged with ships) in homage to Byron, or paddles in pools where Tennessee Williams once trolled the waters. Like his natant heroes, Sprawson belongs to a singular society, "divorced from everyday life, devoted to a mode of exercise where most of the body remains submerged and self-absorbed." In the 19th century, the British were the champions of this worldwide fraternity, favoring the breast-stroke and using frogs as their model for kicking. Sprawson dives lustily into the English tradition of the poet as water sprite, which reached its apotheosis with Byron, who exemplified muscular, endurance swimming, and Shelley, who was obsessed with water but never learned to float and who died by drowning. Rupert Brooke swam as a celebration of youth; for Baron Corvo, it was an expression of homosexuality. Meanwhile, across the great briny, Eakins's paintings, Whitman's poems, and London's tales Americanized the sport; later, it became a staple of southern prose as an expression of decadence or sexual release (Sprawson's title comes from a Tennessee Williams story and refers to an incident in a bathhouse). Swimming had its glory days in other nations, too, mostly those that celebrated physical prowess. In Germany, swimming became for Goethe, and later Leni Riefenstahl, a declaration of freedom and beauty. In Japan, it expressed the samurai ideal. But whether East or West, the swimmer is always "in a continuous dream of a world under water" - a poet of the deeps. Positively liquescent with brilliant images and insights. (Kirkus Reviews)

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Author Biography - Charles Sprawson

Charles Sprawson is an obsessional swimmer and diver who has swum the Hellespont.

Books By Author Charles Sprawson

Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson

Haunts of the Black Masseur

Paperback, February 2013