Sprawson makes a splash

John Bayley

  • Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero by Charles Sprawson
    Cape, 307 pp, £15.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 224 02730 1

Housman liked athletic records of all sorts and seeing them ‘cut’, or broken, although he does not himself seem to have been much of a swimming man. In the verses on Hero and Leander he develops a contrast, as often in his poetry: in this case, between a classic place and story and a decidedly northern atmosphere – the sputtering torch sounds Scottish and the ‘nighted firth’ freezing cold, like the Forth or Tay. After a night of love Leander will have a hard job on hand, as demanding as all the other human duties in Housman. But the verse is oddly tender too: perhaps because ‘heart’, the right word as well as, for him, a more decorous word than ‘breast’, gives the relation more depth than if it were just a marathon competition in sex and swimming.

The highly competitive Byron saw it in that light. After he had swum the Hellespont (‘Leander, Mr Ekenhead, and I did’), he noted that Leander’s ‘conjugal powers’ must have been a trifle exhausted, because the tide was so rapid and strong. He found it easier to swim all the way from the Lido to Venice and up the Grand Canal to his palazzo; and took pride in the fact that he was then still quite hale enough to eat a ‘piece’ and retire to bed with Boccacio and ‘a black-eyed Venetian girl’. On that occasion he had been competing in the swim with a bachelor friend, Alexander Scott, and the Cavalier Angelo Mengaldo, a former officer in Napoleon’s Army who claimed to have swum the Berezina under Russian gunfire. Mengaldo took to a gondola long before Venice was reached, and Scott gave up at the Rialto bridge.

If Byron’s lameness and sturdy seal-like physique both helped to make him a compulsive swimmer, endlessly competing with the powerful Trelawney, he does not seem to have shared the mystical feeling for water and immersion of other Romantic poets, notably the non-swimmer Shelley. Byron promised to teach him but never got around to it. It is an odd fact that many sailors in those days deliberately refused to learn (Trelawney, who had been in the Navy, was an exception), maintaining that the hazards of their calling made a prolonged death after shipwreck unacceptable, a point which Byron noted in Don Juan (‘And ever and anon the bubbling cry/Of some strong swimmer in his agony’). In this enchanting book Charles Sprawson comments on the romantic tendency to regard a watery plunge as the ideal therapy for romantic ills, for Sénancour’s ‘inexhaustible discontent, languor and homesickness’. Those words of Matthew Arnold, half yearning and half disapproving, imply the curious relation between romantic swimming as balm and symbol of the death-wish, and public school swimming as it might be called – a bracing and brutal baptism to banish mollycoddling and drive morbid fancies out of youthful heads.

Swinburne managed to combine both attitudes, getting a masochistic pleasure out of being flogged by rough rocks and waves – off the Cumberland coast he came out streaming with blood from cuts inflicted by barnacles – but also regarding the sea as the mother whose caresses would calm his frenetic disposition. Together with Watts Dunton and George Borrow – then over seventy – he would bathe in the Putney ponds ‘with a north-east wind cutting across the icy waters like a razor’. No towels of course: Borrow would run about the grass like an elderly dog, shaking himself to get dry. For Coleridge and De Quincy, immersion was a more metaphorical matter: ‘silent, with swimming sense’ Coleridge stands in his lime tree bower, but for Swinburne the great pool to plunge into was opium itself. He speaks of drowning in it, as Leopardi loved the idea of a haven in the sweet sea of melancholy contemplation.

Mr Ekenhead was a Naval officer as Trelawney had been, but probably of a more sober and reliable type, which may have been just as well. After physically assaulting an unpopular lieutenant Treawney went absent, by his own account, while still a midshipman, deserting his ship in the Seychelles and living with an exotic lady called Zela who was always clad in striped cotton ‘like a pilot fish’. Both were obsessively aquatic and Zela ended up eaten by a shark. Undeterred, Trelawney went to live at Usk in Wales with his new wife Augusta, where he would sit all day in a lake reading a book. In 1833 he visited Niagara, where he swam the river below the falls, swimming, so he says, ‘without much difficulty’ through the notorious whirlpool in which the Channel swimmer Matthew Webb was to drown nearly fifty years later. ‘Captain Webb the Dawley man’ is celebrated in a Betjeman poem:

We saw the ghost of Captain Webb,
Webb in a water sheeting
Come swimming along in the old canal
To the Saturday evening meeting.

He was the first man to swim the Channel in 1875, also without much difficulty, and his fame persuaded him to have a go at Niagara and earn perhaps as much as ten thousand dollars. His new wife and baby accompanied him to America, but he did not tell her what he proposed to do, only remarking as he entered the river in his red silk costume that he was sure something generous would be done for her if anything went wrong. He was never seen alive again.

Webb’s fame shows how much swimming had become a craze – above all, in England – and so does his costume. The question of what if anything to wear in the water exercised everybody’s minds, particularly those of the authorities, now contending with innumerable public baths, several in the Thames at London in the summer, as well as the new beach resorts. A Quaker had invented ‘modesty hoods’ for bathing machines, from one of which Jane Austen went in at Lyme in 1804, observing in a letter to a friend that the sea water was so delicious ‘I stayed in rather too long.’ Resorts like Brighton boasted a permanent horde of elderly gentlemen with telescopes, and ladies began to wear voluminous cotton costumes which when wet had the advantage of clinging to the contours and becoming almost transparent. Not until after the first war did wool come in to make a brisk no-nonsense maillot, as worn by the Jantzen girl for ever diving in lights towards an unattainable pool on the Great West Road, observed by the narrator of A Dance to the Music of Time as he embraces another girl in the back of the car. Parson Kilvert on the Isle of Wight had been annoyed by complaints about his nude bathing, and your true romantic of either sex would have scorned to put anything on, although Mary Shelley had been prudish in the matter, while her husband and Claire Clairmont disported themselves in the Arno or the Gulf of Spezzia. Clough at Oxford bathed at Parsons’ Pleasure every morning through the winter, and in his splendid poem in hexametres ‘The Bothy of Tober Na Vuolich’ he describes a Highland torrent where among the granite boulders and green deeps ‘you are left alone with yourself and the goddess of bathing’.

The goddess was a great inspiration. Poe is said to have written ‘Helen, thy beauty is to me’ after seeing a lady on a beach, and perhaps to get over it he swam for miles up the James river against the tide. Pushkin, characteristically, took a more down-to-earth view of girls in rivers. When a friend objected that in his Byronic poem ‘The Captive of the Caucasus’ it was decidedly ungallant of the Russian officer not to attempt to save the Tartar girl who had freed him, after she had jumped in despair into a torrent, he merely remarked that he had swum himself in the rivers of the Caucasus and knew what they were like. But the most sober writers become filled with inspiration by a bathing scene. Even L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between waxes lyrical as he describes how his costumeless young hero has to watch from the bank as the giggling girls of the house party splash each other in their long linen bathing dresses, which undulate about them as they set out more purposefully into deep water.

And Charles Sprawson is inspired as well, scarcely able to contain his delight as he reels off records and events of swimming lore: the styles of Spartans and Samurai; German professionals beginning to beat English amateurs; the collapse of the American champions at the Los Angeles games of 1932 before a Japanese team headed by the eight-stone 14-year-old Kitamura. Japanese officials had photographed every aspect of Johnny Weismuller’s famous crawl, and perfected it for their own physique, as they had perfected other aspects of Western technology. Sprawson himself has swum the Hellespont accompanied by his daughter, who, being young and blonde, received a little medal and certificate from the Turkish tug-boat captain supervising the crossing, while he got nothing. She declined, however, to accompany him across the estuary of the Tagus, also swum by Byron, who used to turn negligently at dinner parties to his inscrutable servant and demand, ‘Fletcher, how far did I swim the other day?’ – always receiving a reassuring reply: ‘Ten miles, my lord,’ or ‘fifteen miles.’ One of the nice things about Byron was his lack of self-assurance. Trelawney, who sneered behind his back at the club foot, claimed always to let himself be beaten in their races, and Byron himself wrote to a friend that he would far rather swim the Hellespont again than have to extricate himself from a painful love affair. He used, he said, to make love as naturally as he swam, but now he preferred to lie passive and await the lady’s attack. It may be that the goddess of bathing appeals more strongly to those who, like Byron, are not very active seducers. Did Don Juan swim, or Casanova? No doubt they had no time.

The Tagus estuary was dangerous and dirty. A tanker – Andromeda’s sea-monster on a colossal scale, it was just as well Miss Sprawson was not present that day – threatened the swim and finally broke it off. But the author remained undeterred, for ever seeking lustrations pure or polluted, in Japanese waterfalls or the fabulous Roman pool of Gafsa in North Africa, in which huge blind fish, dedicated to the goddess Tanith, once nudged against the swimmers where green water shimmered over blue mosaic tiles. Now it is weedy and frog-infested, an Arab lavatory, but Gide loved it, and so did Norman Douglas and the magician Aleister Crowley. Although male love and sexual competitiveness swarm about the bather like gladiatorial shades, a contrasting impulse – Rupert Brooke’s at Granchester – wants to be free of all that, ‘like swimmers into cleanness leaping’. Far from reverent about his own watery infatuations, Sprawson is amused by the rich variety of incongruities involved. Lawrence despised the sight of Bertrand Russell in a bathing dress – ‘He’s all disembodied mind’ – at Garsington, but he was extremely reluctant to show himself in any state of undress, and insisted on Frieda wearing calico bloomers he had run up himself when she bathed in Mexico. Sprawson speculates that it was to assert her sexual freedom that Frieda, while on honeymoon with Lawrence, swam naked across an Austrian river, Hero to an unknown Leander, to offer herself to a dazed but compliant woodcutter on the further bank. A good story, but without the ring of truth undoubtedly to be heard in the words Lawrence hissed at Witter Bynner, who had suggested the Lawrences stripped and took a swim with him: ‘It’s what people will think!’ The joy of flouting what people will think animated E.M. Forster’s prim persona when he imagined the young men nude in a forest pool in A Room with a View, male naiads disturbed by envious or disapproving women.

In the Twenties the cult of swimming athletics made sexual display, especially in diving, seem unobjectionable. The Swedes invented the Swallow Dive, in which the body appeared to pause in the air, and at the turn of the century displays of it were already drawing enormous crowds. I believe it is now recognised as a sport as dangerous as boxing, causing haemorrhage in the frontal lobes of the brain, but as Zelda Fitzgerald remarked in her Southern drawl: ‘We don’t go in for conserv-a-tion.’ She and Scott had been daring each other to dive off higher and higher pinnacles of rock at Antibes, and their host noticed how frightened he was, and yet determined to follow her. The swallow dive was perfected by the diminutive American Desjardins, and immortalised in the Olympic film sequence of Leni Riefenstahl. I am delighted to find that Esther Williams, the swimming star of Forties and Fifties films, always scornfully refused to wear a bikini: those huge elaborate film displays with grottos, waterfalls and diving platforms featured costumes far more seductive than anything seen today. In 1914, A Daughter of the Gods showed Annette Kellermann setting a world record by escaping from her prison tower a hundred feet above the sea; and Jane habitually swallow dived into a jungle pool and the arms of Tarzan. The Kellermann record was broken four years later by a Solomon Islander, Alick Wickham, who managed 205 feet nine inches into the Yarra River in Australia, a record that not surprisingly still stands. He didn’t mind the height but was a little worried about hitting the further bank.

Art hastened to borrow such moments. In Aldous Huxley’s now barely remembered novel, After Many a Summer, a poor migrant family working in the orange grove below San Simeon, the dream castle of William Randolph Hearst, see a tiny figure dive off the battlements and vanish into the pool below. Like the Jantzen girl advert, it was the ordinary person’s dream of utopia. More recently, David Hockney’s scenes, and Alex Colville’s wonderful flock of schoolgirls diving in to begin a race, give, as it were, the view of the painter. Tennessee Williams, a fanatical swimming pool man, wrote about diving in Sweet Bird of Youth, and contributed a title for Charles Sprawson. The black masseur is a character in one of his short stories, but it also reminds us of that great aquatic picture The Creature from the Black Lagoon, with the saurian gill-man undulating in the depths as he follows the girl on the surface. The mythology of the swimming pool made a fitting comeback in Sunset Boulevard, where to own a pool is the summit of William Holden’s dreams of sexual and social success, until he is slain in hers by an ageing and jealous Gloria Swanson.

It symbolised love and death, as it did for the great Gatsby, and as the Hellespont and Hero’s tower had done for Leander. But in a sense the modern age has taken the sex out of swimming. Where are the eager old gentlemen with their telescopes now? Stepping indifferently over scrawny brown thighs as they pick their way along the sea-front. Worth remembering, too, that Leander did not swim the Hellespont to win a wager or break a record, or even to sport in the waves with an Esther Williams girl, but solely because it was the best and indeed the only way of paying a visit to the object of his affections.