Aspiring to a watery heroism – Essay by Nigel Jarrett

Nigel Jarrett is a former newspaperman and a double prizewinner as a fiction writer: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, published by Parthian, was praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and many others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. His debut poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, also from Parthian, was described by Agenda poetry magazine as ‘a virtuoso performance’. Jarrett’s first novel, Slowly Burning (GG Books) was published in 2016, as was his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (Cultured Llama Publishing). Templar is about to publish his three-story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy. Based in Monmouthshire, Jarrett writes for Jazz Journal, the Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Slightly Foxed, Acumen poetry magazine, and several others. His poetry, fiction, and essays appear widely. For many years he was a daily newspaper music critic, and now freelances in that capacity. When he can find time, he swims.


Aspiring to a watery heroism

by Nigel Jarrett

When I was learning to swim with my brother and his friend years ago, a Commonwealth backstroke champion was wind-milling up and down the pool. The swimmer was John Brockway and our teacher and his coach was Bill Cambray. He was working; we were playing.

I don’t know why we were the only four in the pool. Maybe a busy Cambray was fitting us in with coaching duties. Our parents had obviously paid for the lessons, which involved the three of us travelling six miles by bus to the baths. I do recall that après-swim refreshment in those days was a cheese roll and a mug of steaming Bovril, the beverage a putter of hairs on the chests of us boys.

By the time we three tyros had dog-paddled to the end of the pool with Cambray dangling some kind of safety pole in front of us, the blurred champion had churned his way to twenty lengths. It was the supreme example of inspiration on site.

I don’t even know why our parents thought it important that we should be able to swim: most of us taught ourselves in the local council’s outdoor ponds chlorinated by a man wearing elbow-length rubber gloves and carrying a large tin of white powder, which he cast on the waters after closing time like Millet’s The Sower.

Though I learned only the breaststroke – I’m still working my way towards a passable front crawl and backstroke – I’ve never deserted swimming as a form of exercise. My visits to the local leisure centre usually see me completing eighty lengths in just over an hour, which is a mile in old money, however slowly. I can relate to a mile in swimming terms: it sounds more like an achievement than however many metres it is to run. I’m also helped these days by ‘how to do it’ videos posted on the internet by the National Swimming Association; you get views in slow motion of an aquatic exemplar from back, above, front and beneath. The joys of technology!

At my age, there’s no way that swimming will restore an Adonis shape and musculature. But it makes me feel good, even when I realise the up-and-down motion is boredom spelled in capitals. Into rivers, chemicals from farmer’s fields dribble; in the sea, flotation impedes progress, and jellyfish lurk, as well as those fish that sink themselves in the sand and stick a needle into the water to spike the feet of unsuspecting bathers. Give me the indoor pool, preferably without a human swimming machine to show me up.

Well, I believed almost everything in that last paragraph until I read, on its publication in 1992, Haunts of the Black Masseur by Charles Sprawson. The title was intriguing, the author’s biographical vignette on the back cover a mere revision of the paper’s surface, like a perfect entry into the water after a perfect dive: Charles Sprawson studied at Trinity College, Dublin, deals in nineteeth-century paintings, and recently swam the Hellespont. Impressive, what with all those tankers squeezing through the gap that separates Oriental and Occidental (one assumes he took the shortest route across); but at least they wouldn’t be travelling as fast as a Commonwealth backstroke champion in training.

I treasure the book as one of those literary oddities: a singular exercise in obsession. I kept looking out for a further Sprawson title. None arrived. I just went on swimming after its example – almost a deification of the swimmer and diver – sometimes in places wilder than the municipal baths. Then, in February this year, I read the following headline in The Economist‘s review pages: Charles Sprawson Wrote A Celebrated Book: Then He Vanished. I could have told them that. Momentarily, I recalled an illustration from the book, of a Weimar high-diver, photographed in mid-flight against the skies by Kurt Reichert over eighty years ago and about to disappear from one element into another. Mr Sprawson, aged 76, was hospitalised in London, and bemoaning his dilatoriness in writing a sequel to that first book, still his only one. I can’t imagine what a follow-up would be like; I just hope it might have more examples of the ecstasy of taking to water: whether salt, fresh, or mildly chlorinated.

The book’s publication coincided with a campaign in my town to re-open the local lido. We were surrounded by them in the old days, before the arrival of what I’ve heard described as ‘Elfin Safety’, a means of protecting the delicate and mischievously charming among us against a playground environment unaccountably rendered perilous. When I and Mr Sprawson were young we used to climb trees, play on concrete, swim in rivers, scuff bare knees, and dab our cuts with iodine. Rivers weren’t as deep and fast-running as the Yarra, in Australia, in which a sixty-year-old Annette Kellermann is pictured in his book performing some sort of underwater ballet movement. ‘Come on in’, Ms Kellermann seems to be saying, a column of bubbles rising from her mouth to the surface. Swimming was something we did, like playing football on a piece of rough ground: it was play; it had no context; it was done before goggles were invented. We were aware, because we also went weekly to ‘the pictures’, of Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams, Hollywood film stars who’d managed to appear on the screen via unlikely story boards about swimming. Weissmuller, of course, was also a celluloid Tarzan, after fame as a champion swimmer, an athlete. Then again, but only in summer, we would enjoy days out or holidays at Barry Island and Porthcawl, on the south Glamorgan coast, where the sea was briny, if a tad grey and opaque.

By the time Sprawson’s book came out, I was still swimming but not regularly and not for the unselfconscious joy of it. I could understand why some were put off by thrashing their way up and down a 25-metre pool, however cerulean its waters. In 1992, I began swimming for health reasons; it was preferable to the gym, which more than ever seemed like an outpost of the Inquisition, its punishments self-administered. Haunts of the Black Masseur brought all these disparate elements together, not only placing the reader in illustrious company but also endowing swimming with an almost mythical quality. Suddenly, immersion became a ritualistic experience, or one made it so. Most of all, it was pleasurable again. Floating, diving, swimming: they were all raised in stature. One even began to lose weight, a peculiarly twentieth-century achievement but really a bonus.

Sprawson’s book reminds us that bathing has luminous antecedents. In the 1800s, the English believed it to be an instrument of moral and social reform. The Japanese swimmer was once an icon of samurai pride and nationalism. In America and Germany swimming came to signify escape. And the author cites many examples of water and one’s communing with it as an enveloping presence: Byron racing towards the breakers at Shelley’s beach funeral; Rupert Brooke swimming in the buff with Virginia Woolf in water ‘smelling of mint and mud’; and Edgar Allan Poe’s mysterious addiction to swimming in rivers on his own. For Byron, swimming was a mania. The Byronic Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, who bathed ‘voluptuously’ in the river Jordan, swam often in the Nile while his servants slapped the waters with oars to keep the crocodiles at bay. There was always something slightly potty about these aficionados, not least the immortal Captain Webb, who dared defy the lethal vortex below Niagara Falls. The madness is exemplified by Poe’s belief that the diver expressed the uncontrollable urge to self-destruction inherent in us all. Well, he spoke for himself as far as I’m concerned.

Perhaps, and at its most congenial on a good day, swimming can, in Swinburne’s words, transport us to ‘another form of life’. But it would be a recent phenomenon. For centuries, swimming in Britain was rare and sporadic. ‘Only those able to rise above popular superstition felt free to enter the water,’ Sprawson writes. Spectators were amused when in 1726 Benjamin Franklin stripped and plunged into the Thames, making his way from Chelsea to Blackfriars. Although philosophy tells us that every time we dip our feet into a river it’s a different river, explorers have been fascinated to discover waterways that feature in the literature of antiquity; for example, Richard Chandler’s visit to Greece and Asia Minor in the 1760s allowed him to indulge a fascination with the stream of the Ilissus, into whose sacred waters Socrates and his disciple Phaedrus had dipped their naked feet as they conversed. Sprawson’s is a veritable litany of how literature is suffused with the urge to take a dip, from Scott Fitzgerald’s aptly named Dick Diver in Tender is the Night, which traces the moral disintegration of ‘an incomparable swimmer’, to Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves, in which the author celebrates his newly-discovered love of swimming in transposing the Hellenistic idyll of Daphnis and Chloe to the Japanese island of Kamijima.

It’s interesting to note, as a photo of the Sutro Baths in San Francisco in 1900 illustrates, how much Sprawson’s characters were swimmers, not loungers. The Sutro is an almost industrial set of tanks and diving boards. No ‘leisure pools’ for their clientèle. My municipal pool is full-length, and the early-morning session begins at 6.30am, summer and winter. I can swim those eighty lengths in ninety minutes in the lanes reserved for fast and slow performers. No diving, though (Elfin Safety). I’ve read Haunts of the Black Masseur four times. On each visit to the pool I feel it inspires me, if only to the extent that in moving through a frictionless body of water, I’m in good company. I hope Charles Sprawson bobs to the surface soon to extend it for me. Reading his book is just like swimming itself, even at my non-heroic level.


Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero, by Charles Sprawson (Faber). Pic by Artem Verbo


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