Author Charles Sprawson dies, aged 78

Author Charles Sprawson dies, aged 78

Charles Sprawson, author of celebrated swimming memoir Haunts of the Black Masseur (Vintage), has died, aged 78.

Described as “charming" and "Byronic”, the Pakistan-born author wrote only one book, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, originally published in 1992 by Vintage which gained cult status. It was said to have influenced many of today’s current non-fiction and nature writers.

Author and friend Alex Preston paid tribute to Sprawson’s legacy, telling The Bookseller: "Charles Sprawson wrote a single book in his lifetime, but it was a book of astonishing depth, of enduring beauty. Far before wild swimming or swimming memoirs were a thing, Charles was out in the water dreaming of Shelley and Swinburne, of Captain Webb and Annette Kellerman. His book is a glorious fusion of nature writing, personal memoir and literary criticism. It is utterly sui generis and yet has inspired so many who've come after him. Charles was a warm and generous man, a dear friend and a keen critic."

He added: "He will be missed, but at least we have a book that is not only the best book about swimming ever written, but perhaps the best book about any sport. I intend to spend the coming days re-reading it and remembering one of the great English literary mavericks."

Sprawson's original editor at Vintage, Nicholas Pearson (now publishing director at Fourth Estate), told The Bookseller: "I have a photo of Charles in my kitchen, swallow-diving from a high cliff into a water hole in the middle of the Saudi Arabian desert. I look at it every day and smile. It encapsulates so much about him: his bravery and love of danger, his athleticism, his deep felt connection with water and with classicism. For me, Charles was always an elemental and Romantic symbol who seemed to exist in a parallel world. It was my great luck that the first book I ever edited was Haunts of the Black Masseur, his only book but a defining one about swimming and its meanings and our relationship with water. We became friends, and one of the themes of our friendship was Charles's constant apologising for not writing another book. He didn't need to. In many ways, Charles's whole life is in Haunts, even though, with his gentlemanly modesty, he rarely writes about himself in those pages. We will always have Haunts."

Pearson added: "That photo in my kitchen -- I've been told that off to the side and not in frame was a man on a camel applauding this great swallow dive. I feel desperately sad that Charles has died, but I'm with that man in the desert, applauding a great life." 

Senior editor at Vintage Classics Nick Skidmore, who republished Haunts in 2018, described Sprawson as "a true adventurer-author".

Skidmore told The Bookseller: "Exquisitely erudite, intrepid and charmingly self-assured - he seemed to have gracefully swallow-dived into the antiquity he so brilliantly brought to life on the page. His one and only book, the Haunts of the Black Masseur, radically altered what was possible with non-fiction inquiry, and paved the way for the recent revival in writing about swimming, not to mention nature writing. Haunts of the Black Masseur will endure as a modern classic – a monument to a writer whose passionate, searching spirit can never be exhausted."

To celebrate the release of the new edition in 2018, figures in the trade such as Preston joined forces to help Sprawson, who was based in London and suffering serious health problems. Preston, raised thousands through swimming across Hellespont, in homage to Sprawson who also undertook the four-mile strait that separates Europe from Asia.

Many paid tribute to the author in 2018 at the time of Vintage's republication. David Godwin, who was Sprawson’s agent for more than 25 years, described Haunts at the time as "one of the first swimming books and the start of a whole movement" while Rachael Kerr, who was publicity director at Cape in 1992, described Spawson as “suave, enigmatic, driven and endlessly charming".