Members of the book trade are supporting author Charles Sprawson with a fundraising iniative to raise money for care fees, as Vintage prepares to reissue his “cult swimming classic” Haunts of the Black Masseur.
Spawson’s agent David Godwin, his original editor Nicholas Pearson, now at 4th Estate, and author Alex Preston have joined forces with others in the literary community to ensure the 76-year-old Sprawson, who has serious health problems, is supported. Preston has already raised almost £2,000 through crowdfunding for his swim across Hellespont, in homage to Sprawson who also undertook the four-mile strait that separate Europe from Asia.
Described as “charming" and "Byronic”, the Pakistan-born author has only written one book, Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, originally published in 1992.
Following a re-issue in 2013, Vintage will release a new edition of the book later this month featuring an introduction from Amy Liptrot, who describes Sprawson’s book as having “led the way” for many swimming-related titles of recent years, with an accompanying publishing party also planned to honour the writer.
Preston has championed Sprawson’s book since discovering it at university and last year discussed the impact of the book on his life, on popular podcast “Backlisted”, which aims to “old books back to the surface”. “It's the best book about swimming ever written,” Preston said on the programme.
Haunts of the Black Masseur is a book that he “presses on people”, he said. “I always have more than one copy in my house because I worry I will give away my first edition… It is one of the props of my life and played such a role in what I do and what I’m interested in,” he said on the podcast.
John Mitchinson, Unbound co-founder and co-host of the "Backlisted" podcast, revealed he remembered coming across Haunts as a bookseller at Waterstones. “Cape made the hardback look so beautiful (a Pete Dyer classic using an image of diver by Leni Riefenstahl), and it was quite unlike any of the non-fiction around at the time,” he told The Bookseller. “Personal, scholarly, deeply original and compelling… Haunts remains a completely original book, perhaps the first in style of personal, discursive non-fiction which is now piled high on bookshop tables - Robert McFarlane being just the most obvious example.”
Mitchinson’s wife, Rachael Kerr, was publicity director at Cape at the time and described him as “suave, enigmatic, driven and endlessly charming”. Kerr, now editor-in-large at Unbound, told The Bookseller: “We all fell in love with Charles because he was so amusing and charming and diffident. It is one of the most joyous books I have ever worked on. I didn’t know about his health problems until we did the podcast. I always wondered, ‘What is he writing now?’...It is amazing to hear about what Alex is doing.”
The "Backlisted" podcast aired in July 2017 and helped re-ignite interest in Sprawson’s book.
Preston believes that Sprawson’s literary contribution should be valued for its merit rather than for the volume of books published. “He took a long time writing this book and spent many years on it – there is a literary lifetime in this book,” Preston said. “I think Charles's position is an illustration of how precarious life has become for so many writers. He did do some journalism on the side, and brought some money in by selling paintings, but the book was the centre-piece of his life and he didn't really look beyond the writing of it.
"He lived at the tail end of a time when writers were still able to make a decent living from a handful of books. That's obviously no longer the case and I imagine that there are many 'Charleses' that we don't hear about who grew up in a world that valued great literature and now find themselves scrambling to make ends meet.”
Haunts of the Black Masseur and Alex Preston
Sprawson is currently contracted to Pearson to write a book for 4th Estate on Slovenian swimmer Martin Strel although it is not clear when it will be delivered due to the author’s health difficulties.
Preston hopes the ressuing of Haunts and accompanying party will make Sprawson realise how his book has been valued. “It is about knowing that people are rooting for his book and that we were intensely moved by it,” Preston said. “He will have people remembering him.”
Preston was inspired by Sprawson to take on the Hellespoint stretch as the gruelling swim is “one of the most brilliant passages” in the book. Pearson is also training for a 6.5 mile swim, inspired by Sprawson, in July next year across the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia.
David Godwin, who is still Sprawson’s agent 25 years on and regularly visits him, described Haunts as “one of the first swimming books and the start of a whole movement”.
Godwin told The Bookseller he is “thrilled” with the re-release of Haunts, which he hopes will further boost Sprawson’s popularity and Vintage describes the title as a “cult swimming classic”.
Nick Skidmore, editor at Vintage Classics said: “Haunts was a debut that came from nowhere – Charles Sprawson, its athletic, effortlessly enigmatic author seemed to have stepped out of a long-gone literary era – yet suddenly the book found its way everywhere. Booksellers adored it, critics feted it for its brazenness, Iris Murdoch described reading it as ‘zestful as a plunge in champagne’, and J G Ballard named it his book of the year; ‘an exhilarating plunge into some of the deepest pools inside our heads.’ Despite long–feted plans for a second book, Haunts tragically remains Charles Sprawson’s only publication to date.”
Skidmore revealed that Vintage was keen to capitalise on the increasing popularity of books about water. “With the rising tide of books that chart our obsession with bracing the elements, we wanted to ensure that Charles’ contribution to the genre was recognised, and so the time seemed right to re-issue Sprawson’s book in a bold new look for May,” he said.
The new edition of Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero will be published by Vintage on 31st May retailing at £8.99 in paperback.
To contribute to Preston’s fundraiser, visit this website.