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News > Deaths & Obituaries > SPRAWSON, Charles


You are warmly welcomed to leave a message below, share your memories and celebrate the life of Charles Sprawson, who we sadly lost in 2020

Died of pneumonia on January 6, 2020, aged 78.

The following obituary was published in The Times, in February 2020:

While filming an adaptation of his only book, Haunt of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, Charles Sprawson stripped to his swimming shorts on the banks of the Tiber and jumped in. Romans had once learnt to swim here with cork boards, but now they stared in shock as this singular Englishman sought to commune with his classical heroes in what had become a city sewer.

“A flotilla of spent condoms was floating past his head… I don’t think he ever saw those, but he did get very sick, despite trying to drown the germs with whisky," recalls Jeff McKay, a Canadian film-maker who pleaded with him not to go in. “It wasn’t just an eccentric act… he really did want to connect with the ancient times and ancient places.”

Sprawson’s dip in Rome demonstrated the writer, art dealer and obsessive swimmer’s visceral need to experience classical antiquity in the raw. Published in 1992, his uniquely quirky work not only celebrates the swimmer, but also trawls history and literature through the prism of swimming. A one-off, it became cult reading, spawning a new generation of nonfiction in British literature.

Encompassing such subjects as the “feeling for water” that coursed through Roman poetry, the Greeks’ love of its mystical health-giving properties that rendered Achilles invulnerable, or King George III swimming off Weymouth accompanied by a chamber orchestra, Sprawson’s work flows with a casual authority, uninterrupted by indices and references.

“All of Charles is in the book,” a friend said. While he revelled in the sensuousness of water, he also seemed haunted by a sinister darkness in its depths. Death is never far away in his work. Edwardian gentlemen copying the swimming techniques of frogs in tubs next to the bath are contrasted with Captain Matthew Webb, the first man to swim the Channel in 1875, who drowned while attempting to swim the whirlpool of Niagara Gorge.

The swimmer, Sprawson believed, was “divorced from everyday life” and enjoyed the self-absorption of swimming as “introverted and eccentric, individualists involved in a mental world of their own.” In Haunts, he compared poets empathetically – such as Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Poe – to opium addicts hooked on the feel of the water, its erotic allure but also its dangers.

Charles Sprawson was born in Karachi in 1941 to Eric, an RAF officer stationed there, and Ann (neé Alexander). His birth in the subcontinent reflected his family’s colonial links: Eric’s father, Major-General Sir Cuthbert Sprawson, was director of the Indian Medical Service from 1933 to 1937; Ann’s grandfather, Sir Duncan Baillie, was lieutenant-governor of the United Provinces, now Uttar Pradesh, and her father, Charles Alexander, also worked in the civil service and became financial adviser to the Maharaja of Jaipur.

In 1942 Eric returned home to England to join Bomber Command. He flew in several successful missions over France and Germany, but was shot down while piloting a Lancaster bomber over Caen on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was reported as missing, but rescued by a French farmer who hid him until France’s release by the Allies.

Eric then returned to India as headmaster of Rajkumar College in Raipur. It was here that, as the only English boy in the school, Charles learnt to swim in a pool donated by the famous cricketer and prince Sir KS Ranjitsinhji, the Jam Sahib of Nawanager.
From India, the family moved to Benghazi in Libya, where Eric worked for the British Council and Charles’ love of the classics and water began. Not far from the ancient Greek city of Cyrene, the family would bathe every Christmas Day in a rock pool encrusted with molluscs and anemones where Cleopatra and the Romans reputedly swam. “When we dipped our masked faces into the water there emerged on the corrugated sand mysterious traces of the outline of ancient streets and colonnades. Their sanctity disturbed by the regular intrusion of giant rays as they flapped their wings somnolently,” he wrote.

At an early age he and his younger brother, Robert, were removed from their Libyan idyll and sent to Tormore prep school in Deal, Kent, where Charles was head boy and captained the school in cricket, rugby and football, before winning a scholarship to Tonbridge. At public school, the model schoolboy developed interests in classical sculpture and art, film and the Beach Boys, and began to drift away from the conventional norms.

When he was 17, his parents returned to England, where his father became the headmaster of Beachborough school in Buckinghamshire. A few years later, Charles went to Trinity College Dublin, where he studied classics and captained the university squash team, taking after his mother, who had represented England at squash.

Remembered for being “his own man” at university, as well as for cross-examining girlfriends frankly on their sex lives, Sprawson graduated with a 2:2 and initially worked as a swimming pool attendant in “dismal” Victorian baths in Paddington, London. There he answered an advertisement in Latin in the personal column of The Times to teach classics at a university in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

To escape the long, hot afternoons in the desert kingdom and its lack of pools, Sprawson read voraciously and collected notes on any mention of water in literature, from Hemingway to Coleridge. He also made lists of great Olympic swimmers from America, Germany and Japan, and including Murray Rose, an Australian gold medallist at the 1956 Games in Melbourne. Years later he looked up his hero and challenged him to a swim, and lost.

After a few years Sprawson returned to England and worked as an art dealer in London, where he appeared to corner the market in selling pictures of 19th century prime ministers to a couple in Jersey. He also befriended Alan Ross, editor of the London Magazine, and began writing articles for him, the New Yorker and newspapers.

His notes on references to water in the classical age, Benjamin Franklin swimming in the Thames in 1726 and the first swimming society in England, founded by Old Etonians in 1828, became the source of an article he wrote for the London Magazine in 1988 and, ultimately, his book. In Riyadh he also appears to have developed his obsession with swimming as a refuge from daily life, in particular challenging the feats of Byron.

It was on the last day of a family holiday in Turkey in the late 1980s that one of his proudest moments came – swimming the Hellespont, or the Dardanelles, as it is now known. The strait is famous for the Greek tragedy of Hero and Leander, the star-crossed lovers separated by water, as well as the battle scenes for Gallipoli during the First World War.

To Sprawson this was the goal of “every classical swimmer”, a few miles inland from Troy and a place of mythical associations. Byron swam the strait in 1810, and it was reputedly his proudest achievement. Despite arriving “unfit and unprepared”, Sprawson showed no concern for himself or his 19-year old daughter, Clare, who accompanied him. Ibrahim, the Turkish skipper of a small tugboat who lectured “on Greek fragments”, showed them the way with his arm raised in the direction of the course. Sprawson swam sidestroke most of the way, confessing to an abiding fear of sharks and deep murky water. The one time he looked down he thought he saw a “silvery shape”, but later admitted it was probably a discarded packing case.

On returning home he discovered that the Tagus estuary at Lisbon was Byron’s most challenging swim, rather than the Hellespont. When Sprawson attempted to swim that, he was picked up by the police, who thought he was a drug smuggler.
Sprawson married Ann Fenton in 1966. They later divorced, but remained friends. She was killed in a car crash in Crete on Good Friday in 2006. He is survived by three daughters: Clare, an artist, Emma and Sophie.

In his later years Sprawson suffered from vascular dementia. Last year BBC Radio 4 made a documentary about his life called Searching for Swimming Pools, which documented his attempts to find lost pools in broom cupboards and behind closed doors. Although he was barely able to speak, he recalled parts of his swim across the Hellespont.

To help pay for his care-home fees, Vintage republished his book, so admired by Iris Murdoch, David Hockney, and thousands of swimmers and non-swimmers. Although he was contracted to write another book about the Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel, he never completed it. Yet Nicholas Pearson, his editor and publishing director of 4th Estate, believed that Haunts was a new type of non-fiction, sufficient evidence in itself of Sprawson’s felicity with the written word: “It struck a nerve… it feeds into the idea of disappointment and melancholy. When it was published in 1992 we weren’t constantly talking about the changing planet, but by the time he gets to swimming, it is the polluted world that he’s swimming in.”

(PH 55-59)

The Guardian published an obituary of Charles Sprawson in its Books section on 8 January 2020. Read The Guardian obituary here

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