The Best of Times: In endless waters from the Liffey to the Hellespont: Charles Sprawson talks to Danny Danziger
Monday 22 March 1993
My father was very keen on Indian mysticism and the spiritual side of India, which was rather unusual among colonial people at that time; my first memory of him is looking through the muslin of his mosquito net and seeing him doing yoga exercises at the foot of his bed.
Shortly before I was dispatched to a school in England, my father took me on a three-day train journey to the coast of southern India, where we swam in the rivers. They are sacred to the Hindus, just like the Ganges is in the north, and there I developed this feel for water: that it is a rather sacred element and the act of getting into it a religious rite.
When I came back to Britain, I went to one of those old-fashioned prep schools, where the library was full of books by Henty, the dormitories were named after English generals, and discipline was extremely harsh. It had a pool, but it was boring, just a long rectangle and rather shallow. And full of boys. I hardly ever swam there; I rather like deserted pools, anyway.
In the Christmas holidays I flew out to North Africa, where my father had moved to Benghazi on the Libyan coast. The shore had a wonderful succession of sandy bays and occasional lagoons, but about 200 miles to the east, underneath a natural rock pool, encrusted with molluscs and anemones, were the remains of the Greek city of Cyrene, where Cleopatra and the Romans reputedly swam.
The site was deserted. One end was very clear, warm water, the other end was a mass of matted seaweed. My father and I swam down to the bottom, clinging to the seaweed tendrils, and looked up from the transparent water to the sun.
Later, we put on our masks and looked at the remains of the Greek city beneath the water. It was a wonderful, lyrical sense of release to swim in sunshine and see these strange, spectacular sights. But it was more than that. What this swim gave me was a sympathy with the classical feeling for water, and those myths which involve water, such as those of Narcissus or Hermaphroditus.
In the summer holidays I used to go to Scotland. I had wild cousins in the Highlands, and they swam with me in the streams, and we would slide down waterfalls together.
It was very cold water and midges hovered always across the surface. But I remember one particular day discovering the incomparable pleasure of combining reading and swimming. I was reading King Solomon's Mines by the bank of the stream. I have never enjoyed a book so much or read so quickly, and then an exhilarating splash before going back to reading.
I went to Trinity College, Dublin. I remember being challenged one night to swim across the Liffey, in January, for a pound, and I did. I swam quickly without immersing my head at all, as the Liffey is about the dirtiest river in Europe.
After university I found work as a swimming pool attendant in the Kensal Road pool, Paddington. It is a Victorian pool surrounded with steel girders that make it look like a Gothic cathedral. But it was such a dirty pool that no one ever came to swim, so it was rather wonderful, there was nothing to do, and I would read all day by the side. There were just two attendants, a Negro and myself, and we used to race each other the whole time. He would always win.
My wife couldn't swim when we got married, but she wouldn't tell me. We were on a Greek island and there was nothing to do except swim, so she had to confess to me she couldn't, but she had to make love as she revealed it, to camouflage the confession in an amorous way. I didn't mind at all, in fact I was pleased to be able to teach her something.
She did learn to swim, but she is not really at ease in water, she looks a bit tense, so it seems to be an effort rather than something exhilarating.
I got a job in Arabia, I taught at Riyadh University. I had applied for the post after noticing an advertisement worded in Latin in the personal column of the Times, while working at the Kensal Road pool.
Riyadh is a very hot, clammy place, and there are no swimming pools at all. We lived in the middle of the Arab quarter in a mud house with a stairway that was open to the stars, and sat on the roof every night and read. But about 50 miles away, in the middle of the desert, was an extraordinary, enormous, natural pool full of clear water, with high cliffs around it. It was so deep that no one has ever got to the bottom, and I used to dive into it from the cliff.
One night, I drove out with my wife, and we swam naked in the pool, which was breaking all the Arab rules of behaviour; it would have been awful if we had been found doing it. But it was wonderful: cold water, hot night. And the illicit nature of what we were doing added an extra frisson to the enjoyment of the swim.
I then worked in an art gallery in England and we lived in a house that had a pool. It was a very boring job, and I used to swim 100 lengths of the pool in the early morning so I could get rid of the physical frustrations I knew I would suffer during the day. That pool saved me. If I hadn't swum there, I don't know what I would have done.
I left the gallery to deal in paintings on my own, and I went to California. I love the Pacific. Pacific waves are particularly strong, they thump you down on the shore. I like the idea of waves taking control, it's like being in the grip of some alien force. Byron describes that feeling very well.
I developed this feeling for Englishmen such as Byron and Shelley who toured the Continent, swimming in Italian lakes and rivers, and I went around Italy to look at the pools and streams where the Romans swam.
There is a wonderful secret river called the Clitumnus, which Pliny described in magical terms in one of his letters, and I swam there.
It has extraordinarily clear water, you see the bubbles coming up from the bottom, and where I swam was rather shallow, it was almost a crawl along the mud at the bottom, but it was completely wonderful.
I swam across the Hellespont because Byron swam it, and he was more proud of having done that than anything else in his life. The Hellespont is only about a mile and a half wide, but there is a terrific current, which pushes you sideways, so you have to swim about five or six miles.
When I returned home, I continued reading Byron's journals, and discovered that he found his swim of the Tagus in Lisbon a far more perilous exercise because the currents are even stronger. So I booked a flight to Lisbon. But I didn't completely swim it, because about three-quarters of the way across I heard a siren, and a motor launch zoomed towards me, and police picked me out of the water because I hadn't got the harbour master's permission to do the swim.
My wife has got fed up with these trips to Lisbon and Turkey. I suppose she thinks I lead a rather selfish life. But I do feel still this compulsion to swim. I suppose I will go on swimming for the rest of my life.
Charles Sprawson's book, 'Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero' is published by Jonathan Cape, and shortly becomes a Vintage paperback.
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