January 10, 2020

Charles Sprawson, cult author of ‘Haunts of the Black Masseur’, has died


Haunts of the Black Masseur has played a key part in the wild swimming revival (Jason M. C., Han via Wikicommons [CC BY-SA])

Sad news this week as it was announced that Charles Sprawson, author of Haunts of the Black Masseur, and widely regarded as the forerunner to the modern nature writing / wild swimming phenomenon, has died at the age of 78. He had been suffering from vascular dementia.

Reporting the story in the Guardian, Alison Flood noted that, although he only ever published one book, Sprawson counted J.G. Ballard and Iris Murdoch as fans.

Haunts of the Black Masseur details Sprawson’s own “swimming heroes”, including Byron and Hart Crane, before describing his own watery feat of traversing the Hellespont (part of the geographical boundary between Europe and Asia).

Though swimming was seen as a niche topic at the time of the book’s release in 1992, Haunts… has gone on to be a cult favourite, regularly referred to by modern authors. Roger Deakin and Leanne Shapton have both written swimming memoirs in its tradition. Agent David Godwin, who first commissioned Sprawson to write the book, gave this quote to the Guardian:

“I thought Haunts would be a great book but I’d only been at Jonathan Cape for about a month and everyone thought it was the most insane commission they’d ever heard of, but it turned out to be an amazing book… I wish he’d written more than one.”

According to Alex Preston, a friend of Sprawson’s, another book was indeed in the pipeline, about the endurance swimmer Martin Strel—though sadly it remains in draft form.

It’s rare that an author with such a small catalogue leaves such a profound legacy—and so we say farewell, thank you, and doff our goggles, to a one-of-a-kind master of the water.



Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.