Do you swim crawl? Do you swim to music in your head? If so, try swimming to Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’. Not easy – it’s either too slow or too fast according to how you take the beat. Then every 30 seconds or so the tempo disrupts, making it a very mentally compelling work, but impossible to swim to at all. In this podcast, John von Düffel and James Norton discuss Charles Sprawson’s book ‘The Haunts of the Black Masseur. The Swimmer as Hero’, now thirty years since its first publication in 1992. This book is perhaps the greatest book every published on swimming. It is a rich account of the history of swimming from antiquity into the second half of the twentieth century, and a very rich source of knowledge about cultures of swimming and of notable heroic swimmers. Setting the tone for Australian swimming athleticism ever since, four-time Olympic Gold Medallist Murray Rose is the first of Charles Sprawson’s swimming heroes. Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ was his go-to training music to put him in the mood for swimming for Australia. He was one of the most celebrated athletes in Australia, winning three golds at the 1956 Melbourne Games. In a very short time, this all-Australian boy was the swimming hero people had been looking for. John von Düffel declares ‘In the Mood’ unswimmable, and I agree with him, after trying. I also tried swimming to the Russian National Anthem, a tune I heard repeatedly at the London Olympic Games in 2012, a tune which has stuck in my mind. It is dignified, memorable and above all, swimmable and heroic, as well as being the music that John von Düffel swam to on the day of this podcast recording. This attention to detail, enough for a short discussion about music for swimming by John and James, is one reason why this book is timeless. Another reason is that it gives the words that swimmers need to express themselves and their swimming passion. You might already know that swimmers usually don’t use many words to describe their swimming – just ask one, after a swim. ‘Yeh, that was OK’, or ‘Yeh, that was great!’, but usually not much else. On a day-to-day basis, that’s enough, but to place swimming in the open water into broader perspective across time and space, you need more. Sprawson was the first to offer more.
This podcast examines Sprawson’s book some thirty years on. In our conversation we discuss Sprawson’s take on swimming heroes, romanticism, and environmental degradation. The book remains as current as ever, but is about so much more than these issues, and if we had recorded the podcast on another day, it might well have been different. Like open water swimming itself – each day is different.
John von Düffel gave his 2002 adaptation of Sprawson’s book a very different title, but one which they thought appeal to the German swimming psyche. ‘Ich nehme dich auf meinen Rücken, vermähle dich dem Ozean. Die Kulturgeschichte des Schwimmens’ (I’ll Take you on my Back, Wed you to the Ocean. The Cultural History of Swimming) - an evocative quote from the mouth of the sea god Proteus in Goethe’s Faust, an invitation to plunge into the mysterious world of the swimmer. Here is an extract, translated into English:
“If you had swum across the furthest ocean And seen the vastness of infinity Though dread of death might seize you, you'd still see The rolling waves in never-ceasing motion You'd still see something: Schools of dolphins swimming Across the green and placid waters, skimming The clouds, the sun and the moon, stars overhead - You will see nothing in that void all round You will not hear your footsteps where you tread Beneath your feet, you'll feel no solid ground”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a playwright, poet, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, and critic, and the greatest literary figure Germany has had – the nation’s Shakespeare if you will. John von Düffel is a nationally-acclaimed playwright, essayist, dramaturge and prize-winning novelist. When at home, John swims mostly in a former gravel pit, near Potsdam where he lives, which is pretty enough and which he describes as ‘working water’ close by where he lives. This has the advantage of allowing him to swim most days. While John’s life physically revolves around Berlin, James Norton is a documentary film maker whose life revolves around London. James swims close to home too, at the ikonic Serpentine Swimming Club. John’s novels include Vom Wasser (From the Water), published in 1998; and Wasser und Andere Welten: Geschichten vom Schwimmen und Schreiben (Water and Other Worlds: Stories of Swimming and Writing), published in 2002; and Der Brennend See (The Burning Lake), published in 2020. He has written several essays on swimming across the years, one of which is available on this website in English translation - Plädoyer fürs Schimmen: Wasser Lessen Lernen (A Plea for Swimming: Learn to Read Water), published in 2017. James’s work includes two related films on the Japanese artist Hokusai (think ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa) for the British Museum and BBC television, and on Gaugin, again for BBC television, much of which was shot in Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands and in New Zealand. I have highlighted James’s and John’s water-related work here, but I should emphasize they both know about, and have a much greater range of interests and works to their credit.
Goethe was a swimmer too, and he wrote of swimming the Swiss lakes, of swimming as freedom and beauty. According to Charles Sprawson, in the poem ‘Der Taucher’ (The Diver), Goethe considers the swimmer as a romantic, remote and heroic figure with experience that non-swimmers deny themselves (in the podcast, John asks an astonishing question – ‘if it opens up new experiences, why doesn’t everybody do it?’). A verse from this poem, translated into English, will give you a sense of Goethe’s heroic swimmer:
“Then quickly, before the breakers rebound, The stripling commends him to Heaven, And - a scream of horror is heard around, - And now by the whirlpool away he is driven, And secretly over the swimmer brave Close the jaws, and he vanishes 'neath the dark wave.”
The German adaptation of Sprawson’s book has a title that is almost as cryptic as the original one in English. The German version is an adaptation, because as John von Düffel says in the podcast, it is almost impossible to translate Sprawson’s book without losing a lot of its meaning, and reducing its undertones of sexuality and sensuality to banality. The title, in English, plays on the Tennessee Williams story ‘Desire and the Black Masseur’, a story of desire spoken in semi-coded language. For Goethe, the most sensual experience that he wrote of took place when swimming in the Swiss lakes. James Norton notes how ‘The Black Masseur’ of the title is for Charles Sprawson a metaphor for the unruly ocean. How many of us have found ourselves swimming in the ocean, being slapped around as if by a vigorous masseur? Where there may have been pleasure in the water, but also pain and danger?
It is a strong testimony to the greatness and complexity of this book that we – James, John and me - spent some time unpacking the title – the title as the key to the book itself. Both James Norton and John von Düffel have a passion for arts, imagery and letters, as well as for the water and swimming. Both have a deep interest in, and knowledge of, Charles Sprawson’s classic book on swimming. A book that dives deep into history, character and personalities, of which only a very few are mentioned here – we could have spoken of Byron, Keats and the aptly named Rupert Brooke who swam in the Cam at Granchester. In the podcast we talk about John and James’s swimming passions, and discuss Sprawson’s book thirty years on, a book that is, as James puts it, the first of the great wave of swimming books that has followed it.
Listen to the podcast here
Haunts of the Black Masseur and where to find it -
Music links – Glenn Miller and ‘In the Mood’; The National Anthem of Russia; David Bowie and ‘Heroes’.
Images - James Norton reading Haunts of the Black Masseur by Ros Young; John von Düffel by Katya von Düffel