Charles Sprawson, Amy Liptrot, Philip Hoare: The best books on swimming


Haunts of the Black Masseur, Charles Sprawson, Vintage, £9.99

I THINK I was eight or nine when I nearly drowned. In an open-air pool in Northern Ireland beside the Atlantic.

Even now I am not much of a swimmer. Back then I couldn’t swim at all. My foot slipped on something on the floor of the pool, pitching me forward and down under the water. I resurfaced only to slip again and again and again.

By the fourth time I was beginning to panic, but, somehow, I managed to find my footing and emerge dripping with tears and sea water. I’ve been suspicious of water ever since.

But what one fears is also seductive. To read about if nothing else. The attraction of opposites, if you like.

Haunts of the Black Masseur, Charles Sprawson’s cult 1992 book, for example, is concerned with the idea, as the subtitle suggests, of “The Swimmer as Hero.”

It is a history of swimming that takes in Byron swimming the Hellespont and Billy Wilder’s film Sunset Boulevard, and reveals what swimming meant to cultures from ancient Rome to post-war Japan, while covering everything from sex to fascism.

The Outrun, Amy Liptrot, Canongate, £9.99

Liptrot wrote the introduction to the most recent edition of Sprawson’s book. Her own debut, The Outrun (2016), as well as offering an account of her own issues with addiction and the push and pull of her home on Orkney, is also an ode to the call of the waves.

Read More: Amy Liptrot on The Outrun

“By swimming in the sea I cross the normal boundaries,” she writes. “I’m no longer on land but part of the body of water making up all the oceans of the world, which moves, ebbing and flowing under and around me. Naked on the beach, I am a selkie slipped from its skin.”

RiISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate, £9.99

More wild swimming.

“You have to take your chances with this ocean, roaring, rising high, utterly elemental and unharnessed, more like a mountain range than water. I wait for my moment, trying to judge when to get in, if I should get in at all.”

Read More: “An immersion, a homecoming …”

Full of drowned sailors and submerged feelings, Hoare’s 2017 account of life in and beside the sea is nature writing as emotional depth sounding.

The result is the kind of book you come up from gasping for air and then dive back down into its murky depths.


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