Make it more like a murder mystery

Eleanor Birne

  • Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters
    Fourth Estate, 295 pp, £12.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 00 720036 6

The first time Alexander Masters met Stuart Shorter, he was crouched in a doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop round the corner from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge: as it happens, the framing shop I used to work for as a sandwich boarder in my teens. Every Saturday the shop owner would hand me a board and a stack of leaflets and I’d hurry down to Christ’s Pieces, a public green in town which was also, I now know, Stuart’s home. I would dump the leaflets in the bin, sit on my board, and spend the rest of the day with my friends and the squatters and addicts who used to gather there in groups with bikes and dogs and radios.

It’s possible that Stuart was one of the people I spent my Saturdays with – though probably we missed each other by a couple of years. One thing I discovered reading this book is that, after I left it, Stuart burgled my junior school. Masters includes a police report of the incident, complete with a description of Stuart throwing a TV at one of the policemen who confronted him before he escaped across the village green and onto the high street, where he was finally apprehended and restrained. Another tenuous connection, since I seem to be looking for them, is that Stuart was looked after by a man who used to be part of my family: John Brock, who ran a drop-in centre in Cambridge as part of the Wintercomfort homeless charity. Stuart was one of the people who campaigned for John’s release after he was imprisoned, along with Wintercomfort’s director, Ruth Wyner, for ‘knowingly allowing’ heroin to be supplied at the drop-in centre, and became one half of the Cambridge Two. John Brock was my aunt’s partner until he left her for my uncle’s wife (my grandfather wanted to go after him with a shotgun, but my father dissuaded him) and he is now stepfather to my cousin. Although Stuart lived in varying degrees of proximity to me at various times, the chances are that we never met. From the age of 12, he spent most of his time in local care homes, prisons, on the Cambridge streets, or in sheltered housing.

The idea of telling the story backwards was Stuart’s. The book opens with a hilarious account of him delivering his verdict on the first draft of Masters’s biography, which he has lugged back to Masters’s house in a striped Tesco carrier bag. He calls it ‘bollocks boring’ and demands something ‘like what Tom Clancy writes’, something ‘what people will read’. He is scornful of the barrage of academic quotations, footnotes and background research. What is reproduced here of his criticism sounds right to me and in the one or two places where Masters leaves in a stray footnote, or a definition of a streetwise phrase, you wish he had followed Stuart’s advice more closely. ‘Do it the other way round,’ Stuart tells Masters. ‘Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’ Several drafts later, Masters reflects that

Stuart’s backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous. Even with a well-known person it can be boring work to spend the first fifty pages reading facts and guesses about Grandpa, Granny, Mum, Dad, subject aged one, two, three, seven, eight. But introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away. By the time they reach his childhood, it is a matter of genuine interest how he turned into the person that he is. So we’ll move backwards, in stages, tacking like a sailboat against the wind. Familiar time flow – out the window. Homogeneous mood of reflectiveness – up in smoke. This way, an air of disruption from the start.

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[*] Aurum, 256 pp., £7.99, April 2004, 1 85410 970 7.