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.

Masters further disrupts his narrative by inserting his own drawings of significant events and people, along with reproductions of Stuart’s handwritten diary entries, newspaper headlines, posters for the Cambridge Two campaign, police records, recipes and school reports. At first glance Stuart looks more like a scrapbook than a conventional biography, and that is what it is: a scrapbook of evidence.

Stuart’s story ends, or rather begins, with his stepping out in front of the 11.15 train from London to King’s Lynn (the ‘graveyard service’, as it has always been called by railway workers). With his death, the book has become a real murder mystery: how did he find himself in front of a 150-ton train? But this is a secondary question. The main clues on the original detective trail come to light only in the last third of the book. The first two-thirds are an account of the Cambridge Two campaign, chaotic living, sleeping rough and an existence in and out of prison. Shortly before his death, Stuart is living in a new bedsit, on £85 a week, which he spends on water, electricity, gas, TV licence, food, toiletries. Masters describes the food in his kitchen in economy packaging and the unpaid bills on the bedside cabinet. Moving backwards in time, with Stuart living on Christ’s Pieces, at 2 Laurel Lane (‘the second shrub from the left – the one with the biggest cavity in the middle’), we learn that he does not brush his teeth, does not wash, drinks a great deal, and smokes a lot of heroin. There’s a range of information on the realities of street living: Stuart explains that you get scabies ‘round your bollocks’ and in other ‘hairy places’: ‘under your arms; if you’ve got hairy legs, on your legs’. He describes, and Masters records, problems with his feet: ‘Homeless people get wet, you know. Your foot just fucking ends up mouldy basically.’

Stuart went to jail once for burgling a village post office, once for threatening his own child with a knife in a burning house in an attempt to keep the police away. The book becomes an account of life inside, of the beatings and daily abuse that take place behind prison walls. Some of the early chapters offer advice for prison living. Masters includes a recipe for ‘hooch’, a drink brewed from Marmite, sugar, orange juice, bran flakes, rice and water: Ruth Wyner describes getting tipsy on it in her own prison memoir, From the Inside.[*] There are prison timetables and menus, too:

8 o’clock: – Porridge, tea
11.30: – Fish, cabbage, mashed potatoes
17.20: – Fish pie, mushy peas, chips

Masters was chairman of the Cambridge Two campaign, during which Stuart accompanied him to various cities to describe his experience of homelessness. The feeling at the time was that Wyner and Brock’s convictions were a political gesture intended to show how serious Jack Straw was going to be about the war on drugs. The campaign was very active. I remember being confronted on the escalator at Holborn with a fly poster emblazoned with John Brock’s face – a face I hadn’t seen in more than ten years. The campaigners organised charity concerts, a sleep-out in front of the Home Office, and managed to secure the QC Michael Mansfield’s services pro bono. By and large, the campaign was a success: it brought the pair home. Their names were never cleared, but their sentences were reduced at appeal, and they were not sent back to prison after the hearing. Some of Masters’s achievements, but not all of them, are mentioned in Stuart; one has to read the acknowledgments of Wyner’s memoir to discover exactly how much he did.

Having established Stuart’s chaotic recent past, Masters turns to his friends and grandparents, as well as official records and institutional reports. With Stuart at his back, he avoids reductive explanations, offering instead a series of events and incidents that were clearly damaging, and leaving us largely to draw our conclusions. We learn about Stuart’s inherited muscular dystrophy, his dodgy heart, the difficulty he has walking. At his first school, the local primary, he is ‘talkative, curious, loud’ and ‘makes friends easily’. After he falls off a rope in the gym, the education authorities have him transferred to a school for the severely disabled, the Roger Ascham School. To get to it, he has to take what is known as the ‘Spaggy Bus’, along with physically handicapped and mentally retarded children. Initially, his school reports are upbeat and full of praise. Then, suddenly, he runs away from home, and keeps on running for the next five years. He demands to be taken into care. His parents don’t understand why. Pivotal, in Stuart’s mind at least, is the day he discovers the power of violence and, ‘four foot three in his nylon socks’, head-butts Bobby the bully in the face. But, Masters points out, this is not the deciding factor, because during Stuart’s last two years at Roger Ascham, well before he beats up Bobby the bully, he is gradually losing control. His reports show that if he does well in one subject, he does very badly in another. What they don’t reveal is that his brother Gavvy and his babysitter have begun to rape him. As an adult, when he enters what he calls one of his ‘black mists’, he is fuelled by the memories of what they, and later others, did to him. ‘In the last two years alone,’ Masters writes, ‘my friend Stuart has on three occasions been sitting quietly alone in his flat when he has been suddenly overwhelmed by the resurrected agony of these memories, grabbed the nearest available implement and butchered himself.’

After begging to be taken into care, Stuart is sent off to the Midfield Assessment Centre – a bleak 1960s development not far from my parents’ house that I used to cycle past on my way to my boyfriend’s in the next village. At Midfield he is repeatedly sodomised by the headteacher, Keith Laverack, and forced to perform fellatio. Laverack’s systematic abuse wasn’t uncovered until 15 years later, by which time Stuart was in prison for robbing the post office.

Masters dedicates the last narrative chapter, for years 0-10, to an interview with Stuart’s grandparents, Grandma Ellen and Little Bert. Here the trail runs cold: there is nothing they can say about Stuart’s early years that suggests why he has turned out the way he has (even though they know all about Gavvy, who committed suicide while Stuart was in prison), and it is clear that neither of them understands Stuart at all. Structurally, this means that the plot Stuart craved has collapsed by the book’s penultimate chapter. All we are left with at the end is the terrible reminder of Stuart’s senseless death on the train tracks.

Zooming in on Stuart’s obscure and chaotic life, refocusing the biographical lens, Masters presents the city of Cambridge from a new perspective. In the doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop, where he first crouches down with Stuart, he observes the ‘legs of Christmas shoppers and delayed businessmen’ in this new ‘two-foot-high world, shared with dogs and children’. He smells street grime, the wind, and the ‘hot underwear of passers-by’, which is ‘not unpleasant, rather like salami’. Looking through Stuart’s eyes, Masters metaphorically and literally redraws the city. He has taken Stuart’s mental map of Cambridge and set it down in ink on the end-papers of his book. One or two of the city’s famous landmarks survive: King’s College Chapel is there, along with the Catholic church. A punt on the Cam makes it too, filled with people in boaters clutching bottles, accompanied by the label ‘W*nky C*nts’. The other landmarks aren’t on the tourist trail: Cambridge police station, a mean-looking place, sits at the centre of the map. The monstrous Lion Yard shopping centre is there, along with the bus station, the magistrates’ court, a burned-out squat, two hostels for the homeless. A few outlying villages are included, scrappy places that surround the famous centre which are not themselves famous or remarkable or even pretty: Fen Ditton, where Stuart lived as a child; Waterbeach, where he had his bedsit and near where he died. HMP Whitemoor makes an appearance, and arrows point off the edges towards other prisons: HMP Grendon, HMP Winchester, HMP Norwich.

Masters also tells the story of his own evolving relationship with his subject. When Stuart first visits him in his flat, he is afraid to leave him alone in case he makes off with something. By the end, they are lending each other money and Masters is eager to point out that Stuart always pays him straight back. As the two become friends, Stuart worries about his mental state. He wants to get a psychiatrist to say that he is insane: he thinks that if his problem can be given a label there might be a drug that could help. Masters breaks off a description of Stuart’s new-found domestic happiness in his bedsit – bacon sandwiches for his guest – to explain that he is thinking of sticking a reflective sheet over his bedsit window to ‘stop them spying on me’. He also plans to block up the air vent in the kitchen because there could be microphones hidden between the slats. As Stuart says, ‘you got to think about these things when you’re redecorating.’ Masters isn’t unsettled by such neuroses, but he finds some things – Stuart’s account of putting a knife to the throat of his baby son, the ‘little ’un’, for example – harder to take. ‘This crime appals me,’ he writes. So, too, does his behaviour in prison. But he makes it clear that he is never afraid of Stuart. Masters’s affection is obvious, and it grows. He comes to understand and respect Stuart, and his sympathy makes the book work. Towards the end he writes:

People like Stuart – the lowest of the low on the streets, outcasts even among outcasts, the uneducated chaotic homeless, the real fuck-ups – people who’ve had their social and school training lopped off at 12: they simply don’t understand the way the big world works. They are as isolated from us normal, housed people as we are from them. If Stuart is a freak, then it is for opposite reasons: it is because he has had the superhuman strength not to be defeated by this isolation.

Stuart apparently put his trust in Masters, and wanted the book to happen. He said that telling his story would be his way of thanking all the people who had helped him over the years. But he needed someone else to make sense of it. Masters faithfully transcribes extracts from Stuart’s diary (‘music festival’ is ‘MuSic FesTervile’; ‘wake up’ is ‘weak up’) and describes him yelling across the room: ‘I still don’t know me alphabet … First place I get stuck is N. I only remember the S,T,U bit because it’s me name, Stu.’ It is Masters’s job to translate Stuart’s account. His own relationship to the project is complicated: he doesn’t hide the fact that he is writing the biography in order to further his ambitions as a writer, and he doesn’t hide his irritation at Stuart’s occasional babbling. He worries whether Stuart is worth a book, and takes him to Norfolk for the weekend to meet his middle-class friends so that they can offer their opinions. Having learned what Stuart did to his child in the burning house, he feels unable to continue; he is angry at his own failure, and angry that his writing isn’t amounting to anything: ‘At this point, I get sick of the whole project, wonder why I bother, go off, get drunk, stomp about this study with its flower-covered throws, round carpet, pink fan on the wall, think: “There, idiot, another year wasted. Stupid man.”’ He is honest about how his involvement with the homeless began; his first job at Wintercomfort ‘was not an altruistic job for me: I did it for the money. (£9 an hour, more than I have ever earned since.)’ He doesn’t discuss how much the book is earning him. (Apparently, though he doesn’t mention it, he split the advance with Stuart’s family.)

At the inquest following Stuart’s death, the jury returned an open verdict. Various factors suggested suicide was unlikely: the major injury, to the left side of his forehead, indicated that he had been walking back towards his bedsit when he was struck; his arms were raised as though to push the train away from him; he had seemed happy that night, telling his mother and sister that his life was getting itself together. The inability of the jury to reach a single conclusion would perhaps have pleased Stuart, who resisted simple explanations and once berated Masters for trying to explain away the problems in his life too easily. Stuart is about a man who was repeatedly let down and abused by a system that was designed to help him. It describes things most people never see.

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