I enjoy reading memoirs, especially when they’re innovative and try to show life in a different way. This fantastic biography does both. It’s unique in it’s subject – a homeless man the author meets while volunteering at a charity. It’s also unique because it’s told backwards- a device that has a massive emotional impact. Despite it’s subject, this isn’t a misery memoir. I’m not a fan of them myself, although I accept their therapeutic value, both as catharsis for the writer and as a powerful shared experience for the reader who’s survived similar experiences. I always feel prurient reading such personal and traumatic testimony. Although Stuart’s life is undeniably traumatic I never get that uncomfortable feeling when reading.
Stuart Shorter is a homeless, ex- junkie and possible psychopath. Alexander Masters first met Stuart out begging, then continues to spend time with him after securing a role as a fundraiser for Wintercomfort. His job is to make funding applications to different benefactors to keep the charity providing a day centre for homeless people in Cambridge. Set up in 1989 the charity worked with some of the worst cases living rough, giving them somewhere with supportive staff to spend time in. The founder was hoping to help individuals and reduce anti social behaviour in the city. However, when the main staff members, Ruth and John, were arrested for allowing drugs to change hands on the premises, Masters found himself at the centre of a protest movement. He also had to be more ‘hands on’ with the centre’s many users. This was when he met and formed a tentative friendship with Stuart Shorter. They were paired up to give talks around the country about the values of the charity and the campaign to free Ruth and John. They were the only people who had the time and Masters becomes intrigued with Stuart, who more often than not received a standing ovation after speaking – even if he did let out a stray ‘fuck’ from time to time. Stuart is intrigued to spend time with middle class people. ‘I thought middle class people had something wrong with them’, he says ‘but they’re just ordinary.’
This I think is the key to Master’s tale. Stuart, and some of the situations he finds himself in are genuinely funny. I also felt as if Stuart was looking at me as much as I was looking at him. The jarring contrast of Stuart’s everyday life to that of Masters, or to the reader really does hit hard. He’s a person whose life would be described as chaotic by social services or a mental health team. One or the other have been a constant in Stuart’s life, an amorphous mass of middle class do-gooders he calls ‘The System’. He’s had one service or another observing or judging his life since he was twelve years old. Like most homeless people he despises the system, because agencies that are supposed to support and help those who are struggling, are actually duplicitous. Using their observations to record and relay information to other agencies in a carrot and stick approach. Most people would assume the system is there to help, but it patronises, damages and blames too. There are welfare benefits and back to work schemes, but if the person doesn’t cooperate in come the police and prison. We learn that Stuart has been bounced round the care system, has been placed in a group home run by paedophiles, then placed into a brutal juvenile detention centre when he strays from their control. It’s easy to see why homeless people even become suspicious of things that are supposed to help, because once one part of the system comes in, everything else follows. He knows he was placed with paedophiles unwittingly, but as he points out, that doesn’t really matter when you’re 14 years old with a ‘grown man’s dick in your throat.’
It’s a brutal read in parts, but it has to be. I didn’t realise how dysfunctional the lives of my clients were, until I tried to describe to someone what my job entailed while at a ball. I was starting my career as a mental health support worker and my everyday was working with people like Stuart. I would help them with day to day tasks like shopping and budgeting, cleaning the house, and even just getting out of bed if they were struggling. People at my table couldn’t believe there was a job that entailed these things. It’s when I realised that there was a class of people more successful than me, who never learned about these incredible people and their difficult lives and I was proud to be someone who did know. The book is honest about what it was like to be a friend and supporter of Stuart. Sometimes it was frustrating, moving, devastating and other times it felt incredible. Yet we really hear Stuart’s voice too. Really the book is written by both of them. Masters never takes over or forgets that this is a collaborative effort. It’s not sugar-coated and at the beginning it’s Stuart who first reads Master’s manuscript and says he could do better. He needs to make it more readable, Stuart says, because people should want to read it, like a Tom Clancy novel.
‘Do it the other way round’ he tells Masters, ‘make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards’.