'His corpse spun across the upland tracks and crashed down among the scrub and discarded crisp packets in the cess alongside the line. A hundred yards further on, the train engine and its two carriages finally came to a stop in the midnight summer air.'
Alexander Masters, the author of Stuart: A Life Backwards, believes that it was not suicide. He is almost certain that Stuart - a psychopath, an alcoholic and a drug addict who routinely attempted to take his own life - simply walked over the train tracks at the wrong moment on a dark night. If he is right (and I like to think he is), then Stuart's death was an unholy and arbitrary accident that stands as a horrifyingly appropriate end to a life of bad luck and bad choices.
Alexander Masters first met Stuart while he was begging in a doorway in Cambridge in 1998. What he saw then was: 'pasty skin, green bomber jacket, broken gym shoes, hair cropped to the scalp and a week's worth of stubble.' One of life's broken rejects, twisted up on a piece of cardboard and at odds with an otherwise polite and genteel street. He saw him again several weeks later when, arriving drunk and disorderly at the homeless charity that Masters worked for, he attempted to break down a door in pursuit of a cup of tea. At around the same time Ruth Wyner and John Brock, respectively the Director and Manager of the Wintercomfort day centre for the homeless in Cambridge, were arrested for and convicted of failing to stop their homeless clients secretly exchanging drugs on the charity's premises. They were sentenced to four and five years in prison. They later became known as the 'Cambridge Two', the victims of a ridiculous miscarriage of justice and the central figures in a debate about provisions and rehabilitation for the homeless.
It was at a meeting to co-ordinate the campaign to free them that Masters saw Stuart for the third time. This time he was sober and diffident, nothing like the maniac who hurled himself at doors demanding caffeinated beverages. He made an insightful contribution to the debate, with his hands in his pockets and in a low voice. In a room of middle-class liberals and charity workers he was unique: the only person present who had ever been to prison himself and who knew all about rules and regulations, about the institutionalisation and the emotional lows. When everyone else agreed that the best thing to do in the mean time would be to send John and Ruth plenty of books to keep them occupied - such a middle class thing to do! - Stuart stood up and explained that this wouldn't be possible. Books wouldn't fit in the boxes provided for a prisoner's possessions.
After that meeting he became instrumental in the campaign to quash Ruth and John's convictions, helping to mastermind protests (like the sleepout on the Home Office steps) and touring the country giving heartfelt speeches about his own life as a homeless person. During this time Alexander Masters became his friend and decided to write a book about him, a biography told backwards, the idea being to isolate what made Stuart into the homeless addict he had become.
However, even while Masters researched the book, interviewing Stuart on a weekly basis, sharing meals with him and visiting him in various flats and hostels, and even while Stuart took active part in the Cambridge Two Campaign, he was still taking drugs, sleeping rough and commiting violent assaults on himself and others. He was 32 years old and one of the 'chaotic' homeless. Masters explains the category early on. He differentiates Stuart from the homeless who're the victims of chronic poverty, social ineptness or mental illness, and from those who have fallen out with their parents or have recently come out of care, prison or the army and don't know what to do next. The 'chaotic', he says, are at the bottom of the homeless pile - they're 'beyond repair':
'When Stuart was first discovered...crouched on the lowest subterranean floor of a multi-storey car park, the regular homeless wanted nothing to do with him. They called him 'Knife Man Dan' and 'that mad bastard on level D''
Like many 'chaotic' homeless he had been in and out of prison and was a poly-drug addicted alcholic; he had delusional paranoia and a fondness for knives, which he used mostly against himself in numerous acts of self-harm but with which he had threatened others, including his own parents, ex-partner and son. He had a background of sexual abuse, had spent most of his teenage years in care and had left school at 14. Masters is quite honest when, on occasion, he admits that Stuart frightens and disgusts him; at best he is petulant and unpredictable, as his worst he is repellent. How do you become friends with such a man? A man capable of threatening his own five year old child at knife point? How do you admire someone who actively engages in his own self-destruction?
Masters' biography, which won the 2005 Guardian First Book Award and is both chatty and poignant, goes a little way to answering these questions. It is fascinating and moving precisely because it finds a balance between rejecting and embracing the man that Stuart is: though vile and dangerous, he is also vulnerably human and, on occasions, hilarious. He is always on the edge of violence, but simultaneously possessed of a glorious and cheeky charisma. He takes a childish pleasure in simple things (like playing with the sit-on mower at one of Alexander's friend's house) and a mischievous delight in tricks and games; he loves commaraderie and banter. He particularly likes condescending to middle-class Alexander from his lofty position as a 'man of the world'; his catchphrase being 'Alexander, what are you like!' (In the picture opposite Alexander is on top, Stuart beneath.) He is clever too. He is the one who suggests that Masters' should write the book backwards since, he reckons, it should read more as a thriller than a morality tale:
''Do it the other way around. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was. See? Write it backwards.''
The conceit works very well as Masters segues between sections of commentary and anecdote and the chapters of Stuart's story, beginning with his death and ending with his birth. Of course, there is an inevitability to it all - Stuart's death hangs like a pall throughout - but Stuart knew very well what was interesting about him, what made him a readable subject. It wasn't his slow recovery from addiction, or his cautious assent from rough sleeping to living in sheltered housing (both of which happened towards the end of his life); it was his descent into the 'chaotic' state in the first place. The wherefores and, more importantly, the why would keep the reader hooked. And it does make for compelling and horrifying reading. I was galvinised by it into thinking about homelessness more widely and deeply.
Still, there was something discomfortingly voyeuristic about it all. Alexander Masters has created a truly living portrait of a 'chaotic' homeless man, but for what purpose? I suppose: so that we can better understand people like him and so that we can work towards some sort of amnesty with the desperate and lonely in our society. These aims are to the good. Certainly, the book attempts to gives the homeless a much needed human dimension. But there is an extent to which Stuart: A Life Backwards is also an anthropological curio for the 'concerned' classes, we typical Guardian readers - it allows us to look, really look, at somebody we would ordinarily look away from and it allows us to do so without guilt. It apparently breaks down the boundary between the settled and the unsettled. But does it? Does it really change the way we perceive the homeless? Or does it just exoticise one particular individual, stimulating our eagerness to hear his terrible story - emphasising his 'otherness' and all the ways in which his life was not and is not like our own. We're not implicated in his suffering because Stuart's case is one of psychological breakdown after serialised abuse. Does it not further distance us from the ordinary homeless? The men and women that Masters mentions but doesn't focus in upon. I'm not sure. I felt odd mourning for Stuart because I felt as though he were a character in a novel, some homeless avatar, a sad symbol, rather than a real flesh and blood man. My moral uncertainty disquiets me.
Has anyone else read it? I wonder what you think to this voyeuristic dimension?