A 'Backwards Life' Revealed in 'Stuart' Alexander Masters spent five years working in hostels for the homeless. Along the way he met Stuart, a homeless, drug-addicted ex-con. An unlikely friendship bloomed.
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A 'Backwards Life' Revealed in 'Stuart'

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A 'Backwards Life' Revealed in 'Stuart'

A 'Backwards Life' Revealed in 'Stuart'

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Stuart Shorter was no stranger to disruptive behavior. He was a garrulous, drug abusing, knife-wielding drunk who was often homeless. His destructive childhood virtually guaranteed a short and brutish life, or did it? Stuart warned his biographer not to over simplify. In fact, Stuart Shorter played an active role in crafting the book about him, Stuart: A Life Backwards. He rejected author Alexander Masters' first draft. Here's Masters reading about Stuart's first reaction.

Mr. ALEXANDER MASTERS (Author): It's bollocks, boring. I don't mean to be rude. I know you put a lot of work in, Stuart offers. Put briefly, his objection is this. I drone on. He wants jokes, yarns, humor. He doesn't admire academic quotes and background research. Now, Alexander, you've got to start again, you've got to do better than this. He's after a best seller, like what Tom Clancy writes. But you're not an assassin trying to frazzle the President with anthrax bombs, I point out. You're an ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath, I do not add. Stuart phrases it another way then. Something what people will read.

ELLIOTT: So what is Stuart's final advice to you about how to proceed with the book?

Mr. MASTERS: Well, his suggestion apart from simply making it a more intimate description of my friendship with him and his life was to write it backwards, which turned out to be a highly successful technique from my point of view, because it managed to give a sense of the person you would have seen if you first stumbled across him on the streets as I did when I was walking around Cambridge, researching an article for a local paper and met him begging in a doorway there. And I wanted to try and give a sense, this is who you see to begin with. Now, once you get to know him a little bit as a homeless man, then you work back gradually and begin to expose how he turned into this astonishing figure.

ELLIOTT: Reading the book, I got the sense that there is so much more to Stuart Shorter than meets the eye. You know, here's a guy who can hold his own with all kinds of rough sleepers, as they're called, you know, protecting his turf in the depths of a parking garage, and then at the same time get into a public policy debate with a state official about the finer points of Britain's homeless policy.

Mr. MASTERS: Yeah, he was a very versatile man. He was extraordinarily bright and extraordinarily insightful, and Stuart struck me immediately as someone who had a very, very remarkable ability to express things in an interesting way and a very sensitive bloke, but also clearly a very violent fellow too. And it was this sort of combination of these sort of two battling forces in Stuart which he was constantly battling with, trying to achieve some balance between them, that made him immediately within a couple of minutes of speaking to him, I had a sense that here was really someone really quite remarkable.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit about Stuart's life and some of the extreme things that had happened to him.

Mr. MASTERS: As is often the case, it all started off when he was fairly young. It began to affect him quite seriously that he muscular dystrophy. Now, this was the first of a sequence of some sort of Job-like afflictions that then overwhelmed him in this early childhood. When we were talking about, well, look, what really caused this, you to go to the bad? If you had to pick out the various things, and there were far more than just the muscular dystrophy, there was abuse by family members, there was abuse in special schools subsequently.

ELLIOTT: Sexual abuse.

Mr. MASTERS: Sexual abuse, sexual and physical and emotional abuse. But I was very keen to say, look Stuart, all these things, you know, these are the reasons and you can sort of let yourself off the hook and he would never do that. He hated doing that and he hated me when I tried to in effect excuse him. Because he'd say, no, no, it's much more complicated than that, there are no simple answers like that and the reason I have to take the blame for it, one of the principle reasons is the day I discovered violence. And it's a very, he can pin it down.

ELLIOTT: To the very day.

Mr. MASTERS: To the very day, to within a couple of hours, when he was being bullied by two kids. And he'd done it tons and tons of times before. And they got a hold of him and they pushed him about a bit and he went whining and sniveling back into the house. And while he was in the house, his stepfather said, look, in effect you've got to sort this out, this is going to pursue you for the rest of your life. So he thought about this a bit and then, he was about 11 then walked back outside, went up to the bigger of the two bullies and butted him in the head. Suddenly the situation had changed and Stuart, who was so used to being weak in his arms and weak in his legs and uncoordinated in his feet and his hands never really going where he wanted them to go, realized he could use his head. And so he did after that. He started to use his head and he used it liberally. And he was...

ELLIOTT: And so then he turns into the aggressor at that point.

Mr. MASTERS: He turns into the aggressor, and what he said is that for about six months he knew what he was doing and he was in charge of it and enjoyed, finally, that feeling of control, and that after six months he lost control and couldn't control it anymore, and it started to happen to him without him wanting to do it.

And so by the time I knew him, he was famous for these rages that he would not remember a great deal about them. His mother said she could spot them often a week or two before they started, but they would take over, and the result would always be a disaster, usually with him as the worst victim, but certainly with the police involved and himself in a prison cell or in hospital.

ELLIOTT: And these were violent crimes that he would commit. I mean there's even this one point where he's got a young toddler's son that he's holding at knifepoint.

MASTERS: Yes. That episode, which was his own son, appalled him, and it was appalling. There was no excuse for it. But this was...

ELLIOTT: Now despite all these awful characteristics, he's actually kind of a likeable guy in this book.


ELLIOTT: You realize that you two are sort of becoming friends. You're sort of picking at one another and teasing each other and...

MASTERS: He could be enormously funny, and he was, as well as his constant reflection on his - the chaos of his life, it was a constant reflection on just the oddities of the people around him, of the circumstances in which we found ourself, and I think Stuart just found it kind of an interesting experiment from his side to tell me a little bit about what life on the streets was like and see if he could get some flicker of understanding in me.

I mean, I'd never even, you know, I hadn't taken a single drug in my life, the only person I knew who's never taken any drugs. And Stuart found this baffling and intriguing and sort of rather funny. And so when he was alive, before he died, we regarded this as a joint project, and I'd always viewed it as a joint project. As he said, he'd done the living, I had to do the writing.

ELLIOTT: Now Stuart never did get to see the final book. He did die young. He was 33. He was killed by a train. There's a place in chapter 22 that I'd like for you to read from, where you talk about Stuart and his personality.

MASTERS: The boy's a freak, surely. No, he's not. People like Stuart, the lowest of the low on the streets, outcasts even amongst outcasts, the uneducated, chaotic homeless, the real (bleep)-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 the opposite reasons. It is because he has had the superhuman strength not to be defeated by this isolation. It is because he has had the almost unbelievable social adroitness to be able to fit in smoothly with an educated, soft-skinned person like myself and not make me frightened half to death. If Stuart's a freak, I salute freaks.

ELLIOTT: Alexander Masters' new book is Stuart: A Life Backwards. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

MASTERS: Thank you.

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