Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters

A loser's life that ends up as a winner
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The Independent Culture

Stuart is so good, it fooled me completely. Racing through the proof copy, I took it at first to be a blackly comic novel.

Stuart is so good, it fooled me completely. Racing through the proof copy, I took it at first to be a blackly comic novel.

I was right about the blackness and the comedy. An unassuming academic gets involved with the world's most irritating, yet fascinating, beggar, junkie, alcoholic and useless criminal. I was impressed by the skilful way the author came up with a fictional version of the real-life scandal in which two people running a Cambridge hostel were jailed for failing to stop drug-dealing. It was only when the story featured a local MP with the same name as the real member that the penny crashed down.

The publishers assured me that Stuart wasn't some cuttings-based docudrama. The unassuming academic was Alexander Masters. He had worked in Wintercomfort, the hostel, and had befriended Stuart, the rough-sleeper whose childhood was marred by sexual abuse and whose adult life hit the buffers when he was killed by a train.

The quotations that make up much of the text are verbatim, based on recordings made because Stuart wanted Masters to write this book. Was it right to make public the man's car-crash of a life? Well, Stuart read the manuscript (except, of course, the final episode) without complaint. That is just as well, since his way of registering severe displeasure was to run amok with a knife or to cut his own throat with broken glass.

The geography of Cambridge did not, for him, feature colleges and university buildings, but places for begging, hostels for the homeless, chemists dispensing his drugs and a burnt-out squat. Yet this small-time loser had the nerve to lecture the scholarly Masters about everything from conceptual art to Princess Margaret's legs.

A man without even the title deeds to his cardboard box, he knew how to turn a friend's property into a money-making machine - and keep out burglars such as himself. Sometimes his exasperated biographer hoped the crazy fellow would fall out of a high window. With the patience of a saint, he stuck by his wayward friend through thick, thin and court appearances.

Stuart had his triumphs. Despite his disability, childhood abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction, he was, until recently, a survivor. He got off the streets and into a council flat. His greatest success was also his greatest disappointment: the idea that Masters should write his life story. He said an early draft was "boring" and should be more like a Tom Clancy thriller. Wrong again, Stuart.

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