'Knife Man Dan' lives on in print

Alexander Masters' frank portrayal of a homeless ex-convict is designed to overturn our preconceptions, says Peter Taylor-Whiffen

The story of an unlikely friendship between an Open University maths student and a homeless ex-con is becoming one of the surprise hits of the year.

The story of an unlikely friendship between an Open University maths student and a homeless ex-con is becoming one of the surprise hits of the year.

But then Stuart: A Life Backwards is no ordinary book. Its subject is a violent recidivist, armed robber, hostage taker and heroin addict, who was persuaded by author Alexander Masters to talk about his life and what turned him from, in his mother's words, "a really happy-go-lucky" 10-year-old into a man known variously, even to his fellow vagrants, as "Psycho", "Knife Man Dan" and "that mad bastard".

MSc student Masters' account of his three-year relationship with Stuart Shorter has won him a national literary prize, a publishing deal and a serialization in the Daily Telegraph. And in May the book was shortlisted for Britain's richest non-fiction award, the £30,000 BBC Four Samuel Johnson prize. The winner is due to be announced on 14 June.

What makes the book really individual is that while it tells Stuart's tragic life story - shaped by mild muscular dystrophy, a childhood of taunts about his disability, and rape by his brother and subsequently at a children's home - it is far from a one-sided, middle-class view of homelessness. For much of it is in Stuart's words, and tells of how he and Masters gradually earned each other's respect and learned from each other - and worked on the book together.

"It struck me that there were very few accurate descriptions of homeless people," said Masters, a Cambridge University physics graduate who is two years into his maths MSc with the OU. "We either see them as a group of people to love and we excuse them for everything they do, or to hate. Getting to know Stuart as an individual - one who was very intelligent but could also do and say very stupid things - taught me a lot about the lives that homeless people really lead, rather than the perception we have of them.

"Although he had a violent history, I didn't see any reason to treat him any differently from anyone else. There were times when we couldn't stand each other, and we'd argue, but I was never frightened of him. He was an intelligent man, and empathetic. If I'd had a go at him he would tell me later that it upset him, but he would also apologise if he'd been out of order."

Masters first saw Stuart begging on the streets of Cambridge in 1999, but it was the following year that he really came to the student's attention, when Masters was working in a hostel for the city's homeless. Masters' colleagues Ruth Wyner, the director of Cambridge's Wintercomfort centre for the homeless, and her day centre manager John Brock had been given five- and four-year jail terms (later reduced after an appeal) because drug dealing had taken place at the venue.

Fellow staff and supporters had immediately launched a campaign to get them freed, but at the first public meeting, among all the well-meaning, well-dressed attendees, it was scruffy, chaotic Stuart who spoke the most sense and gave campaign leader Masters some of the most practical ideas for drawing attention to the pair's plight.

"It was Stuart who suggested we camp outside the Home Office," said Masters, from Wickham Market, near Ipswich. "We got a lot of publicity, but he also did it because he wanted me to have just a little idea of what it's like to be homeless. We did it for three days, and that was enough for me."

The secret of Masters' book is that it does not pigeon-hole Stuart. He's intelligent, but often stupid; thoughtful but reckless; philosophical but violent; a victim of circumstance, yet his own worst enemy. And it's clear there were some days the two men couldn't stand each other. "What Stuart means when he says it's not the cold or the hardness of the streets that drives you crazy," wrote Masters of their Home Office vigil, "is that it's the other people. It's the people like fucking Stuart, ranting and raving. Shut up, will you!"

The book itself first attracted attention when Masters, 39, submitted it for an Arts Council competition and won £7,000 and a minor publishing deal. "I was then able to send it to an agent, who later told me there had been an auction - four publishers wanted to buy it. I'm delighted because it raises awareness of what homelessness is really all about."

The book has been so well received that he has already written off this year's OU studies. "I'm going to have to delay my next MSc course until next year," he said. "I've done a bit of writing before - I used to be a book reviewer and I have done some freelance travel writing for the broadsheets - but this is the first time I've been able to make my living from writing and I'm really busy. My publisher and agent have asked me about writing a second book, so I'll be talking to them about that. It's all very exciting."

The great sadness is that the man who made it all possible is not alive to see how much impact his story is bound to have on thousands of readers, and their attitude to Britain's homeless. Stuart Shorter died in 2002, killed instantly when he stepped in front of a train. He was 33.

Stuart: A Life Backwards is published by Fourth Estate, price £12.99. Alexander Masters is one of a number of former OU students who have found their way into print. To find out more about the Alumni Authors Group visit www.open.ac.uk/developmentoffice/alumniauthors/index.shtml

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 1 Primary teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: An excellent primary school based ...

AER Teachers: Cover Supervisor - Central London - September

£70 - £80 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: This outstanding school s...

AER Teachers: SEN Teaching Assistant - London - September

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: This central London prima...

AER Teachers: Graduate Primary Teaching Assistant

£65 - £75 per day + competitive rates: AER Teachers: A good primary school in ...

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms