Stuart: A Life Backwards [NOOK Book]


In this extraordinary book, Alexander Masters has created a moving portrait of a troubled man, an unlikely friendship, and a desperate world few ever see. A gripping who-done-it journey back in time, it begins with Masters meeting a drunken Stuart lying on a sidewalk in Cambridge, England, and leads through layers of hell…back through crimes and misdemeanors, prison and homelessness, suicide attempts, violence, drugs, juvenile halls and special schools–to expose the smiling, gregarious thirteen-year-old boy who ...
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Stuart: A Life Backwards

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In this extraordinary book, Alexander Masters has created a moving portrait of a troubled man, an unlikely friendship, and a desperate world few ever see. A gripping who-done-it journey back in time, it begins with Masters meeting a drunken Stuart lying on a sidewalk in Cambridge, England, and leads through layers of hell…back through crimes and misdemeanors, prison and homelessness, suicide attempts, violence, drugs, juvenile halls and special schools–to expose the smiling, gregarious thirteen-year-old boy who was Stuart before his long, sprawling, dangerous fall.

Shocking, inspiring, and hilarious by turns, Stuart: A Life Backwards is a writer’s quest to give voice to a man who, beneath his forbidding exterior, has a message for us all: that every life–even the most chaotic and disreputable–is a story worthy of being told.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
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There are many Stuart Shorters. Stuart Unexpected: paranoid, softspoken, and timid. Stuart Fury: hotheaded, murderous, and temperamental. And Stuart Unpredictable: fey, cunning, and full of charm. But who is he, really? That's what Masters intended to find out, and as he woefully discovered, Stuart's life, filled with passion and intensity, may be rich fodder for novelists, but it's a downright liability for a biographer. Piled high with incident, Stuart's days erupt in perpetual chaos. "Thief, hostage taker, psycho, and sociopathic raconteur," Stuart Shorter, despite his 20-page rap sheet is, Masters thinks, not someone whose behavior he can explain or justify, but with any luck, he can transfer it to the page.

No fiction here, Stuart's may be the most original biography you've encountered. Despite his late-life right turn toward respectability, he remained a man of the street. As he comments on the problems of the British underclass and the issues of the homeless -- by turns maddening, frustrating, and riotous -- an unlikely yet credible friendship develops between the biographer and his subject, providing just one of the rich rewards of the book. But no reward is greater that the opportunity to meet Stuart himself. An unexpected, bold introduction to and an invigorating take on a tragic individual, Master's work is a masterwork of pathos. (Fall 2006 Selection)
Michiko Kakutani
Mr. Masters says he couldn't explain Stuart's life, just tried to "staple him to the page," and he tells his story without a shred of sentimentality or cant. The resulting book never for a moment reads like one of those treacly TV-movie-of-the-week dramas about someone coping with some sort of terrible trauma or affliction but as a harrowing and humane portrait of an extraordinary individual. Stuart scorned the first draft of the book as deadly boring and came up with a brilliant suggestion: "make it more like a murder mystery," he told Mr. Masters. "What murdered the boy I was?" In other words: write it backward, from Stuart's days as a homeless person to his turbulent adolescence to his lost youth, in an effort to show who killed the "happy, lively little lad" he was as a very young boy.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The British antihero of this moving biography started with teenage glue-sniffing, petty thievery and gang brawls, then graduated to heroin and major thievery. He endured prison stints and led a "medieval existence" on the streets, finally emerging into triumphant semistability as an "ex-homeless, ex-junkie psychopath" with only occasional episodes of violence and suicidal impulses. In Cambridge, England, Masters, an advocate for the homeless, befriended Stuart-someone for whom "cause and effect are not connected in the usual way"-and found him at times obnoxious and repellent, but also funny and honest. Masters notes bad genes and childhood sexual molestation, and critiques "the System" of British welfare and criminal justice institutions that help with one hand and brutalize with the other, but he doesn't reduce Stuart's intractable problems to simple dysfunction or societal neglect. By eschewing easy answers (the easy answers-don't drink, don't use, don't steal, don't play with knives-are precisely the hardest for Stuart), he accords full humanity to Stuart's stumbling efforts to grapple with his demons. Hilarious and clear-eyed, the author's superbly drawn portrait of Stuart is an unforgettable literary evocation and a small masterpiece of moral empathy and imagination. Photos. (June 6) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This biography reads like a mystery novel, which is just what its subject, Stuart Shorter, wanted. When homeless advocate Masters discovered ex-con Shorter drunk on the Cambridge streets, he rose to the challenge Shorter threw him: "What murdered the boy I was?" As Masters travels back through Stuart's past, he provides clues for the reader; as in a good mystery novel, these clues are not obvious but neatly masked by all the false leads and dead ends of Stuart's life: the overdoses, prison stays, and crimes of rage that over time exasperate even his dedicated biographer. The book's subplot, which deals with whether two charity workers will be freed from jail for committing the "crime" of running a homeless shelter where drug transactions took place, also spurs the reader to turn pages. Best of all is the language-contemporary, eclectic, creative, and so humorous that it helps soften the shock of learning what it's like to lead the kind of life Stuart has led. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries.-Maria Kochis, California State Univ. Lib., Sacramento Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British homeless advocate Masters crafts an unconventional biography of a man who raged not only at the dying of the light but often at the very light itself. The first-time author worked on Stuart Shorter's story for several years, experiencing the frustrations and occasional joys of a close association with someone caught in chaos. When Masters finished a first draft, he showed it to Stuart, who said it was boring and should be organized more like a thriller or detective novel that worked backwards through events until the discovery of the Truth. One of the charms of this book is that Stuart comments occasionally about the current draft, offering suggestions, sniffing derisively or dismissively about the text. "In biography, most of the time, the real person is a nuisance," Masters sighs. Stuart was indeed a most difficult case. Sexually abused by a brother and babysitter, addicted to glue-sniffing as a teen (and, later, to just about every other substance), a continual runaway, a habitual jailbird, a sometimes violent denizen of the streets, a common and an uncommon criminal, he was somehow likable as well. Masters claims he was never afraid of Stuart, with whom he shared quarters and close contact. The author does work backwards, sort of, in this final version. He begins in the present and ends with Stuart's very obscure early childhood. Masters also keeps us apprised of what's going on at the moment and offers a running commentary on the progress of his writing-a sort of meta-biography. His research included studying books about homelessness and the psychology (or pathology) of the abused, examining court and school records and reading articles. When Stuart is killed by a train(accident rather than suicide, it seems), Masters knows that the Truth he has been pursuing will forever elude him. Imaginative, piercing portrayal of a man shadowed by merciless demons.
From the Publisher
"Remarkable…. a harrowing and humane portrait of an extraordinary individual ...without a shred of sentimentality or cant."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"A quirky, affecting book."—People

"Compelling .... Stuart is hilarious. He's a witty and dramatic raconteur with a profane Cockney voice, a charismatic gleam and a gift for relating the most horrifying events — things done both to him and by him — without excuse or self-pity.... Stuart's determination to live a life grounded in some principle deserves our attention. Listen to this man. Look him in the eye."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"This is my pick so far as best memoir of the year.... [Masters'] sketch of Stuart is informative and heartbreaking, funny and at times brutally honest.... describing a genuine friendship."—Margo Hammond, St. Petersburg Times

"Compelling .... Stuart is hilarious. He's a witty and dramatic raconteur with a profane Cockney voice, a charismatic gleam and a gift for relating the most horrifying events—things done both to him and by him— without excuse or self-pity.... Stuart's determination to live a life grounded in some principle deserves our attention. Listen to this man. Look him in the eye."—Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Achieves a perfect balance of empathy and comedy. The real attraction, however, is Stuart's own voice…. His life resists easy explanation, which makes Masters's patient attention to its concrete details all the more affecting."—The New Yorker

"The year's most surprising and charming biography."—Entertainment Weekly, EW Pick

"Poignantly entertaining."—Elle Magazine

"Hilarious and clear-eyed, the author's superbly drawn portrait of Stuart is an unforgettable literary evocation and a small masterpiece of moral empathy and imagination."—Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Possibly the best biography I have ever read. Just about perfect." —Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

"Raw, disturbing, and unsettling but also revelatory and life-affirming ... A must-read book that is warmly funny, deeply moving, and utterly extraordinary. "—Booklist, starred review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440336129
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/30/2006
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 300
  • Sales rank: 396,370
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Alexander Masters is an author and homeless worker. He is the author of Stuart: A Life Backwards and The Genius in My Basement. Stuart: a Life Backwards, was a Sunday Times bestseller and the winner of the Guardian First Book Award and Whitbread Book of the Year 2005 in the Biography category. He recently adapted Stuart: a Life Backwards for a BBC film. Alexander Masters lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

‘It was cutting me throat what got me this flat.’

Stuart pushes open the second reinforced door into his corridor, turns off the blasting intercom that honks like a foghorn whenever a visitor presses his front bell, and bumps into his kitchen to sniff the milk. ‘Tea or coffee, Alexander?’

He is a short man, in his early thirties, and props himself against the sink to arch up his head and show me the damage. The scar extends like a squashed worm from beneath the tattoos on one ear to above his Adam’s apple.

The kettle lead is discovered beneath a pack of sodden fish fingers. ‘How about a sarnie? Yes?’

Stuart stretches his hand to the other end of the kitchen, extracts
a double pack of discount economy bacon from the fridge and submerges six slices in chip-frying oil. ‘Cooked or incinerated?’

It is a cramped, dank little apartment. One room, ground floor. The window looks across a scrappy patch of grass to a hostel for disturbed women.

‘One of the few times I’ve been happy happy, the day I got this flat,’ Stuart smiles at me. ‘That’s why I want you to write a book. It’s me way of telling the people what it was like down there. I want to thank them what got me out, like Linda and Denis and John and Ruth and Wynn, and me mum, me sister and me dad, well, I call him me dad, but he’s me stepdad, if truth be told.’

The bread starts to burn. Stuart pumps the toaster release and the slices fly high into the air.

‘Cos there’s so much misunderstanding,’ he concludes angrily. ‘It’s killing people. Your fucking nine to fives! Someone needs to tell them! Literally, every day, deaths! Each one of them deaths is somebody’s son or daughter! Somebody needs to tell them, tell them like it is!’ I move into the main room. There is a single bed in the corner, a chest of drawers, a desk — sparse, cheap furniture, bought with the help of a government loan. Also, a comfy chair. I drop into it. It is not comfortable at all. I flop on to the sofa instead.

A 1950s veneer side cabinet, with bottles and pill cases on top, is against the inside wall, and in the corner a big-screen TV standing on an Argos antique-style support. Stuart likes his TV. He has thrown it at the wall twice and it still works.

In return for a crate of Foster’s, Stuart explains from the kitchen, ‘the bloke upstairs has promised to make me a James Bond mattress base that folds up against the wall, which will give me more room. It’ll have big springs on either side what does the moving, and latches on the floor, because otherwise, it’s boing, boing, whoosh.’

‘Boing, boing, whoosh?’

‘Well, a bird’s not going to be too happy if she suddenly finds her face squeezed against the plaster, is she?’
Another friend is going to put up shelves, partition off the kitchen and repaint the walls gold, instead of green on the bottom half, cream above, as they are at the moment, like a mental institution.

The man in the bedsit above is a cyclist — a short, bespectacled Scotsman whose legs hardly touch the pedals; next to him a mute woman who beats out chart tunes on the floor with her shoe heel; and on the other side of the entrance lobby, Sankey, son of an RAF pilot — he sleeps with an aluminium baseball bat beside his bed.

The only problem Stuart has in his desirable new home is mould. It prickles up the bathroom wall and creeps across the ceiling in speckled clumps, so that he has to stand on a chair and scrub it back once a month as though he were stripping paint. Now and then it floats down the hall to his bed side and his clothes; he smells like a garden shed on those

‘By the way,’ he calls out, ‘I’m thinking of sticking a reflective sheet over that window.

What d’you reckon?’

‘It’s dark enough in here as it is — why make it even darker?’

‘It’s to stop them spying on me.’

‘Don’t be silly. No one’s spying on you. Who’s them?’

‘I’ve seen them but not seen them, if you know what I mean.

Red sauce or brown?’

He is also going to block up the air vent above the freezer because there could be microphones secreted between the slats.

‘Not being funny, you got to think about these things when you’re redecorating.’
Stuart has also had a ‘brilliant’ idea for a job. If it works, it will be the first honest work he’s been able to hold down in his life. New flat, new job, new Stuart. Already he has signed himself up for an IT course.

‘Think about it, right? For the foreign businessman what hasn’t got time to waste, what’s he need? An office! In a van! It’s lateral thinking, isn’t it? Gets off the plane at Stansted, straight in the back of me van and I drive him to meetings. No time wasted, see? It’ll have everythink, this van. Good-looking bird — one what can do shorthand — fax, Internet, mobile phone. His own office, just for the journey. Wires all over the fucking gaff. Brilliant!’

In the centre of Stuart’s table is a brown folder with his purple handwriting on it:


A moment later, Stuart is at the desk himself. He has remembered an important engagement with an Internet-savvy friend, and now has his diary out of its home-made plastic wallet and pressed against the table.

In order to keep track of his newly busy life, Stuart has devised a special colour-coding for this book: green highlighter for family, yellow for social, orange for duty. His handwriting is not excellent. Even when there’s only one word to be got down, he sometimes begins his gigantic letters too far across the line and has to pack the end into a pea-size, as if the letters had bunched up in fright at the thought of dropping off the page. At other times the phrases are neat and slow. His spelling is part phonetic, part cap-doffing guesswork: ‘Monday: ADDanBRocK’s.’ ‘Tuesday: QuiSt going to Vist VoLanteR service’s. ASK for NAME & ADReSS For AwarD organation.’

SAT’S LOTTO 5 10 17 20 44 48
7.30 Cam. 2 meeting Bath House if not Brambram.

April: Phone to DR P––. CAnCell if in court.
2OCLOCK go TO ALEXDER’S BooK must go
ScriPt PicK 200 100.

MuSic FesTervile.
MAKE SURE ALRaM Button is up not Down. When WeaK up is needed.

‘I still don’t know me alphabet,’ he calls out blithely. ‘First place I get stuck is N. I only remember the S, T, U bit because it’s me name, Stu.’ Pages stiff with Tipp-Ex in his diary indicate appointments made too far ahead, subsequently cancelled, because events
take place with startling swiftness in Stuart’s life and he can never be certain that, though happy and full of plans on Monday, he won’t be in prison, or in hospital, by Friday.

‘ADDanBRocK’s’ is Addenbrooke’s, the hospital complex of beds, smoke stacks and research departments on the edge of Cambridge; it looks over the wheat fields and the train line to London, like a crematorium. ‘Brambram’ is Babraham, a village three miles outside Cambridge. You’d think he could get at least that one right: he’s been a local boy all his life. ‘When WeaK up is needed’? Who knows what that means. ‘ScriPt PicK 100’ refers to his methadone prescription. 100 ml is high. Between 60 and 80 ml is the average for street addicts. 200? In his dreams.

‘ALEXDER’. That’s me. In speech, Stuart is careful to give my name its full four syllables. But in writing, he always drops the third syllable: not Alex, but Alexder.
Stuart’s backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous. Even with a well-known person it can be boring work to spend the first fifty pages reading facts and guesses about Grandpa, Granny, Mum, Dad, subject aged one, two, three, seven, eight. But introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he
may just grab their interest straight away. By the time they reach his childhood, it is a matter of genuine interest how he turned into the person that he is. So we’ll move backwards, in stages, tacking like a sailboat against the wind. Familiar time flow — out the window. Homogeneous mood of reflectiveness — up in smoke. This way, an air of disruption from the start.

Will it work? Can a person’s history be broken up? Isn’t a life the sum of its pasts? Perhaps Stuart’s approach is possible only with Stuart, whose sense of existence is already broken into fragments.

At long last, the sarnies arrive, drippling marge and ketchup, the top slice of bread moulded into the shape of Stuart’s palm. Stuart Clive Shorter — the first time I saw him, in 1998, he was pressed in a doorway next to the discount picture-framing shop, round the corner from Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. He had an oddly twisted way of sitting on his square of cardboard, as if his limbs were half made of rubber.

Pasty skin, green bomber jacket, broken gym shoes, hair cropped to the scalp and a week’s worth of stubble; his face, the left side livelier than the right, was almost mongoloid. Several of his teeth were missing; his mouth was a sluice.

I had to get down on my knees to hear him speak.

‘As soon as I get the opportunity I’m going to top meself,’ he whispered.
He picked at the sole of his gym shoes. The tattoos on his hands were home-made. A huge ‘FUCK’ began on his bicep, right arm, and ended just above his cuff.

‘Yeah, I’m gonna top meself and it’s got to seem like someone else done it. Look, if you’re not going to give me money, do you mind moving on?’

The legs of Christmas shoppers and delayed businessmen hurried beside us. Clip, clop, clip, clop — a pair of high heels rushed past, sounding like a horse. It was, it struck me, comforting to be at this level: a two-foot-high world, shared with dogs and children. Adult noises dropped down with the context of the conversation missing and sibilants exaggerated. The smell of street grime, the wind and hot underwear of passersby, was not unpleasant, rather like salami. Someone stooped and dropped a coin; another person threw across a box of matches. A third declared he would buy a sandwich, but ‘I won’t donate money. You’ll only spend it on drink and drugs.’

Stuart opted for bacon and cheese.

On Christmas Eve a beggar can earn £70 — 120 in Cambridge.

‘But how are you going to make suicide look like murder?’ I asked.

‘I’ll taunt all the drunk fellas coming out the pub until they have to kill me if they want a bit of peace.’ He slurred; it was as if the words had got entangled in his lips. ‘Me brother killed himself in May. I couldn’t put me mum through that again. She wouldn’t mind murder so much.’

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 8 of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 30, 2012

    Found it boring. Tried hard but could not finish it

    The bottom line is that after getting halfway through the book didnt care about Stuart. I had zero emotional attachment to the guy. The only reason to keep reading is because you care why he turned out the way he did. I kept waiting for some hook that would make me want to know about him but it never came. It became a chore to read. I didnt even skip to the end to find out. The premise of the book sounded it great but it just didn't work for me.

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  • Posted June 1, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An insight into a homeless life

    An interesting read that gives you a peak into the life and mentality of a homeless man and his struggles to get through the day and off the streets. I feel that people advocating for the homeless and working to help in this area should read this book to get insights about the homeless mentality so they can better incorporate that into the programs they develop. But then again, maybe they know this but just can't figure out how to make such changes. Although I often found the author a little annoying with all his complaining, I guess that is how most people view the homeless and so it is appropriate for the book. I am amazed at how trusting the author is with Stuart and that is great. I'm glad that he gave someone like Stuart a voice.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2007

    A reviewer

    The Biography Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters is an honest and gripping look at the often untold life of a homeless alcoholic ex-con. Masters begins the book with present day and then works backwards through the years of Stuart¿s life, ultimately ending the book with Stuart¿s childhood. This creative and unique approach does not leave the reader guessing what happens at the end of Stuart¿s life, but rather what happened at the beginning that lead Stuart to where he is now. Also creative about the book is Masters¿ use of pictures and illustrations. With the adult content and use of large vocabulary Stuart is not a book one would typically find pictures in. However, Masters successfully incorporates photographs, illustrations, and even many of Stuart¿s original drawings to better the reader¿s understanding of Stuarts¿ life. Multiple times throughout the book Masters includes examples of Stuart¿s writing and sketches. This way the reader can see exactly how poor his handwriting and spelling are in addition to how juvenile his drawings appear. The most difficult part about this book for me is the language used. For me, being American, it was initially difficult to get used to the British terms and spelling used throughout the book. I often found myself reading things twice or referring to the context in order to fully understand what Masters wrote. In addition, the Cockney accent and British slang that Stuart uses during his dialogue made it difficult to understand exactly what he meant to say. Dialogue like, ¿`I still don¿t know me alphabet. First place I get stuck is N. I only remember the S, T, U bit `cause it¿s me name.¿¿ 'Masters 12' is not uncommon. However Masters incorporates a perfect amount of dialogue at the right times to make sure the reader doesn¿t get lost. Overall, Stuart: A Life Backwards, is one of the most eye-opening and original biographies of all time. Masters¿ perfect mixture of humor and sympathy compliment his professional yet casual way of writing. I definitely pronounce it a ¿must-read¿.

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    Posted February 8, 2011

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