Stuart: A Life Backwards

Stuart: A Life Backwards

by Alexander Masters


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385340885
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/29/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 365,876
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Alexander Masters was born in New York in 1965 and studied physics and mathematics in London and Cambridge. For the last five years he has worked in hostels for the homeless and run a street newspaper. He has also been an agony aunt, a travel writer, an illustrator, and a bedspread salesman.

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

‘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 days.

‘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.’

What People are Saying About This

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

Customer Reviews

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Stuart: A Life Backwards 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
vintage_vermin on LibraryThing 10 months ago
I rushed out and bought this as soon as I saw the drama on TV (I only wish it had been the other way round). Fantastic book, really funny and really sad at the same time. The way it's written is very clever and perfect for the story. I like the way that the book is as much about Stuart's character as it is about his life. I enjoyed the references to Cambridge too as it's a city I'm very familiar with, and everytime I go there I wonder if I'm walking amoungst his friends.
TheBookJunky on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Marvellous. A biography and also a tale of the friendship between ¿rageous¿ Stuart, a homeless, chaotic man, and the author, an advocate for the homeless. Not sentimental or sloppy, ¿told with humour, horror, and exasperation¿ says the blurb. That sums it up nicely.
shawnd on LibraryThing 10 months ago
This is a tough book to review for me. While it's nominally in the biography section at my library, and described as a biography, I believe it's better classified as a sociology non-fiction sort of longitudinal case study...of one person (hope there are no social scientists out there having to read that one....). It's a biography, written in reverse chronological order, of a homeless man in Britain. It documents his struggles with crime, finances, police, family, and living on the streets, as well perhaps the most challenging is his mental status and childhood history. The author embeds himself and deeply and impressively becomes part of Stuart's world.[SPOILER INCLUDED, read further at your risk]. I was definitely frustrated that the author makes out Stuart's life outcome as a great mystery, of which we see clues, but no one can quite put together an answer. This is echoed even in some reviews here. Let me give you a clue: how about being repeatedly sodomized as a child! It's pretty clear to this reader that it's not his very mild physical issues (muscular dystrophy-lite evidenced by walking with a limp and running slowly); having no father at home but rather a dedicated step-father; his issues with rage later in life. None of those. Very late in the book, and in a disturbingly overly graphic way, the author reveals that as a child, Stuart's been absolutely brutalized. There's no mystery. The mystery is why the guy has not murdered someone or perpetrated on someone else.All in all, a backhanded, in my opinion immature--even though well-researched--literary example of mistaking the obvious and in the process slightly demeaning the impact of sexual abuse. I think this is part of the reason that it's written backward: the later history is much more interesting as a mystery by keeping the very obvious cause (that perhaps folks won't want to read about in Chapter 2) hidden until the end.
giahar on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Now this is a book that changed my life. Anybody that is remotely interested in funny, tragic biographies that have true literary qualities can read this. It's about a homeless man, Stuart, in Oxford, England. He tells his story to the author and they become great friends. Stuart, to say the least, is a very, very special person.
ohgoshbygosh on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Amazing, heart breaking and hilarious at the same time.
readabook66 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating look at how people become homeless and why they often stay that way.
allison.sivak on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was both funny and chilling, irreverent in its narrator(s)' attitudes towards standard liberal assumptions about addiction, homelessness, and their root causes. The central question throughout this book is "what was the turning point?" for Stuart Shorter to become homeless. It is fascinating and frustrating that there does not seem to be one answer to this question.While Masters has written the book, it does read as a real collaboration, starting with Stuart's assessment of Alexander's original narrative structure as "boring." The story focuses on Stuart, but not at a distance; anecdotes are told through Alexander's observations, but also through Stuart's own voice in long quotations. Masters also includes tellings of his interactions with Stuart (and his frequent feelings of frustration and admiration towards Stuart), bringing the book a strong sense of the immediate, and heightening the story's urgency. This was a book unlike any other that I have ever read as a biography, as a social treatise on addiction, homelessness and crime, as a story of two friends.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
C_2112_M More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oolalatte More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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¿.