Troubled boys

Stuart: a life backwards

Alexander Masters <em>Fourth Estate, 295pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0007200366

Stuart Shorter ended his short life in front of a train travelling from King's Lynn to London. He had contemplated death earlier, but then hoped that someone whom he'd annoyed would kill him. There was some logic to this. Stuart's mother had already had to endure the suicide of his brother - another might have proved too much for her.

But Stuart just could not hold it together. Having reached his thirties more by chance than by design, he found himself unable to go on living with his anger, his self-hatred and his demons.

Stuart's story begins with him meeting his prospective biographer, Alexander Masters, and rubbishing his early drafts. Then Stuart comes up with a bold idea: Masters should start from the present and work his way back to the beginning. Stuart believes his story would read better if it began with how bad his life is now and then showed how this unhappiness had roots in its appalling beginning. This device helps reveal a dreadful truth: that Stuart was doomed before the ink was dry on his birth certificate.

Masters captures the aimless, empty existence of a man who is one of thousands. Like many homeless people, Stuart is full of loathing for himself, those around him and, at times, the homeless industry. Masters's book is a wry, comic and tragic account of Stuart's undoing, but it also captures the brightness of the man. Stuart was not dumb. He was someone who, as a sick boy, had been abused. And despite all his smartness, he could not rise above the pain and suffering of his early years.

Stuart's greatest tragedy, however, was to be born when he was born - a time when carers, social workers, state and local government involvement could not put the troubled boy back together again; when being socially disadvantaged meant being entitled only to certain limited privileges, which proved hollow and empty. Someone like Stuart could not have existed 35 years ago. It is only in the past 30 years that family breakdown and the collapse of effective welfare provision have produced people like him, who carve giant "Fucks" on their arms and who denigrate almost everyone in their path.

One of the first "Stuart types" I ever encountered was my younger brother. He got into drugs in the 1960s and drink in the 1970s. He lost his family, and slipped still further into self-abuse. He was intolerant of everyone who tried to help him and bared his teeth at all the nine-to-fivers, even though they supplied the taxes that kept him in social security handouts.

With the failure of welfare to help people into independent living, cracks appeared in the providing edifice. Then, in the early 1970s, as if out of nowhere, came charitable shelters, drop-ins and care centres. As state help became ineffective, the world of voluntary homeless provision took off. Anyone with a church crypt and a conscience was dragooned into shoring up our failing society.

Out of this system came people like my brother, and like Stuart. They seldom work and they seldom support themselves, but there is always someone around for them - a shoulder to cry on, with a bun and a cup of tea; and there is sometimes a council flat, which they can get into by jumping the housing waiting list.

Yet despite all this volunteerism, men of Stuart's kind continue to fail. They become ever more dependent, and even-tually wear out their lease on life. Some, like Stuart, die in extremis; others endure a living death of substance addiction. But almost all are united in the abuse they hand out to the world.

Masters has done us a favour by describing how one particular "no man" became a kind of someone. We are made sorry by his story - but we are also shown that the badly made Stuart had depth, that a part of him railed against what was done to him and what he did to himself.

As someone who works as a social provider, this book underlines for me the need for us to stop creating Stuarts, to stop allowing government policy to oxygenate social collapse. The results of doing otherwise can be seen in stories such as Stuart's, and that of my younger brother.

John Bird is founder of the Big Issue

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