Life in the raw

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Fourth Estate

YOU PROBABLY DON’T know much about Stuart Shorter, even though, as Alexander Masters makes clear in this marvellous biography, he sank so low that he achieved a kind of bargain-basement notoriety. This book puts conventional biography’s parade of second-rate celebrity to shame.

Finding his protagonist among the poor, the unwashed, the undesirable and the plain ignored, a constituency that throngs the pages of fiction while rarely troubling biographical publishers, Masters has crafted a highly original celebration of humanity.

Its landscape is the streets of Cambridge, where the writer first encountered Stuart sitting in a doorway round the corner from Sydney Sussex College in 1998. One of the things this book does very well is to educate. Percentage of homeless who have been in the armed forces: 50. Life expectancy of rough sleepers: 42. Number of weeks it takes a newly homeless person to become attached to the streets: four.

But there is no simple-minded do-goodery here. In Stuart’s words: "Homelessness - it’s not about not having a home. It’s about something being seriously f***ing wrong." In Stuart’s case this is borderline personality disorder (the border being the one adjoining madness), a dysfunction which finds his strivings interrupted by self-harm, self-medication and fits of memory-blanking "rageousness".

An illustrator as well as a writer, Masters includes his own eccentric map of Stuart’s Cambridge, wiry line drawings and illustrations encompassing graffiti, a pattern of bullet holes and, most touchingly, faithfully reproduced extracts from Stuart’s diary. There are also newspaper cuttings, prison timetables and menus, school reports and recipes for convict curry, hooch and moonshine.

But the collage is not fashionable whimsy. This is a writer who knows how and when to pull his punches, and he delivers an unusually heavy rate of knockout blows as a result. Cushioned though it is by a wry tone and idiosyncratic presentation, the catalogue of Stuart’s abuse by family, friends, teachers and carers, the legal system, illness, himself and careless Fate comes across, inescapably, as a difficult and frightening barrage of experiences.

Still, it is not the horror, or the colourful detail, that makes Stuart a marvellous book. Its heart is in the central relationship - a friendship - between biographer and subject. Boswell to Stuart’s smackhead Johnson, Masters follows his chaotic friend’s odyssey through the byways of Cambridge, tape recorder in hand, with affection and ambivalence. He beautifully catches the idiom and cadence of Stuart’s speech, yet is driven to distraction by it. At one point he shamelessly wishes his subject would die - yet he persists in the conversational cat-and-mouse games that he hopes will "staple him to the page".

Intelligent and funny, Stuart himself veers between resistant ("Why should you get to put reasons on it when I’ve f***ing lived it and still can’t?") and creatively helpful. Masters is delighted with his friend’s idea to structure the book backwards: an investigation of what went wrong. He struggles with his responsibilities - and, in the end, the process of putting Stuart on the page seems like a metaphor for a crashing, universal question: what are we to make of each other?

Stuart may not be, as Stuart had hoped, "like a murder mystery what Tom Clancy writes", but by its end you will know something about Stuart Shorter. You may even, like Alexander Masters, be able keep Stuart alive, picturing him scratching a misspelt note to himself before nipping out to the Co-Op to buy frozen sausages, vodka and peas, his disease-twisted gait unmistakeable under the Cambridge streetlights.