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Stuart - a life backwards

May 22 2009
Reversing through prison, heroin addiction, self-harm, muscular dystrophy, bullying, child abuse and a violent father, you get to know this spiky character A tale about a homeless man in Cambridge has won the prestigious Guardian First Book Award. Alexander Masters scooped the £10,000 first prize with his book, Stuart: a life backward, which tells the life story of Stuart Shorter, a homeless man living on the streets of Cambridge, but in reverse. The book begins with Stuart's death (he was tragically killed in a railway accident before the book was published) and charts his life back through prison, heroin addiction, self-harm, his struggles with muscular dystrophy, bullying, child abuse and a violent father. As you get to know the spiky character of Stuart and the sometimes frustrated and impatient Masters you begin to understand what makes this book successful: a refreshing lack of sanctimony on the part of the author combined with an ability to let Stuart's voice control the story. Alexander Masters first met Stuart in 1998 and their friendship blossomed during a campaign to release Ruth Wyner and John Brock who were controversially imprisoned for allowing heroin dealing to take place at the rough sleepers' day centre that they ran together. Masters led the campaign and increasingly found himself in debt to Stuart for his street-savvy ideas for campaign stunts. Over time Masters became "aware how often I'd take his stories back with me and tell my friends. And I thought, well this is ridiculous, I'm getting all this material and wasting it - I'm not recording it". It took four and a half long, and sometimes frustrating, years to f i ni sh the book and it is a remarkable read. The idea to write the book backwards was entirely Stuart's: he wanted to "make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was?. It was this that attracted the judges' attention and admiration for the work. It is a shame that Stuart never got to read the published work, something that is down to his insistence that the whole thing be re-written after declaring a first draft as "bollocks boring". Masters stayed true to his friend's wish by creating a story that is both funny and uplifting - a fitting tribute to the life of a man. Alexander Masters has recently retired as the founding editor of the Willow Walker, a free quarterly paper for rough sleepers in Cambridge. We are in touch with this paper, and hope to forge links with their new editor.