The trouble with most 20th-century biographers was that they focused on well‑known people “pounding through facts from grandma to the grave,” wrote Alexander Masters. They were, he added, “missing the point." What then was the point? There were in fact two points: first that “any subject that is good for fiction is good for biography,” and second that modern biographers should not follow other people’s lives without revealing their own. In Stuart: A Life Backwards, published in 2005, Masters set out to explore the life of a wholly unknown man he had met begging on a street in Cambridge. He was sitting on a square of cardboard, a wretched figure. “I had to get down on my knees to hear him speak.”
According to his mother, Stuart Shorter had been “a real happy-go-lucky little boy” until the age of 12, after which he became for the next 20 years a “thief, hostage taker, psycho and sociopathic street raconteur”. In short he was, from Masters’s point of view, “a man with an important life”. He had been found living in and out of skips, was then given methadone to release him from heroin and began a new chapter of his life in a “cramped, dank little apartment”. It was a strange entry into ordinary life – interrupted by some radical attacks on the furniture. Masters would talk to him and eventually showed him the dog-eared manuscript of his biography. “It’s bollocks boring,” Stuart told him. “Do it the other way round … Write it backwards.”
To Masters’s astonishment this turned out to be an inspiration. It solved “the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous”. So the book was created by the subject and the writer together – and with one other person thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Without Dido Davies “I could not have got past the first pages," Masters wrote.
Davies was also a writer and in 1990 had published one of those biographies Masters had described and derided, about semi-well-known public people. Her subject was the novelist William Gerhardie and, although Davies did not bring herself into the narrative, she had known him. In fact I first met her (with her mother) at Gerhardie’s home in London several years earlier, and was able to give her some help with her book about this talented and eccentric figure. It’s not until now that I notice at the end of her acknowledgements a tribute to Alexander Masters, for his “patient attention, his careful editing, but above all his innumerable helpful and sensitive suggestions which improved the whole tone of the book,"
Stuart: A Life Backwards has already found its place in the history of biography. “The shock opening immediately announces a new kind of personal confrontation between biographer and subject,” wrote Richard Holmes in his reflections on the genre, This Long Pursuit (2016). “It will be fraught, informal, no holds barred, but with extraordinary possibilities of good humour and even, eventually, mutual understanding.” He likened this “strange duet” to Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage, about his friend the poet and convicted murderer.
Among the prizes it won was the Guardian first book award, and I was invited to the party. Masters arrived with a woman called Flora, who stood by him while he made his speech. Davies was also there. She said she was equipped with a pearl-handled revolver that she would aim at Masters if he did not acknowledge her help. She had been drinking quite a lot and I edged away in case she shot the wrong person. Masters’s next subject was Simon Phillips Norton, an old Etonian who lurked in the basement of the biographer’s former house. “Simon has been pacing down there for 27 years, three months, five days, 13 hours and eight minutes,” he calculated in his 2011 book Simon: The Genius in My Basement. One day, Simon had wandered upstairs and met Stuart going through his life backwards. Often dressed in rags, his genius lay in maths, plucking patterns out of chaos, spotting invisible coincidences. He became a world expert on a mathematical problem so complex and shocking that it became known as “the Monster”. But one day he made a small mistake – and this was the beginning of the end.
Simon was left with two residual interests: politics and the timetables of public transport. He gave a great deal of money to a campaign for transport activism and enjoyed taking buses and trains, on which he could meet people he need never see again. He also gave £10,000 to a member of Plane Stupid who had attempted to glue his hand to Gordon Brown’s jacket at a party in Downing Street. In short, he was an even more challenging subject for a biographer than Stuart Shorter. How then could he be chased into a book? It seemed as unlikely as Simon solving the Monster’s intractable problem. Both had impossible tasks – but two minuses make a plus. “By the end of this book,” Masters had predicted, “it’s likely I shall be writing about someone entirely different from the man with whom I began.” And so it was.
Masters is an artist as well as a writer. His book on Stuart was full of charming drawings of him, where he was and what he was doing. Simon’s career was more challenging and included some baffling mathematical drawings too. The reviews were enthusiastic: “A comical, tender portrait … captivating … wholly original.” But it did not attract such large sales as Masters’ previous book, which had been turned into a successful BBC film. Perhaps some would-be readers felt nervous of mathematics – besides, this second book could not have the novelty of his first.
Masters’s third book had been waiting for him some 10 years, after its contents had been fished out of a metal skip near where Simon lived. Among the bricks and slates, the wet tree stumps and a broken shower basin that had been tossed into this container were some diaries – 148 of them, in all sorts and sizes, from which a detective story would gradually emerge. There was to be no one’s name in the title of this book: it was simply A Life Discarded.
These diaries had been written with great urgency and a mechanical regularity between the 1950s and 90s. Masters calculated that the owner must have written 2,500 words a day, every day, including those days for which the diaries were lost. The words are scribbled all over the page often in tiny writing “as pale as a whisper”. This made his job no easier, as he confronted more than a million words of anonymous writing. As a literary detective, he presents himself as a wonderfully comic figure. With great ingenuity he studies several passages in order to calculate the height of his biographical subject. It turns out to be far taller than any human being has ever reached. He calls the writer “It” before deciding that it must be a man or woman, in which case it is almost certainly a man. For several chapters he is definitely a man. But after some more detective work in libraries, he sees the correct name could have been Mary – only to discover that the Mary he has in his sights was not after all the diarist. So her new name becomes “Not Mary”. This turns out to be good news because one day when, in a violent temper, Not Mary attempts to kill someone (possibly himself) with a knife, our biographer discovers he is suffering from the curse of “my sex”, which explains the blood in the room and confirms that “he’s a woman”. Masters manages to get hold of a picture of her at school, but she is among 70 other girls, none of them named.
No wonder our biographer decides to employ a detective and a couple of graphologists. The detective discovers that a very elderly friend of Not Mary’s was a dame. This worries Masters. He does not want his subject to be an aristocrat. There are other surprises too. He is astonished when one of the graphologists, after studying the diary writing carefully, declares that Not Mary’s birthday must have been on 22 May 1939. How, he asks her, could she tell this? She answers that it was written by Not Mary in a paragraph he has not yet reached. So he reads her birthday entries in her diaries from 1952 to 2001 – a downward journey beginning with a list of presents, good spirits and a lovely dream, which descends into uncelebrated days and one, at the age of 45, a day she completely forgets. “I wonder if it would have been better,” she wrote, “if I had died.” She was, Masters believes, “a child trapped in an adult’s body."
One of Masters’ strengths as a writer is his ability to marry tragedy with comedy. Like him, Not Mary was an artist as well as a writer, and the pages of this book are lit up by both their drawings. About three-quarters in, he discovers the name of his subject and, a little later, the fact that she is in her 70s and happily alive. This could of course lead to copyright complications. In fact she did not object to what he wrote, and he was to give her 25% of his royalties on the book. A perfect arrangement. Even at the age of 18 she was telling her diary that she wanted to be “a writer of merit, perhaps even fame”. And now her biographer had brought her wish to life.
But there is a tragedy in the book. It was Dido Davies who had slid into the skip and brought out the diaries. She and Masters were long-time friends. Many years earlier, as a newly elected English fellow, she had crawled through the window of Masters’ Cambridge college and said hello. Her career was unusual. Under the name “Rachel Swift” she published two sex manuals, and, pursuing her interest in zoology, she travelled widely in Asia, occasionally giving lectures on rats and serpents. While Masters was working on this book, she had been writing a biography of Thomas More. They helped each other and she became his “writing collaborator”, giving his books direction. But in 2007, she was diagnosed with cancer, which was the cause of her death in 2013. Three years later, A Life Discarded was published and dedicated to Dido Davies.
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A Homeless Ex-Addict's Diary Becomes Inspiration for Fellow Writers