The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 19th, 2005

Explaining the inner death of a good man

A biographer in search of a subject must usually cast about among people who have achieved something. The lives of people who have achieved absolutely nothing in worldly terms, who have known little but misery and chaos and who leave almost no traces of themselves behind them might seem much less promising for a biographer.

People like that are usually consigned to the fiction shelves or the sociology department. But the book that nearly won last week’s Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction was the story of just such a life and it is one of the most remarkable and touching biographies I’ve ever read. It also raises more urgent, contemporary questions about the human condition than almost any other biography I can think of.

The book is Stuart: a Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters. Stuart Shorter was, when his biographer first saw him, sitting on a square of cardboard on a pavement in Cambridge at Christmas time in 1998, an impossible man of 30, broken-toothed, hairy, filthy, weird looking, the sort of man people edit out of their consciousness.

When Masters, his future Boswell, bent down to hear him speak, Stuart whispered: “As soon as I get the opportunity I’m going to top myself.” He explained an elaborate plan to make his suicide look like a murder: he was going to taunt all the drunks coming out of the pub until they’d have to kill him to get a bit of peace. It had to be murder, Stuart explained, slurring his words. “Me brother killed himself in March. I couldn’t put me mum through that again. She wouldn’t mind murder so much.” That was both true and also typical of Stuart’s gallows humour.

Stuart Shorter was, or became, a junkie, dosser, alcoholic, thief, convict, illiterate self-harmer given to black mists of rage, and a violent sociopath with delusional paranoia and a fondness for what he called little strips of silver, meaning knives. He even held his small son hostage with a knife during a police raid. He was also, or had been, as his biographer slowly discovered, funny, sensitive, courageous, unimaginably resilient, imaginative, witty, thoughtful and intelligent, although years of drugs, drink and liquid coshes in institutions had scrambled his brains. He collaborated with this biography but told the writer to “make it more like a murder mystery — what murdered the boy I was?” He did not live to see it: he fell under the London to King’s Lynn train one night in 2001 near Waterbeach, where he came from.

Who or what murdered the boy he was or might have been? Or was he, tragically, born to become what he did? Reading his story, the most ferocious of biological determinists might pause; at every stage of Stuart’s life bad things happened to him and nature was probably not much kinder to him than nurture. The biography is told backwards, just like a murder mystery in which we know the terrible denouement but we don’t know how everything got so tangled up.

According to his mother, Stuart was a happy-go-lucky little boy, chatty, curious and determined. Life seemed quite good, if poor, in a Cambridgeshire village with his brother Gavvy, a married mother, a good stepfather and two tiny step-siblings. But biology gave him a violent alcoholic for a father, long gone, and a form of muscular dystrophy that made him walk in a funny way. It would give him life-long pain and a serious heart disease.

Horribly bullied about his “spaggy” walk, Stuart was suddenly and for no apparent good reason sent on a daily “spaggy bus”to a school for children with severe disabilities. Bullied wherever he went, he was repeatedly sodomised for years by his older brother Gavvy and another boy, as was his little sister.

At one time Stuart begged his mother, with violence, to be taken into care and he was. Gavvy later killed himself out of remorse, not long before Stuart met his biographer. At the special school he was buggered and abused by the charismatic head teacher, who was later jailed. Quite enough — although there was a great deal more — to explain Stuart’s mystery.

Driven to despair by the bullying of local boys, he finally found the courage one day to head-butt one of the biggest bullies, turned into a really scary mad bastard and remained one. But there were also powerful biological factors. The book makes a convincing case that he suffered from borderline personality disorder, which is the most intractable (and untreatable) of biological life sentences. Jack Straw, when home secretary, notoriously complained that he couldn’t force people with BPS into mental hospitals, dangerous though they may be, because they are not mad, can’t be treated and are therefore not certifiable.

One could also argue, reading between the lines, that Stuart showed signs of attention deficit disorder. Those two syndromes could work together disastrously. Some controversial American research claims that attention deficit is highly associated with crime and violent antisocial behaviour in later life and can be detected in the brain scans of very young children.

In a rather similar spirit, a confidential Home Office report revealed by this paper last week argued that children as young as three can be identified as potential criminals by their behaviour in nursery schools or by a family history of criminality. Nursery staff should be trained to spot children born to be hanged, as the old saying had it.

Perhaps it is, or might be, possible to spot future troublemakers, and certainly one of the many questions raised by Stuart’s life is how to protect people like him, and the rest of us, from their blighted future. But it seems unlikely in practice, no matter what scientists of every ilk might discover, that any proper use will be made of such knowledge. Straw’s notorious response should warn against the most scientific sounding of solutions.

So, too, should the tragic persistence of human error. Again and again a little common sense might have rescued Stuart, but common sense is rare. Getting the simplest thing done always seems strangely impossible. We understand much better why bullying is so psychologically disastrous, but schools still cannot control it. In the face of such intractable problems one can only say, with Arthur Miller’s character in Death of a Salesman: “Attention should be paid.”