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When Alex met Stuart

Published 01 January 2024

It began with a campaign against injustice and ended in suicide. But the short time that Alexander Masters knew Stuart Shorter also produced an extraordinary book about homelessness.  Interview by: Will Wiles

Stuart Shorter was killed instantly when he stepped in front of the 11.15pm train to King’s Lynn. It was a violent end to a violent life. Shorter was one of the ‘chaotic’ homeless – psychopathic, alcoholic, drug-addicted, a repeat offender with a fondness for knives and a history of abuse, one of the very hardest to reach. A familiar story so far. The unexpected story is that of Stuart Shorter the campaigner for justice; Stuart the philosopher; Stuart the friend and muse. Both stories are told in Alexander Masters’ book Stuart: A Life Backwards, an extraordinary re-telling of Shorter’s fragmented life.

Masters first met Stuart in 1997, while researching a Christmas goodwill piece for the local paper in Cambridge, their mutual home town. They might never have crossed paths again had Masters not unexpectedly found himself working with homeless people again the following year, when he applied for a job at the Wintercomfort day centre. ‘It was one of my usual poorer phases, and I saw an advert in the paper for quite an interesting job in that day centre, which I thought sounded quite exciting. The pay was good and the hours were good,’ Masters says. ‘I mean, it was not done out of altruism.’

In 1998 his new workplace achieved national notoriety when Wintercomfort was raided by the police, and its directors Ruth Wyner and John Brock were arrested. Their crime was to have known that drug deals were taking place on their premises. ‘We thought it was complete nonsense,’ Masters says. ‘Every centre, hostel and day centre in the country, every prison, has huge drug troubles, everyone’s got them, there’s nothing distinguished about this one. You know, you deal with a number of people who are addicts and drug dealers. ‘[You have] a hundred people crammed in a tiny dining room and you’ve got these tiny little things, tiny little packages, maybe being exchanged – it’s just completely impossible to control.’

Despite the absurd nature of the charges, Wyner and Brock were sentenced to five years and four years respectively. The case, a transparent miscarriage of justice, prompted national outcry. Masters had already found himself far more involved in the running of Wintercomfort after the raid – all the staff who had been present during the raid were now considered potential prosecution witnesses, and could not have contact with Wyner or Brock before the trial.

This hugely impaired their ability to keep the centre running. Masters, who as a part-time worker had not been present, stepped into the breach. With the sentencing and the impassioned controversy that surrounded it, he found himself stepping into yet another role – leading the campaign to free the Cambridge Two, as they had become known. And it was at the first public meeting of the nascent campaign that Masters had his second encounter with Stuart Shorter.‘He was stunning,’ Masters says of Shorter’s performance at the meeting. ‘He was just really really good.’

He was also, as Masters would see on more than one occasion, extremely direct. ‘He felt the arrests were wrong,’ he recalls, ‘and he came up to me and just immediately laid out in front of me all the offences, all the things he’d done wrong: he was a schedule one offender – he wasn’t a child abuser, it was for other reasons – he was taken hostage, he had done this thing wrong, he was a drug addict, he was an alcoholic, all these things were laid out because, he said, “what I don’t want you to do is to find out later, or for the newspapers to find out that I’m involved in this campaign and to sort of expose me, so I want you to know right away so you know what you’re dealing with”.’

This openness greatly impressed Masters, and it was far from the only attribute that Shorter brought to the campaign. ‘He was full of ideas,’ Masters says. ‘He was always very thoughtful, always puzzling things, so he was full of campaign ideas, and managing to think of new ways to do things, some of which were absolutely ludicrous.’

Some of the ideas were completely outlandish, such as sinking the Cambridge boat at the boat race, and others, although impractical, betrayed a streak of brilliance. ‘One of his kookier ideas was that we should get all the dominant people in Cambridge together and invite them to a talk or a party or something like that, all these judges, lawyers and all these sort of people, and then at the end announce that there had been a hundred drug deals going on around them, while they were sitting there, and none of them had spotted them,’ Masters remembers. ‘“Now, do you understand why it’s so hard, all these police and you didn’t realise all these drug deals were going on.”’

One particular idea of Shorter’s proved an enormous success: a rough-sleeping protest outside the Home Office. ‘The plan was to collar Jack Straw and make him give up Ruth and John, but it didn’t quite work out that way,’ Masters says. ‘It was a really good publicity stunt, we got lots of attention for it, and Stuart was the one who arranged it.’

Not long afterwards, Wyner and Brock’s sentences were overturned and they were freed. But it was there, on the pavement outside the Home Office, that Masters suggested writing the story of Shorter’s life. Stuart’s skills as a raconteur were already well known to Masters, as was his unique insight into the condition of homelessness. ‘He was very good at giving explanations as to why something I thought [was wrong],’ Masters says. ‘For example, if there were hostel spaces free, you would automatically assume that anyone on the streets would want to get one. Absolute nonsense. In fact some of them are very violent, some are dodgy, there might be someone there you’ve fallen out with, there might be an ex-girlfriend in there and the last thing you want to do is be in the same place as her because you’re still in love with her and she’s in love with someone else, so there are tons of reason why, even in freezing cold weather, you might not go into a hostel when the space is offered.’

It is that insight that Masters hopes the book will give to its readers, including a feeling that kneejerk liberal compassion is welcome, but misguided. An endeavour such as Stuart might be easy to dismiss as being exploitative in some way, but that disregards the full and enthusiastic participation and input of its subject. It’s a strange tale, although sadly not a rare one, and it deserves to be told.

It has also been a story that has found a far larger and more receptive audience than Masters anticipated. Not only did the book meet with critical acclaim, it was nominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Guardian First Book Award. Masters is adapting it for television, and a stage version is also in the works.

For Masters, who lost a friend when Stuart died, the experience has been cathartic. ‘Just putting a voice to Stuart was valuable. It was a remarkable voice. It is nice to think that hasn’t disappeared.’

Stuart: A Life Backwards is published by Fourth Estate