Stuart: a Life Backwards

Author: Alexander Masters Harper Perennial £7.99 ISBN:0007200374

If you stored on every book recommended as ‘essential to every GP’s library’, you’d soon have no room for all those drug-sponsored pens or wilting plants. But, Stuart: a life backwards is one of the few worth clearing a space for. It’s something to reach for when you’re running out of compassion, or to pass to your registrar as you say ‘This is what general practice is all about’.  

This book tells the extraordinary story of an ordinary life: that of Stuart Shorter. There are two photos of Stuart: one a smiling 10-year-old, the other an intense, unshaven 30-year-old with a menacing sneer. The 20 years that separate them saw Stuart live through homelessness, prison, drugs and mental health problems. Alexander Masters tells the story of how he went from one to the other.  

It was through his work with a Cambridge charity for the homeless that the author first met Stuart. He started writing an academic case history, but when he showed a draft to his subject, Stuart replied: ‘It’s bollocks boring ... you gotta do better.’ He suggested Alex should: ‘Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.’ And so the story is told as Stuart suggested.  

This is more than a biography; it is the story of a friendship. We share the author’s exasperation as he struggles to understand the chaotic twists of Stuart’s life. He creates a beautiful, touching book about an ugly, unsentimental character.  

This is about Stuart’s life in the gutter — both literally and metaphorically. Through Masters’ perceptive and funny observation we get to know Stuart and we begin to understand the thread that connects the two photos 20 years apart.   

Why is this a great book for GPs? Because it is a profound reminder that every patient — even the psycho, lice-ridden druggie — has a story to tell, and that being a good GP is about having the imagination to ask and to listen.  

Dr Antonio Munno is a GP in Bedford  

What GP readers thought about Stuart: a life backwards  

Dr Lucy Noonan, a GP in Thatcham, said: ‘Fascinating, disturbing, tragic and amusing — a book of contrasts masterfully illustrating the life of a truly remarkable individual. Masters clearly invested a lot of time and effort in trying to understand Stuart, and this is evident from the way the story is told. A compelling read, tackling a number of very sensitive and emotive issues.’  

Dr John Efstratiou, a GP in Norfolk is gripped: ‘The homeless are close to my heart and this book has touched a few heartstrings. It is hard to put down.’

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