Monday, October 26, 2009

Stuart: a life backwards (Alexander Masters)

I'm deliberately writing this before I go and find out whether Stuart was a real person.

If not, then the writer has done an utterly convincing job of character creation.

Stuart was a man of my own age, living in my home town (Cambridge is technically a city, but it's very small for a city). Many of the places he hung out in are places I hang out in. We must have seen each other many times.

To be precise, he must have asked me for money many times. I must have ignored him many times. I hope I never gave him any.

He died seven years ago. He may or may not have thrown himself under a train.
Certainly he often felt like doing so.

His relatives probably still live here. I probably ignore some of his friends, despise them or meet them socially every day. I used occasionally to play chess with a homeless man. I know at least one person who is a permanent resident of one of the hostels mentioned in the book.

It's pretty clear that everything that happened to Stuart had at least some causes that were nothing to do with his own desires. There are certainly original sinners in the book, but they must have started down the primrose path when they were little more than children themselves. And who knows what black causes moved them? And who knows how much difference they actually made to Stuart's life?

But then I can't imagine any sort of morality that could have anything to say about a life as chaotically abnormal and packed with misery as Stuart's.

Bastard world. Bastard God.

It's even possible to see Stuart as brave and noble, triumphantly overcoming the worst possible hand of cards to become someone worthwhile. Certainly I pray that if I ever found myself in his predicament I'd be able to hold it together long enough to kill myself.

When I was young, I used to give money to anyone who asked. I believed that anyone who could lower themselves to asking probably needed it more than I did. It was possible to believe this then because there just weren't many homeless outside London. And I didn't live in London.

I can still remember the shock of seeing my first street sleeper in Sheffield. And how much we hated it when the problem grew so bad that the council sawed up the communal benches in the 'Hole in the Road'.

Someone wrote "Sheffield People Sit Together" in huge letters on the concrete, and I thought it was a wonderful statement. How could anyone be so cruel as to deny the desperate a bench to sleep on? How could my proudly socialist city hate the poor?

In my mid-twenties, I remember telling a police officer that I gave money to the homeless. He told me that I was a fool, and that they were laughing at me behind my back. And I remember how proud I was to tell him that the fact that they were sitting in pools of their own urine took the edge off their laughter for me. He had no response. He was a good man, that policeman. He tried very hard to help my sister.

But later on, there were so many homeless, and plenty of people willing to provide beds and plenty of money for them to live decent lives, and how could anyone so alienate their friends and relatives that no-one would give them a sofa for long enough to get them off the streets?

I began to put it down to some mysterious combination of drugs and laziness and insanity and learned helplessness and welfare dependency and began to believe that they were a sort of poisonous parasite that corrupted human generosity.

And I stopped giving them money. Partly because it obviously didn't help. Partly because it was costing me a fortune. And I was already giving half what I earned to the state, supposedly to help the poor. How much more money could these very few people need?

And I began to despise them. And I've carried on despising them until now. But I never thought that they were happy. And I never thought that they were in their situation by any real choice of their own.

But I'd never really thought about what it must be like to be homeless. Or what it must take to both survive and stay homeless.

And this book has changed me. And now I've stopped despising them. And started fearing them. And they don't deserve fear. Fear leads inexorably to hate.

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