Colette lent me Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters after a conversation about homelessness. She knew that I had worked in a direct access hostel in Cambridge for a few months between college and uni.
I learnt a lot in that short space. The fate of Ruth Wyner and John Brock could easily have been mine. Working, living and socialising with homeless people for a year certainly made uni seem like an astonishing privilege.
Homelessness has nothing to do with having a roof over your head. It is to do with banging your head against a brick wall called society. The term ‘chaotic homeless’ – for those who can’t simply be doled out help and services to make everything better – was new to me, but I recognised the existence.
Like Stuart, Jesse Warren was a witty, intelligent, thoughtful and determined person. The chaos wasn’t of his making, though he certainly did some daft things from time to time (as we all do). There was a demon sitting on his shoulders and its claws never let go. Just making breakfast could be a massive challenge. People would yell at him in sandwich shops, claiming he was trying to rob them, just because he had a Big Isssue vendor’s badge. He called it ‘The Big Tissue’.
I learned that sometimes, you just can’t make a difference for the person you love. It must have been ten times harder for his mum.
Masters makes no claims to have solved anything, his book has no ‘message’. The honesty in reporting his feelings of anger, frustration and anxiety, as well as fascination and compassion for Stuart, builds a rapport with the reader. As does the performance of his bookish middle-class persona confronted with a man who cannot spell his biographer’s name, and tells him the story he’s writing is shit.
Stuart’s insistence that there can be no ‘explanation’ for his life, no reduction to the abuse by carers, violence or drugs, gives the narrative a provisional feel and is perhaps the most humane thing about it, giivng it a resonance beyond homelessness to other encounters between those who inhabit edges and those who are more firmly cemented into the wall.