Stuart Shorter gets The Guardian | india | Hindustan Times
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Stuart Shorter gets The Guardian

Masters' tale of a homeless man triumphs over the story of Mehta's love and lament for Mumbai.

india Updated: Dec 11, 2005 09:55 IST

Writer Suketu Mehta's praise and lament for Bombay lost out to the irreverent tale of a homeless man by Alexander Masters who scooped the 10,000 pounds Guardian First Book Award.

Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found was one of the five books short-listed for the prize. The book has already won the Kiriyama prize for new Pacific Rim literature.

Masters beat the strong short-list with Stuart: A Life Backwards, a biography of a homeless man named Stuart Shorter. It is narrated in reverse, from homelessness, drug addiction and spells in prison back to a horribly abusive childhood.

However, judges at the prize found that despite its harrowing subject matter, it was a funny and irreverent read.

According to one of the judges, poet Owen Sheers, Stuart "absolutely lived with me and made me laugh", while fellow judge Michael Holroyd described the biography as "a most original and ingenious book".

Claire Armitstead, chair of the judges and literary editor of The Guardian, said: "If you were just going on the subject matter of Stuart, you'd have thought it would be a depressing but worthy read.

"But Alexander Masters has such a light touch, and the character of Stuart himself is so spikily attractive and so admirable in unexpected ways that it becomes absolutely compelling and at times laugh-aloud funny.

"It was Stuart himself who suggested it should be written backwards, and the fact that Masters rewrote it accordingly is typical of the relationship that emerges through the book. Part of the genius of the book lies in the matching of a topsy-turvy structure to a topsy-turvy life."

Masters, who lives in Cambridge, met Shorter in 1998 in a doorway near Sidney Sussex College, while working at a centre for the homeless. The pair campaigned together after the centre's managers were arrested for allegedly facilitating drug dealing on the premises.

It was then a friendship - and a book - was born. The book was also short-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, and is in the running for the Whitbread.

Shorter was killed by a train in 2002, and never saw the final, published, story of his life.

The Guardian First Book Award is open to new writing across fiction and non-fiction. This is the third year running that the award has gone to a non-fiction title, and the fourth time since the inception of the prize seven years ago.

The newspaper reported that this year's award came down to a closely fought contest between Stuart and another memoir, Richard Benson's The Farm, in which he charts the forced sale of his parents' farm in Yorkshire against a background of huge changes in the English countryside.

The other short-listed books were Reza Aslan's exploration of the origins of Islam, No God but God, Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found and Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing, a series of short stories set around Thailand's tourism industry.