Alexander Masters, Stuart: A Life Backwards. London: Fourth Estate 2005.
Theodore Dalrymple, Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee 2001.

As we walk through city streets, it normally does not trouble us that we know almost nothing about the lives of those whose paths we cross. City life is supposed to provide freedom from responsibility for others, apart from our family or friends. Everyone else just gets a casual glance – except for when a “street person” appears, someone obviously destitute or desperate. Our first instinct is to look away, before they can make us aware of something we would rather avoid: the needs of strangers.

Alexander Masters, a freelance writer in Cambridge, England, chose to keep looking at a homeless man he noticed on the street, Stuart Shorter. He has written Stuart’s biography, and made the claim that his is “an important life.” Most people who read this book will agree. It is the funny, fantastic and agonizing story of someone who made a complete mess of his life, and did much harm to others along the way. Failure, of course, is often more interesting than success; and absolute failure becomes more than that, a trip into the infernal regions beneath the affluent surface of Western cities. Stuart underwent pain, and inflicted pain, far beyond anything most of us have experienced. Then he chose to end his life – like Jesus, at the age of 33. Masters hints that Stuart, too, may have died for our sins, though one of the virtues of this book is that it suggests many other ways of telling the life of Stuart.

Stuart was one of the “chaotic homeless”: people who have no settled homes or relationships, who are rarely employed, who are unhealthy, violent and addicted to drugs. In the government agencies that deal with the homeless, the chaotic are often considered beyond repair. Their life expectancy in England is 42 years. They are 35 times as likely to commit suicide as an average person. Ten of them are male for each female. Why? Masters suggests that women may cope better with failure and disappointment. This is not a very satisfactory explanation, but one of the themes of Stuart is that it isn’t easy to explain anything about homelessness. The problems in a life like Stuart’s are so comprehensive, so majestic in their destructive power, that the standard sociological explanations of them look like the most feeble of clichés.

Masters does offer reasons why Stuart ended up living on the bottom level of the Lion’s Yard parking garage in Cambridge. Many reasons. His father was a gypsy who walked out when Stuart was small; Stuart was dyslexic and had muscular dystrophy; he was sexually abused by his brother, who later killed himself; he damaged his brain through glue-sniffing, head-butting, car-crashing and using heroic amounts of alcohol and heroin; his marriage failed (when he held his infant son hostage at knife-point); he had borderline personality disorder; he did time in 16 prisons. As Masters sums it up, “It isn’t a bedsit and employment that need; it is a new brain. At best we can keep them steady with drugs. At worst, we must throw them in jail, and hope that we are not in the room when they decide to hang themselves.”

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In fact, “The System” (as Stuart calls the social services) provides much more for the homeless in England than drugs and restraint. Over the three years of their acquaintance, the government paid Stuart more than Masters, a Cambridge graduate in physics, managed to earn for himself. Once classified as unemployed and disabled, Stuart received about $400 a week and free rent. He regularly found ways to spend $150 a day on heroin. Apart from direct support, Stuart had guidance from the small army of social workers and administrators who deal with homelessness (Masters served in this army for a while). Theodore Dalrymple, in the other book under review here, described a hostel he visited that had 91 residents and 41 staff, most of them working behind locked doors so that they wouldn’t be bothered by their clients.

The government helps, and gets no gratitude in return:

All homeless people hate the System, even though many of its organisations – housing benefit, social security, the rough sleepers unit, dozens of charities – have been set up especially to make their lives easier.

The System is hated because it holds a carrot in one hand and a stick in the other. Hostels have many rules and penalties for bad behaviour; drug dealers make no demands on their customers, other than the price of their wares. Whatever the System gives to the homeless, it is never enough to repair the chaos of their lives. A homeless person has nothing and needs everything; how does one provide that?

Today, the state is close to throwing up its hands in trying to solve the problem of homelessness. Part of its despair comes from an intellectual failure. Psychiatry, medicine, sociology, criminology no longer claim that they even understand homelessness, still less that they know how to fix it. The most effective, and notorious, policy has been that of Rudolph Giuliani in New York: just drive the underclass out of central public places through ruthless law enforcement. Yet it is precisely in great and wealthy cities that homelessness seems to be growing fastest.

Alexander Masters began trying to understand Stuart by reading the social science literature, but Stuart himself would have none of it. “You grew up with order,” he told Masters, “so you’re going to want order to explain things.” Stuart can’t explain himself, so how can an outsider do better? Masters falls back on just telling Stuart’s story – and telling it backwards, from adult to child. First we see Stuart the psychopath and criminal; at the end of the book we see the chubby, smiling baby with his big brother. They are both going to kill themselves, but Masters never really tries to tell you why, or who is to blame.

What Masters gives us is the world according to Stuart; and he convinces us that Stuart is more interesting than most of the people on the other side of the college walls of Cambridge. But how much of Stuart’s fascination is put there by Masters’s talent as a writer? Masters rejects the compassionate social-worker approach, which would see Stuart as only a victim – one of the “socially excluded,” in current jargon. Stuart had his own social world; it just wasn’t a comfortable or law-abiding one. By joining that world on its own terms, Masters was “feasting with panthers,” in Oscar Wilde’s phrase. He was not looking for sexual excitement in consorting with Stuart and his friends, but prided himself on finding acceptance in an underworld that the solid citizens of Cambridge just wanted to avoid. Masters was lucky not to end up like Timothy Treadwell (portrayed in Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man), who lived with the grizzly bears for 13 years, until one of the grizzlies decided to eat him.

Theodore Dalrymple is the pseudonym of Anthony Daniels, who also writes under his own name on travel and other subjects. Until recently, Dalrymple worked as a psychiatrist in British inner-city hospitals and prisons. He belonged to the sharp end of government response to “the underclass” (as he calls it), where doctors, nurses, police and prison guards have clearly defined tasks of treatment and social control. Such people tend to be critical of the soft end, where social workers, hostel managers and poverty advocates do their work. Yet neither the hard people nor the soft ones seem to have great confidence in what they are doing, as the underclass has become a permanent feature of the urban landscape. Both Dalrymple and Masters are resigned to this, but their moral judgements are radically different.

One could say of Masters what Martin Amis said of himself, that he is “not terribly interested in disapproval.” People on either the left or the right might have their reasons to be indignant about Stuart’s life, but Masters mainly just wants to know what it’s like to be Stuart. Dalrymple, on the other hand, goes in for all disapproval, all the time. He is furious with how the System intervenes in the lives of his patients, and more furious with how it fails to intervene when it should. The reason for this dangerous passivity, Dalrymple says, is that “moral relativism … has been successfully communicated to those least able to resist its devastating practical effects.”

The thesis constantly repeated in the essays in Life at the Bottom is that “the fish rots from the head.” Misguided intellectuals, Dalrymple says, have undermined traditional beliefs in moral standards, free will and personal responsibility. There are two reasons to disagree with this. One is the fragility of the proposed causal chain: between Rousseau and Woodstock, or Nietzsche and the Nazis, there are too many links. What is the point of making such thinkers responsible for the distant and distorted “consequences” of their ideas? Today, people on the right like to blame disorder on “elites” and assume that ordinary folk, if they were not led astray, would come up with strong and simple values. In fact, populist ideas can also be traced back to intellectuals, just different intellectuals – Calvin rather than Montaigne, for example.

The other problem with the “intellectual decay” argument is that the underclass is not drifting in a value-free, postmodern cloud. They still have plenty of rules, and believe in reward and punishment; if anything their rules tend to be too savage, not too lax. In the Kingston Penitentiary uprising of 1971, the inmates held a mock trial of sexual offenders and tortured several of them to death.

Dalrymple’s book is full of horror stories about young women killed for breaking the rules of their immigrant communities, or old people persecuted by thugs. When he speaks of the “collapse of the British character,” he means that there is more violence, selfishness and addiction; this may be true, but woolly ideas are not the core of the problem. Nor is it plausible that “the tastes, conduct, and the mores of the underclass are seeping up the social scale with astonishing rapidity.” The British elite have no desire to join the underclass; they just think it can be a good joke to behave like them in superficial ways like wearing grubby clothes or dropping their aitches. That sort of play-acting has been going on since Marie Antoinette dressed up as a shepherdess. No middle-class person actually wants to live on a sink estate or send their child to a failing inner-city school.

Dalrymple’s book is a good read, nonetheless. He tells his stories well, and has a clear-eyed view of what makes life hard for immigrants and other “marginalized” people in cities. As a right-wing thinker, he also has some refreshing differences from the sort of American neoconservatives who praise him on his back cover. Dalrymple believes England is circling the drain; the neocons are so sure that America is the greatest country in the world that they turn a blind eye to much evidence to the contrary. Dalrymple, like Christopher Hitchens, has no love for faith-based solutions to social decay. He is hostile to vulgar consumerism; neocons believe that big houses and cars help to make America great. Dalrymple says the welfare state is not to blame for the underclass, because it’s only in the last 20 years or so that things have gone to pot; neocons say that welfare saps initiative. Dalrymple still resembles his Communist father in being appalled by many of the fruits of capitalism; neocons bang the drum for Anglo-Saxon economic freedoms.

Although he believes that order and responsibility are better than permissiveness and self-expression, Dalrymple sees the underclass as people who choose for themselves, not just products of the social machine. They are a much larger group than just the homeless, and they live on the margin because society gives them what they need to survive there:

They have no fear of failure and are utterly without the constraint of routine: their only daily task is to appear on time for a meal, and their only weekly task is to collect their social security. Moreover, they are automatically part of a fraternity – quarrelsome and occasionally violent, perhaps, but also tolerant and often amusing … It is difficult for most of us to accept that this way of life, so unattractive on the surface, is freely chosen.

The descriptions of a tramp’s life in George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London show that Western societies used to deal with the homeless far more harshly than they do today. Orwell did not sentimentalize his tramps – he says of one that he has “a jackal’s character” – but he spent time at the bottom to get a perspective on the vices of those at the top. He viewed hardship below as a product of selfishness above.

Dalrymple, on the other hand, blames postmodern intellectuals for the chaotic lives of the underclass. Neither he nor Masters accepts Orwell’s old-fashioned leftist view of social inequality. In their different ways, they are both postmodernists. They look at the underclass as a distinct culture, with its particular rules. When members of one culture seek to judge members of another, they cannot appeal to any universal or national culture that overrules local patterns of behaviour. Dalrymple deplores this situation, to be sure, but he accepts that moral and social fragmentation are irreversible in contemporary Britain.

The multicultural model of society now includes groups – predominantly white, as Dalrymple notes – that used to be defined by their economic deprivation. Society is now a horizontal tapestry of cultures, not a vertical pyramid of classes. Economics has yielded to anthropology. Orwell still believed that the injustices of that pyramid could be dissolved, and that solidarity could bring about a happier and fairer future state. Now, as David Goodhart has argued, “The left’s recent love affair with diversity may come at the expense of the values and even the people that it once championed.”1 Goodhart sees Scandinavia as the exception: in a homogeneous population with an old-fashioned national identity, it is much easier to create a feeling of solidarity between rich and poor. There is an underclass in Scandinavia too, but it is proportionally much smaller than in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

In North America the right deals with the underclass by retreating into gated communities, or by trying to displace the poor from the public sphere of the city. The left tries to engage with them, but does not challenge values that are in fact destructive to those who hold them. Solidarity used to be the answer; but the lesson of recent decades is that solidarity is surely not forever. n


1 “Too Diverse?” Prospect, February 2004.