Polegate author Alexander Masters and his compelling new book
PUBLISHED: 11:43 09 August 2016 | UPDATED: 11:43 09 August 2016
Prize-winning Polegate author Alexander Masters’ new book is A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip. His latest foray into biographical mystery is as warm and satisfying as his first, says Jenny Mark-Bell
It is difficult to pinpoint Alexander Masters’ literary genre. The prize-winning author – who lives in the countryside near Polegate – has built his own from scratch.
Alexander’s first book, Stuart: a Life Backwards, told the story of his friend Stuart Shorter, a homeless drug addict and alcoholic – and how the vagaries of a disorganised life can lead to distillation into such labels. Alexander was a postgraduate student working part-time at the homeless day centre Wintercomfort in Cambridge when he met Stuart. The biography they began work on together started out, admits Alexander, as well-intentioned but didactic. Stuart urged him to write it as a mystery instead: “What murdered the boy I was?” The book won the Guardian’s first book award and was adapted for the BBC, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Alexander and Tom Hardy playing Stuart.
At the heart of Alexander’s latest, A Life Discarded, is an even more compelling mystery: who is the author of the 148 diaries found in a Cambridge skip? In finding out, Alexander has to weigh prurient curiosity against the historian’s imperturbable pursuit of the truth.
Thus far he has specialised in the illumination of unseen lives – his second book told the life story of his landlord, a former child genius – and here he has reached the apogee of his peculiar brand of biography.
At times the intoxicating mystery overtakes him as, thrilled by his role as detective, his methods are more CSI than bobby on the beat – visiting a graphologist, for instance, but refusing to look for his subject on the electoral register. At one point he uses his mathematical skills to employ a complicated formula for deducing the protagonist’s height – only to conclude that the ‘I’ of the diaries is 25 feet tall.
In the book, Alexander’s girlfriend suggests that he put the notebooks in chronological order – with most readers, I’d suggest, backing her up.
But Alexander explains that to do so would have jeopardised the whole endeavour. Partly, he resisted because “I enjoyed the chase, it was lots of fun. I wanted to read the diaries and to do that I had to make sure I didn’t solve the problem too quickly. The other element is I wanted to find out who this person really was, to understand their character, and if I did find out really quickly and had to give the diaries back I was never going to do that, because it takes time.”
The scope of the diaries is vast, spanning almost an entire life – and the beauty of them, says Alexander, is that the writing can be dramatic but also mundane: “You get a real sense of the human with all its oddities and variation.”
And this human isn’t always easy to like – in the early diaries ‘I’ is bombastic and self-obsessed, certain that the self-described “immortal” diaries are destined for publication. There was something about the mystery, though, that kept him reading. Not least a heart-stopping revelation: a shocking, violent and blood-soaked paragraph turns out not to refer to violent crime, but menstruation – ‘I’ is a woman. Of his appetite for his quest, Alexander says: “I’m a gossip and this was a gift for a gossip; I’m a bloke and I like to read about what women think and do. So there was an ignoble quality to it but I also got quite keen on the sense of companionship – there was a sense of odd friendship.
“So that was the gentler side of it. Then on the more dramatic side there was this wonderful mystery – it’s like a body. There’s this great big bundle of books dumped in a skip, but why?”
There’s another big reveal in the book which means the relationship between biographer and subject, already intimate, becomes even more so. The diarist, who turns out to be called Laura, is still alive. The realisation brings something of a crisis to the project, and to the author’s conscience – he will have to meet the woman whose innermost thoughts he has been perusing for years.
After his first nervous attempts to meet fail, he finally tracks her down in a comically quiet scene, expecting recriminations and flat refusal. Instead, he wins Laura’s easy assent to publish her story. Even more surprisingly, she wants none of the unflattering content left out. He explains: “If you’re going to write about someone that’s not famous you have to get them to like your book.
“If they don’t like the book you’re just reprehensible, you can’t do that to someone. You have to be very careful in that what you have needs to be an accurate portrait of the person, but it has to be a portrait the person is willing to have out there.”
Of their relationship, he says “I suppose the most intimate time was before I knew she was alive, because then I could think anything, I could wonder about all sorts of things.
“As soon as I knew her as a person I realised a diary is a wonderful thing but it is not nearly as complex as a person. There are all sorts of nuances that you have to take into account – much more difficult than if you just have the words, over which you have complete control.”
Alexander’s next project has a kind of genetic link with A Life Discarded. The diaries came into his possession via his late friend, historian and biographer Dr Dido Davies, who found the notebooks with her fellow Cambridge professor Richard Grove. Sadly Dido died three years ago, of neuroendocrinal tumours (NETs) which began in the pancreas. During her illness Alexander scoured the internet for new treatments and found a YouTube video of a lecture about a virus in diseased pigs that killed NET cells in humans. More detective work ensued – the man delivering the lecture didn’t name his biotech company – but by freezing the video Alexander was able to read the name on his lectern.
But disappointment followed: the drug had been approved for testing but the company had gone bust. Alexander wrote about the discovery for the Telegraph and through it met his co-founders of crowdfunding campaign iCancer. In less than a year, 2,000 people across 40 countries raised the money for the treatment to go into clinical trials.
Sadly it was too late for Alexander’s friend Dido, but the good news is the first patient recently began his treatment.
Another biography is not on the cards, at least for now – it is medicine that is occupying his brain at the moment. But diaries are still not far from his mind – he mentions the huge numbers that must be languishing in drawers and cellars and wishes there were some corner of the internet where they could be scanned and saved for posterity.
A Life Discarded is so special because it shows us an extraordinary person whose life is, after all, very ordinary. “What’s interesting is her whole life, the sense of a life just about managed,” says Alexander. And yet in one sense, it’s also a life of great achievement – Laura may not have been rich or famous but according to the Guinness Book of Records, she’s the most prolific diarist that ever lived.
A Life Discarded: 148 Diaries Found in a Skip is published by Fourth Estate and costs £12.99
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