Alexander Masters, Dido Davies and William Gerhardie

Having just blogged about Cornelius Medvei, and his friendship with the writer Alexander Masters, I came across a connection between Masters and a recurrent subject of this blog – the perpetually “lost writer” William Gerhardie.

From The Guardian:

According to his mother, Stuart Shorter had been “a real happy-go-lucky little boy” until the age of 12, after which he became for the next 20 years a “thief, hostage taker, psycho and sociopathic street raconteur”. In short he was, from Masters’s point of view, “a man with an important life”. He had been found living in and out of skips, was then given methadone to release him from heroin and began a new chapter of his life in a “cramped, dank little apartment”. It was a strange entry into ordinary life – interrupted by some radical attacks on the furniture. Masters would talk to him and eventually showed him the dog-eared manuscript of his biography. “It’s bollocks boring,” Stuart told him. “Do it the other way round … Write it backwards.”

To Masters’s astonishment this turned out to be an inspiration. It solved “the major problem of writing a biography of a man who is not famous”. So the book was created by the subject and the writer together – and with one other person thanked in the book’s acknowledgements. Without Dido Davies “I could not have got past the first pages”, Masters wrote.

Davies was also a writer and in 1990 had published one of those biographies Masters had described and derided, about semi-well-known public people. Her subject was the novelist William Gerhardie and, although Davies did not bring herself into the narrative, she had known him. In fact I first met her (with her mother) at Gerhardie’s home in London several years earlier, and was able to give her some help with her book about this talented and eccentric figure. It’s not until now that I notice at the end of her acknowledgements a tribute to Alexander Masters, for his “patient attention, his careful editing, but above all his innumerable helpful and sensitive suggestions which improved the whole tone of the book”.

Davies herself had a colourful life:

It was Dido Davies who had slid into the skip and brought out the diaries (that would form the basis of Masters’ book A Life Discarded – SS). She and Masters were long-time friends. Many years earlier, as a newly elected English fellow, she had crawled through the window of Masters’ Cambridge college and said hello. Her career was unusual. Under the name “Rachel Swift” she published two sex manuals, and, pursuing her interest in zoology, she travelled widely in Asia, occasionally giving lectures on rats and serpents. While Masters was working on this book, she had been writing a biography of Thomas More. They helped each other and she became his “writing collaborator”, giving his books direction. But in 2007, she was diagnosed with cancer, which was the cause of her death in 2013. Three years later, A Life Discarded was published and dedicated to Dido Davies.

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