‘I took my life and threw it on the skip’ begins one of James Fenton’s best poems. After which, in the manner of skip economy, ‘some bugger’ nicked it and threw his own on the skip in exchange. Finding this other discarded life, Fenton’s narrator brings it in, dries it by the stove and tries it on. It fits ‘like a glove’. ‘You’d not believe’, Fenton concludes, ‘the things you find on skips.’
Alexander Masters does not mention Fenton’s allegory, but A Life Discarded tells a similar story. In 2001, a friend called Richard Grove found 148 diaries in a skip, dried them by the stove and handed them on to Masters, who started to piece together (and, in the manner of biographers, inhabit) the life they contain. The fit was perfect: Masters, author of the award-winning Stuart: A Life Backwards, is drawn to the people we throw away.
The entries begin in the early 1950s, when the diarist is fourteen, and continue until 1991, after which she is assumed to have died. The forty years, caught in tiny handwriting over fifteen thousand pages and five million words, prove a steadily downward slope: having once dreamed of becoming a