Alexander Gordon Smith

Archive for the Category Guardian Family


Brothers and Writing

This is a piece I wrote for the Guardian Family section three years ago about writing and brothers. I’d totally forgotten about it!

“I still remember that icy day in late February, 1996, salting the path while I waited for Mum to return home, and not doing a very good job in the hope that she and the new baby would slide right on past the front door and into someone else’s life.

I was sixteen, and after teenage years of unparalleled clumsiness around girls I was finally growing into the person I’d always wanted to be. There were big things ahead, but all of a sudden there was a very little thing threatening to undermine my newfound confidence with some overpowering noises and odours.

And it wasn’t just the fact that there was a baby in the house that was upsetting. The new arrival confirmed – in a way that several years of living together and even marriage hadn’t done – a relationship between Mum and a man who was twenty years her senior, and who was separated from my fourteen-year-old sister and me by what seemed like ten generations, not one.

I had wanted things to change, but not in this direction. And each ear-piercing scream that penetrated the fabric of our small bungalow was a painful reminder of the way things were. (And it’s true what they say, a baby’s cry cannot be ignored – even by a sixteen-year-old with a new stereo and a penchant for Metallica.)

It was only some weeks later that I began to appreciate this tiny, wriggling creature that had invaded my life. It was partly the fact that he now had a name, Jamie, and his wrinkly little body was fleshing out like a balloon gradually being filled with air – both of which made him, in my eyes, a person not a thing. Of course, it might also have had something to do with the fact that Mum decided a new baby with the vocal strength of an opera singer was not the best way to help two teenagers revising for their exams, and had decided to move into her husband’s house down the road.

Far enough away not to interrupt Neighbours, but close enough to see every day, Jamie suddenly became a very welcome addition to the family. Still holding on to the vestiges of my teenage annoyance, I tried to maintain an aura of grumpiness every time I went round to visit him, but he would only need to burble or burp or sneeze or laugh and I’d feel my heart melting. I couldn’t quite believe that he was my brother, that we were related, and each time I saw him I realized with greater clarity that the big things I had planned were actually ridiculously tiny in the grand scheme of things, and that this little thing was one of the most important people in my life.

So my plans changed. Instead of packing my bags and finding the university that was geographically furthest from my house – standard practice post-A-Level – I decided to stay put. By this time Jamie was a toddler, and we’d see each other most days. The mere thought of going for weeks, maybe months, without Lego inventions or water pistol fights or trips to the toyshop or endless adventures in the garden was unbearable. I knew, without being aware of it, that my little brother was an anchor, one that kept me close to everything and everyone I loved. I can’t even begin to imagine where, and who, I’d be now if he hadn’t come along.

But while he anchored me physically to a little corner of suburban Norwich, imaginatively he opened up whole new worlds. Seeing Jamie meant putting the stress and strain of life on hold. I could forget about work, with him there were no burgers to flip, no clocks to punch, no letters to file, no rear ends to kiss – there were only adventures waiting to be experienced.

We would cast our boat away from the real world, sailing to fantastic islands, to long-forgotten times and places not yet discovered. We would battle terrifying foes, invent gadgets with miraculous powers, take rides on breathtaking flying machines or dive to the very depths of the oceans on the backs of sea monsters. We would be pirates, astronauts, heroes, villains, saints and devils, a myriad of vocations all united by the fact that whatever we were, the world was ours.

Carl Jung claimed that “the debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable”, and the truth is that without the daydreams that Jamie and I shared then my life would have taken a drastically different path. Each adventure reawakened my own childhood fantasies, taking root in my imagination and evolving until my head was full of stories. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but these ambitions had been put to one side while I focused on what I thought were the grander, more important aspects of living – money, security, employment, education. Now each of these stories was proof that play was more important than pay, and it was the only sign I needed to pack in the job and pick up a pen.

And so the creative union that Jamie and I had forged in our minds blossomed into one that filled countless notebooks with ideas. Each daydreamed story became an adventure on paper that we would return to again and again, almost obsessively. We spent hours together, discussing characters, plots, young heroes and charming villains – translating worlds into words – but it was the years of play which allowed these tales to practically write themselves.

We dreamed of being published, but although we didn’t consciously acknowledge it the real rewards of our creative relationship lay elsewhere. It is true that you can learn more about yourself and your loved ones from an hour of play than a year of conversation, and these imagined games let Jamie and I communicate about the significant things in life without the need to reference them directly. For both of us these games, and the stories they led to, became a way of working through the issues that were bothering us, the things we found difficult. After all, when troubles are reduced to games and words, you have control.

I guess that, most importantly, the time that Jamie and I have spent playing and writing has shown me that the most important relationship you can have with a child is one where creativity and imagination rein, where stories are as important as real life. It’s this freedom which teaches the young how to cope with everything that life throws at them, which proves that anything is possible, and which reminds adults that, in the words of Pablo Neruda, “the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.”


Of course, like all stories, this one has another side to it. Two years after Mum gave birth to Jamie, she had another child. By this stage, Jamie and I were inseparable, and I was delighted at the thought of having a second brother to recruit into our games. But the night Matthew was born we discovered he had Down’s Syndrome.

I know it shouldn’t make any difference – brothers are brothers, after all – yet it does. I remember the first time I met him, now eighteen, holding his hand and trying to will the condition out of him. It’s something I still try to do, even though I know that I’m allowing the disorder to define him. But it’s so difficult not to. Matthew is now nine, and his vocabulary is limited to a few words. And with no language I don’t know how to find my way into the adventures that take place inside his head. I want to create stories with Matthew the same way I do with Jamie, to forge the same spirit of play, but the imaginings of my youngest brother seem to be his alone, a private viewing that has become a barrier between us.

It gives me no small amount of shame to see the differences in the relationships I had with my brothers. I spent so much of my free time with Jamie, but didn’t know how to act around Matthew; I took Jamie on trips every week, but I couldn’t handle Matthew on my own; I wrote stories with Jamie, but I only ever considered writing a book about Matthew, not with him; and while Jamie anchored me, I felt lost with Matthew. It was enough to make me hide the “World’s Greatest Brother” keyring Jamie gave me every time I went round to see Matthew.

But writing books with one brother has also brought me closer to the other. The end result may be all about words, but the process of creation is far more important, and I know now that creative play isn’t limited to vocabulary. I’ve made the mistake of thinking that because Matthew cannot express his stories, he doesn’t have any. But language is a form of knowledge, and according to Einstein knowledge is limited. Imagination, on the other hand, is boundless, eternal, it encircles the world and isn’t restricted by anything, including Down’s Syndrome. I guess in that way, it’s just like brotherhood.”