To celebrate Harry’s birthday, we revisit Gemma’s essay about her younger brother, thick with nostalgia and pride
Taken from the A/W16 issue of Another Man:
It’s a strange experience having your baby brother run off and become a pop star. One thing Harry’s ascent has taught me is that suddenly you’re not seen as a normal person any more, but some famous ‘thing’ who simply came into being when a camera was first pointed at you. People scurry to gather tidbits of information about his life, whether they’re readily shared or not, to try and understand where this creature with the hair and the silver boots came from.
I was three when Harry was born. As such, the first memories I have of him are a typically hazy mix. The little things are what stick with me the most: our old house and garden, climbing frame, family dog. Max was a border collie/lurcher cross, the only grey speckled puppy with a curly tail and multicoloured eyes, from a litter of pure black. I chose him out of affection for his weirdness and we adored him. When Harry was probably only one year old he’d be laying on the floor with Max, or join him in his basket, all blond hair and giant blue eyes, then would suddenly take his dummy out and pointedly shove it in the dog’s mouth instead, like something out of The Simpsons. Max looked somewhat puzzled but just sort of let him get on with it. Harry has that way about him.
He was very loud. I think the first time I got in serious trouble was when I pushed him off a chair because he just wouldn’t stop crying. Then there was the time Harry actually tried to get me in trouble, when I told him WWF wrestling was all staged – he took it as a personal insult and as revenge told Mum that I was the worst thing he could think of… a drug dealer.
“No she isn’t, Harry… She’s nine.”
When I started school in Holmes Chapel, on hot days when the school-run cars were lined up outside and the parents were passing the time, Harry – never scared of attracting attention – would be stood up in the back of the car, entertaining everyone through the open window. Even then he had that sort of magnetism that made people just want to watch him. He made people laugh. Babies still tend to stare at him now – it’s kind of weird.
Harry the little boy was boisterous. He didn’t find it difficult to make friends and had his first girlfriend at the age of four or five. He would do what he wanted but often it seemed that what he wanted was to make other people happy. From a young age, I had dreams of being a teacher and Harry would pretend to be my only pupil, dutifully filling out my homemade worksheets and answering all of the names on the register with different voices. Sometimes an imaginary pupil wouldn’t answer so I’d have the undiluted joy of calling out again and asking my ‘class’ where they were. He’d tell me they were on holiday or at the dentist so I could officially mark the absence. There was one birthday, or Mother’s Day, where we were sat giving Mum her present. Harry was beside himself, for the first time he had managed to not blow a surprise early. She’d opened her card and was just about to tear into the wrapping paper when he couldn’t hold it any more and exploded: “It’s a handbag!” So close.
On a family holiday to Cyprus, when Harry must have been about seven, he particularly excelled in the schmoozing game. While I, the introvert, spent mornings stockpiling ham from the breakfast buffet to distribute to the stray cats outside the hotel, he was holding court around the pool with people three times his age. When we left on a shuttle bus back to the airport at the end of our trip there was a crowd of young adult women gathered on the pavement waving him off through the window, shouting their goodbyes. Sometimes I look at him now and wonder how he manages to entrance people, skipping about just being himself, but actually he’s always done it – only now more people get to watch.
Over the first few months of him joining me at secondary school, Holmes Chapel Comprehensive, a few times I had teachers say to me: “So… I met your brother.” For most of my time there I felt painfully shy – speaking in front of the class was my worst nightmare. I was geeky, quiet and, I guess, pretty easy to have in class. When I later trained as a teacher and speaking in front of a class was still a nightmare, I could imagine how Harry may have been a little difficult. I could never picture him being deliberately rude or even particularly disobedient (perhaps rose-tinted glasses), but he’s a joker, talkative and very distracting – not ideal for a productive lesson. Often they wouldn’t instantly realise we were related.
Harry didn’t struggle especially but, three years ahead of him, academics was the one area I was excelling in. He thought he was supposed to match me grade for grade. I think he would get frustrated at times, and Mum would gently push me to help him with science homework and English coursework, to build up his confi dence for looming exams. I could never fathom how he had a confidence problem; he was popular, decent at sports and not a bad student either. I would have traded my A’s for his B’s and charisma in a heartbeat. I don’t say this to point out his flaws but to try and offer some perspective. Everything he does seems to be effortless, even now; watching him leap around a stage in front of thousands of people he seems untroubled and free from self-doubt. It’s easy to be jealous – he’s one of those people who are just good at things, we all know one – but to assume this means he takes it all for granted, or doesn’t worry, or try, would be oversimplifying him unfairly. His bundles of talent are a mixture of natural ability and intense heart.
Mum taught us to be independent. As teenagers she raised us both in what was generally a happy little house. “Latch key kids”, as she called us, we came home from school before she was done with work. While it sometimes caused her maternal guilt, it was never a bad thing, and we learned to coexist as a pair for that daily window, boiling pasta and arguing over the TV remote. When she’d had a bad day, as we all do sometimes, we tried to step up where we could. Harry’s attempts at cheering her up were all the better for their youthful earnestness. A 12-year-old has seen enough romcoms to know that a thoughtful bloke is one who runs a bath, so that’s what she’d get from time to time, with a mismatch of house-gathered candles placed around the bathroom.
As a ‘cool’ kid, Harry stood out but also fi tted in. He was always interested in clothes and spent all of his birthday money and wages on getting the train into Manchester to expand his wardrobe. He had a paper round and then worked in the bakery in the village for a while. I’d barely be eating my cereal by the time he got home from these absurdly early jobs – the pull of new trainers obviously outweighing time in bed. As a wave of emo teenagers took over Holmes Chapel, we both caught the bug with our floppy fringes and studded belts. To get the look he tried stealing my straighteners to attack his curls – and failed, enlisting my help to smooth his hair into submission. Later, he let me cut it as well: I had no idea what I was doing and he’d always hate it for the first 20 minutes before admitting I was right and it did look better. Uh-huh. The skinny jeans never went away… but the chequered pumps did.
When I went to university and moved out of home for the first time, none of us had any idea that a 16-year-old Harry would be following suit a few months later. He was talking about choosing his A Levels and had plans to be a physiotherapist. We mostly got on but, at that time, we weren’t hugely close; he had his friends and I had mine, our interests were very different, except for music – he would often ask me what I was listening to and I’d give him emo and chart indie stuff to try. It was surreal, years later, sat in a Leicester Square cinema watching the premiere of the One Direction film, listening to him speak about the music that drifted down from my attic bedroom. It was only after I’d left home that I realised he would actually miss me. Mum said he slept in my bedroom for about a week after I left. I don’t think it was just because I had the bigger room.
When we found out he had got through to the televised auditions of The X Factor it suddenly felt real. There’s a list of songs that contestants select from and we pored over it to choose ones that he already knew, ones he liked and ones he couldn’t imagine singing. When he had to practice, he suddenly became shy and wouldn’t let us listen. He was constantly singing before and, at first, I didn’t understand why this was any different. After a lot of persuasion, he would stand in the bathroom with the door shut and sing Isn’t She Lovely and Hey, Soul Sister, while Mum and I sat on the landing outside. I’d never experienced a shy Harry, and never honestly appreciated that he could really sing – it was usually hidden behind humour or sarcasm or some silly voice; I’d heard him sing Handbags and Gladrags a million times in his room on a karaoke machine but it was always a performance mixed with swagger and bravado as he pretended to be someone else. When he was little he sang in a primary school play as an Elvis version of the Pharaoh in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It was ridiculous. He was funny. As soon as it was serious, and he was being himself, it was like he’d had his shield snatched away. And he was great.
As the weeks rolled on, we kept waiting for the ride to end. It didn’t. Eventually he was summoned down to London, to Wembley, for the infamous ‘boot camp’ stage of the The X Factor competition. He’d never been to London before. I was enjoying the summer after my first year at university and, as Mum was working, I said I’d take him on the journey. We arranged to stay with a friend of our Dad’s and decided to go a couple of days early to make the most of sightseeing in the capital. I dragged him to the Natural History Museum, trying and failing to get him more interested in sloths than sandwiches; I gave up halfway through and we wandered around window-shopping and boggling at how expensive chocolate is in Harrods food hall.
Soon enough the day arrived. We got the Tube all the way to Wembley and walked to the arena, where a small crowd was gathering outside. Everyone looked so much older than him and people were dotted around in small groups, posturing and harmonising, and generally sussing out the competition. He spotted a young guy he’d chatted to at a previous audition and I realised it was time to leave him, 16 years old and in the shadows of a building we’d only seen on TV. I stayed nearby so that when the call came and he was out of the competition, I could go and commiserate, take him home to Cheshire and school, and back to his normal life. None of us wanted him to fail but we never dreamed things would go the way they did. That call never came. He has just kept on winning and winning – maybe not The X Factor, but there’s no denying he’s golden. My baby brother never came home again. He grew up, and all of our memories became his origin story.