My short story collection Sweet Home has about twenty-five central characters. They’re all made up. They’re non-existent in the real world. Fake people, if you want. Included in their number is Gillespie Stanley Courtney, known simply as Gil Courtney. Gil Courtney’s particular tale is this: a piano prodigy from East Belfast he joins the showbands of the 1960s, and later a band at the Dorchester Hotel, before becoming a keyboard player in a group called Palomar who go on to great success. Gil however is kicked out of the band in their fledgling days, owing to his drug dependency and generally idiosyncratic behaviour. He releases one solo album to critical apathy, and eventually ends up living a hermetic life in East Belfast, back where he started.
It’s a story about all sorts of things: the relationship between a mother and her son; the power of cultural capital; chance, luck and the value of art that reaches perhaps only the most fractional of audiences. A key episode is when a random man in a Leeds street is interviewed for a student television programme about the music that means most to him. That rarest of things, a Gil Courtney aficionado, he tries to articulate in halting terms just why Gil’s music is so important. We later learn the footage isn’t able to be used for the programme because a passing bus renders the sound inaudible.
For some people it’s the best story in the book. I’ve done readings where members of the audience can recite parts of it verbatim. For others it’s inconsequential, a random accretion of nothing in particular. Such is the nature of a collection. I was neither surprised nor distressed by this because who will like each story in equal measure? There was something though that did amaze me, and that was the number of readers who thought that the story was true and who believed that Gil Courtney existed.
It became fairly usual for people to tell me that at some point they had had to google a few details to check whether or not Gil Courtney was actually real. A couple of people said that yes of course, they had long been acquainted with Gil Courtney as an artist. One guy told me he had bought Gil Courtney’s long lost album on Discogs but had found it slightly disappointing. I got sent a playlist based on the music that influenced Gil Courtney.
People visited the street where he lived in the story and told me that his house wasn’t there anymore. I had deliberately chosen a house number much higher than anything in existence on Tildarg Street. This was viewed as a puzzling move: why would I do that when people might want to see where he actually lived? But he didn’t ever live there. A person said with some confidence that they’d seen a picture of Gil Courtney. He was standing in a field. It transpired that the photo in question was one that was used by Fallow Media when a version of the story went on their website. It was a still from an episode of The Old Grey Whistle Test dedicated to Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Did he play with them? the person asked. Somebody said that yes, I might well have written about a Gil Courtney who wasn’t real, but there was actually another guy from Belfast who was also called Gil Courtney and he had been a brilliant musician. He now lived down south somewhere.
I wasn’t immune to it. When I learned that the story would be talked about at an academic conference I was jubilant. Yeah! Gil Courtney was getting his day in the sun at last! Good for Gil! I probably poured myself a drink. I had to remind myself that it was just a story that would be talked about, just a story, albeit one in which my mimetic powers appeared to be magical.
Truth be told I had had a lot of practice at inventing fake pop stars. In sub-Sherman fashion, I had spent quite a lot of time photoshopping myself into various band pictures. I was one of the 13th Floor Elevators, one of Peter and the Blizzards. I had my own girl group, The Mircettes, every member me. I wrote bits and pieces about their escapades. In Gil’s case, I took great pains to make his story convincing. Its narrative form was a series of non-chronological numbered facts of the kind someone might have encountered in a magazine such as Smash Hits. The title of the story was ‘77 Pop Facts You Didn’t Know About Gil Courtney.’ Even in a post-truth time, these self-proclaimed ‘facts’ carried a surprising authority, and the numbered list seemed to present a greater integrity and believability than, say, a first-person impressionistic recollection. I’d had fun with the name. Bobby Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie. Gil Scott-Heron. Courtney Barnett. Courtney Love. Courtney Courtney. Gil Courtney already had rock and roll antecedents. People thought the name sounded familiar and it did. They even liked saying it, liked the incantatory, rock quality of it.
I used half-remembered stories of loads of musicians – Eric Burdon, Gene Clark, Syd Barrett, Chris Spedding, Roky Erickson, Gavin Clark, Rory Gallagher, Peter Perrett, and many more – to create a person who was at once them and yet not them at all. Specific people like Charles Shaar Murray and Van Morrison were drafted in to offer brief comment on Gil Courtney. The streets were real. The places were real.
On being told it wasn’t true some people laughed, happy enough to be fooled by a merry prankster. Others were slightly embarrassed, castigating themselves for their lack of musical knowledge. But both people with and without an interest in music were able to generate reasons to believe. Did you never wonder, I asked a friend, why you’d never heard of Palomar, supposedly one of the biggest groups in the world, according to the story? My friend said no, because she’d never had any idea who the biggest groups in the world were. It wasn’t her thing. There was another person who had surprisingly believed it to be real. Did he never wonder how improbable it was that Gil Courtney could have done so many things: showbands, palais bands, holidays with Brian Jones, playing the Star Club, playing with The Only Ones, hanging out with Steve Marriott, going out with Neil Young’s girlfriend? Seemed improbable enough, he said, but then look at Alex Chilton and all the stuff he did. Why not Gil Courtney?
Because people wanted to believe. Gil Courtney is – and in that tense I am granting him a type of existence – a person with a trajectory that is very familiar. He could have been something. The music business is full of individuals like this, who should have been bigger than they were but weren’t because of bad luck, bad timing, personal ineptitude, life. But where is the world where such people do not exist? Think of anything you’re interested in and you can come up with the names of people that maybe should have, could have, been successful. So if people thought they had heard the story of Gil Courtney before, that was because they had. Many times. They maybe knew someone just like him. And perhaps they were like him themselves.
Someone said that they thought out of all of the characters in the collection the one that was actually me was Gil Courtney. Really? How? In what respect was I similar to this skinny ex-drug addict, completing models of the Seven Wonders of the World in a room in his mother’s house, illuminated by a bare light bulb? I didn’t want to pursue it particularly. But I did recall how I had initially wanted to call my collection Volonte Blue, the name of the ill-fated, ignored Gil Courtney solo album. Not the most auspicious thing to do, to name a debut collection after something that had already been a flop. Volonte Blue was rejected in favour of the eventual title. But my initial impulse attests to a kinship I cannot deny.
What I had hoped for in publishing Sweet Home was not world domination via the short story but that for a few people it would be something like I had imagined Gil Courtney’s music had been for the random guy in Leeds. And I can probably say it has been that. Gil and I have each had our day in the sun—happily, luckily.
Sweet Home is on the shortlist for the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. Wendy will take part in the Shortlist Readings event at London Review Bookshop at 7pm on Wednesday March 20th.
The winner will be announced on Thursday March 28th at an event in Foyles Charing Cross.