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Sir Van Morrison on that 'exhilarating' day at Buckingham Palace, his refusal to retire and the rebirth of Belfast

By Ivan Little

Published 05/02/2016

Sir Ivan Morrison is made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by the Prince of Wales during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace yesterday
Sir Ivan Morrison is made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by the Prince of Wales during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace yesterday
Sir Ivan Morrison is made a Knight Bachelor of the British Empire by the Prince of Wales during an Investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace yesterday
Sir Ivan Morrison
Sir Ivan Morrison with his daughter Shana Morrison

Newly-knighted Sir Van the Man, Belfast's most enigmatic singing star, took a rare bow in front of his most select audience yesterday as the man from the tiny terraced streets of Bloomfield received his lofty honour in the exalted surroundings of Buckingham Palace.

Morrison, who used to be a Monarch himself in his days with an old showband of that name, got his knighthood in the Royal Ballroom at the Palace which is a million miles from the now demolished Royal Ballroom at Dundonald which Van used to play with his first chart group Them in the Sixties.

The honour was bestowed on him by Prince Charles, not by the Queen, which ensured that the Man and your Ma'am didn't have the chance to meet.

But even so Van, who's regularly dubbed Mr Grumpy by disapproving tabloid journalists, looked thoroughly relaxed as he smiled broadly for the cameras in the Palace courtyards alongside his daughter Shana.

And the man whose most frequently played song is Brown Eyed Girl even described himself as 'a blue-eyed soul singer'.

In the photos outside the Palace, Van who celebrated his 70th birthday last year with two memorable concerts on Cyprus Avenue, the east Belfast street which he immortalised in song, wore a trademark hat. But inside he was bare-headed as he bowed the knee in front of the second in line to the throne 10 years after he'd received an OBE from the royals.

Yesterday, Prince Charles followed the traditional rituals of the investiture ceremony to the letter.

After the formally-attired singer had been called forward as Sir Ivan Morrison, the Prince ennobled him by dubbing him across the shoulders with a ceremonial sword and there was a brief conversation and a handshake between the two men.

Observers who thought the normally reticent Morrison might choose to keep the details of their exchanges to himself were proved completely wrong as Sir Van spoke freely about the chat and about his feelings.

It was an unusual openness which made onlookers think that there haven't been many days like this in the singer's life even though he's already received the freedom of Belfast and honorary degrees from the city's two universities.

Yesterday Van said on becoming a Sir: "It's amazing, it's very exhilarating, the whole thing."

He added: "For 53 years I've been in the business. That's not bad for a blue-eyed soul singer from east Belfast."

And Sir Van, who's still touring and making records, revealed that he'd told the Prince of Wales that retirement wasn't in his repertoire.

Sir Van said: "He was just saying, was I still writing? And he said: 'You're not going to retire any time soon?' And I said: 'No, I'm not, I'm going to keep it going while I can'."

They are words which are sweet music to Morrison's fans who believe that contrary to the lyrics of one of his most popular songs, it really is too early for Van to stop now.

In recent years Morrison has been restricting himself mainly to gigs in Northern Ireland where his concerts in hotels like the Slieve Donard in Newcastle draw fans from around the world to see him.

Hundreds of self-styled Vanatics from as far away as India and Australia spent over a week in Northern Ireland before and after last year's Cyprus Avenue gigs.

And indeed the citation for Van's knighthood reflected the boost for the economy by saying he was being recognised not just for his services to the music industry but also to tourism in the province.

Significantly over the last few months, Morrison has thrown himself back into his travels again, staging concerts in America and Europe.

But he said yesterday that he was happiest playing in small clubs, adding that he still remained committed to performing for an audience. "I enjoy that the most - playing a small club - that's really what I do," he said.

"The bigger places you have to do for financial survival reasons, let me put it that way, but the bigger places enable me to play small clubs occasionally.

"Sales of CDs and stuff like that are very unreliable, it has really gone down a lot, I'm lucky I can still do live gigs and still pull crowds and be able to do that. All these years of work have paid off and I'm still able to do that now."

Yesterday the question of how Van fans should address their hero after the investiture was broached following the ceremony.

He was asked if he was Van the Man or Sir Van the Man but he laughed and said: "Well, take your pick".

Morrison admitted that his early years in music had been a gruelling apprenticeship.

He said: "Germany was real hard gigging because we did seven sets a night and nine on weekends - and no days off - but that was really the training ground."

The singer, who was once part of Them, is now one of the few musicians to be knighted and he admitted that his royal engagement was what he called "old world charm."

He was also asked to name his favourite album from his back catalogue.

And he caused some surprise by not plumping for Astral Weeks, his iconic 1968 LP which regularly appears in the critics' picks for the top 10 best ever albums and which Morrison revived for a series of live concerts in 2009 including one at the Hollywood Bowl.

Sir Van also by-passed some of his more commercially successful recordings Moondance and Tupelo Honey and instead singled out his 1980 record Common One which was panned by a number of reviewers at the time and which includes two songs Summertime in England and When Heart is Open which are both more than 15 minutes long.

He said: "It's a mixture of different components - a bit of funk, blues, gospel - it's quite a fusion, and plus I seemed to tap into something, and that particular band seemed to have a rapport."

Sir Van, who has steered clear of writing any songs about politics or paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, also spoke of Belfast since the Troubles ended. "I think it's going through a renaissance period but you have to kind of 'take up your bed and walk' sort of thing too," he said.

"So people are realising they need to be more pro-active and get things going."

Van's official website yesterday carried a brief account of the investiture under the obligatory headline, "Here Comes The Knight".

Included were pictures of the official tickets for the ceremony and photos of Prince Charles not only knighting the singer but also shaking his hand and one photo of a beaming Van and Shana.

The website said: "It's been a very special day indeed. They both thoroughly enjoyed the investiture ceremony."

A Twitter account hosted by fans of Morrison under the title Mystic Avenue congratulated their 'friend' Van on what they said was his much-deserved honour.

News of the knighthood was also posted on an official British Monarchy twitter account which has nearly two million followers.

By teatime yesterday, the tweet had more than 500 likes and had been retweeted nearly 300 times.

However, one poster on social media couldn't resist making fun of the laid-back photos of the sometimes sombre Morrison joining his exclusive band of modern musical knights with a tongue-in-cheek message saying "Van in smile shock".

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