It's time Northern Ireland put Van Morrison on the map for tourists
Published 30/07/2014 | 09:10
Van Morrison's two gigs next month at his old school Orangefield High in east Belfast are being seen as the singer giving something back to his old haunt. It's about time, Ivan Little argues, that the city properly signposted him to tourists.
Never mind Graceland. It was more like graceless as an American acquaintance rang the Visit Belfast tourist centre on the trail of his hero Van Morrison. Not for one minute did the Vanorak ever imagine there'd be days like this as he asked if there were any Morrison tours around the city of his birth.
"How do you mean?" asked the receptionist.
"I'd like to see the places that Van sings about," said the American, who was eventually told there were no tours, no leaflets, no nothing.
He later called the Oh Yeah centre in Belfast where he was informed about fortnightly bus tours associated with Belfast's rich musical heritage including Van Morrison's haunts, adding that he could get tickets at... the Visit Belfast centre. Oh yeah?
Eventually the Van fan gave up and instead took a taxi to Cyprus Avenue, the inspiration for some of the singer's most celebrated songs, but unluckily for him the cabbie didn't know any other Morrison landmarks.
Which made me wonder if Belfast isn't missing a massive trick by failing to give a helping hand to fans of its most outstanding musical genius. And not just the ones from outside the city.
Given the barriers in the mind which still divide this city, I sometimes take friends from west Belfast – who've rarely crossed the Lagan – on Van trips. But my knowledge is minimal compared to that of people like local historian Bobby Cosgrove, who used to conduct Morrison tours before health concerns made it too much for him.
Bobby knows the Bloomfield district where Morrison grew up like the back of his hand. And walking with him there made me realise Van's largely untold story really should be officially recorded.
Even a series of photographs and storyboards to signpost Van visitors to the places immortalised in his songs would be a start.
Yes, I know he's not a man for the hoopla, and that he guards his privacy like Fort Knox, so let him keep his hangouts, hideaways and personal life under wraps.
It's the treasures within his songs which are very much a matter of public record that I'm talking about. Why not help to unlock the secrets of the streets, churches and all the other special Van places in the songs for his devotees, some of whom travel halfway around the world to attend his concerts in hotels like the Culloden and the Slieve Donard.
I'm not saying that the Beersbridge Road will be the new Route 66 or will ever rival Abbey Road as a tourist attraction, but there's a world of magical discoveries to be made in the unlikeliest corners of east Belfast.
Nowhere more so than in the shadow of Van's old primary school – Elmgrove – where a scruffy little patch of riverside path beside the ancient Conn's bridge over the Connswater promises little but delivers a lot.
The tiny area, which is due to have its faded beauty restored as part of the Connswater Community Greenway scheme, was the launch-pad for Morrison's most popular song Brown Eyed Girl – a girl who was rumoured to be from nearby Abetta Parade.
There may be discarded beer cans scattered around but Cosgrove opens up a world of mystical charm as he brings Brown Eyed Girl to life with his reflections on the days of Morrison's youth. The reality might not quite match the poetic lyricism of the song but with the soundtrack running through the visitor's head, it doesn't really matter. Besides, Strawberry Fields is something of a shambles and Waterloo Sunsets aren't always memorable.
The area behind an Elim Pentecostal Church is called the Hollow and that's how Morrison refers to it in Brown Eyed Girl. He also sings about youngsters going down the old mine with a transistor radio. Cosgrove says that was in fact a water pipe which was just big enough for kids to squeeze through.
The waterfall in the song was in the Hollow, too, as is one of the electricity pylons which feature heavily in Morrison's compositions.
Van also sings about a rainbow's wall on Brown Eyed Girl, which conjures up all sorts of ethereal images, but it was in fact a wall adjoining a long vanished confectionery shop called Rainbows at the corner of Hyndford Street.
The line about making love in the green grass behind the stadium has long been the subject of debate with claims that it was either The Oval football ground or Ravenhill rugby ground to which Morrison was alluding, but Cosgrove is convinced it's about a cycle track in Orangefield Park.
Certainly, former pupils of Orangefield Boys School – of which Morrison is one, and Grosvenor High School, of which I am one – will have their own memories of fledgling romantic interludes there at lunchtimes.
Orangefield Park has a song all of its own. It would have been a shortcut for him from his home in Hyndford Street to Orangefield school, where Van is playing a series of concerts next month.
The gigs will be a completion of a circle of sorts for Morrison who has returned to Northern Ireland to live in recent years. Friends say he's wearied of travelling and wants to be close to his mother Violet.
He often eats in cafes in Bloomfield Avenue and Holywood, and though his reputation is such that only the bravest or most foolhardy of strangers would approach him for a chat, he is supportive of young musicians and writers.
He has also given his backing to community projects and turned up at a church service organised by the Survivors of Suicide group, which is run by Cosgrove in east Belfast.
Morrison famously made famous large swathes of Co Down on his 1989 road-trip song Coney Island, but most of his 'local' songs are evocations of his childhood around a square mile in Bloomfield running between the Beersbridge Road and North Road.
The street where he was born and where he infamously objected to the erection of a plaque on his old family home – Hyndford Street – is at the heart of much of his writing.
Cosgrove believes that even the Morrison classic On The Bright Side Of The Road was inspired by a Bloomfield street where a large bakery building kept half the thoroughfare in darkness during summer's days. The smell of the same bakery kicks off another song, Cleaning Windows, about Morrison's experiences as a youthful assistant to a window cleaner, Sammy Woodburn.
In the song Morrison sings of eating Paris buns, smoking Woodbines and drinking lemonade; Cosgrove says they were bought in a shop on the Beersbridge Road where a Co-Op now stands. A few doors away is a Chinese takeaway that used to be Davy's chipper, which is name-checked by Van on a Sense Of Wonder
He also sings about the City Hall and the man who played the saw outside it plus he recalls an old character, Wee Alfie, who used to stand at the old Castle picture house on Castlereagh Road.
And he sings about pastie suppers, gravy rings, Wagon Wheels and Snowballs – all the more reason for a glossary as well as a guide to Morrison's Belfast.
Still, when many people think Van Morrison they think Cyprus Avenue, a tree-lined thoroughfare off the North Road which not only has a song in its own right on Astral Weeks, but also appears in his other writing. So-called Vantologists say his youthful wanders along the avenue with its grand houses fascinated the working-class boy.
Morrison has also put St Donard's Parish Church on the map together with East Bread Street and slightly farther afield Sandy Row, and the old Maritime Hotel where his band Them used to play.
Local PUP councillor Dr John Kyle believes east Belfast owes much to Morrison and more should be done to recognise that contribution.
He says he regularly sees tourists in Cyprus Avenue, and they're not there to see the home of former DUP leader the Rev Ian Paisley, its best- known resident.
Cyprus Avenue was a song of innocent times in the Sixties just before the Troubles, a subject which Morrison has ignored like the plague that it is.
He was brought up in Protestant east Belfast but he's never waved the flag for anyone and the City Council decision to give him the freedom of Belfast had no detractors.
Many articles about Morrison are as much about his grumpiness as his music. This is not one of them. I don't care if he's the rudest man in the world. I've only met him once – at that suicide service in an east Belfast church.
He didn't have to be there; he didn't have to stand with the rest of us guests on a stage singing You'll Never Walk Alone; he didn't have to stay after the service to meet relatives of suicide victims; he didn't have to pose for pictures.
But he did.
He might well want to throttle me for suggesting that Belfast could do more to acknowledge his musical greatness.
But he mightn't.
- Tickets, £25 (cash only), for past pupils and teachers for the August 22 concert are on sale at East Belfast Partnership, Newtownards Road; tickets, £85, for the August 23 performance are on sale at www.eastsidearts.net