When I was in my early teens we moved from seaside Bangor to grotty Belfast. None of us wee’ums were very happy moving, we had our friends and gangs and it meant new schools, friends etc. After a while I started to explore my new turf and of course make new friends. Everyone in the area seemed pretty normal but one old geezer stood out a bit from everyone else. The kids I hung out with called him ‘The Van Man’ and I wondered why. He lived in the next street and his house always looked a mess, rubbish everywhere, unkempt and unmaintained. He himself was a reflection of his surroundings, or perhaps his surrounding were a reflection of him, he was small, squat, dumpy and lumpy, long lank thinning hair and always looked scruffy.
However, a couple of things made him stick out from everyone else in the street, first of all he would disappear for long periods and none of my new friends knew where he went, secondly he drove this ancient old banger but occasionally some very expensive cars would pitch up at his door and he’d go off with the drivers. Like all kids we’d make up stories about him, he was a getaway driver for a gang of bank robbers and he had a van somewhere that he kept for their raids and that’s why he was called The Van Man and his sudden disappearance for long periods was due to time spent in prison.. we kids had good imagination..
But by far the most important reason for The Van Man coming into our teenage world was because he had a habit of sending us off to do errands for him, he’d knock his window as we were playing football out in the street and ask you to go to the chippy and get him a pastie and chips, everyone jumped at the chance to do this as he always let you keep the change from five bob and that was a lot of money in them days. Occasionally he’d ask you to nip off to the off license and grab him a bottle of whiskey and then you’d get even more change, the lady in the offie knew him and quite happily sold us kids bottles of whiskey cos she knew it was going to ‘The Van Man’. And of course because he was so generous with his money it only confirmed the rumours that he was involved in robbing banks..
I saw him in a pub one day, I was busting for a piss and we kids sneaked into the local bar when we could, and I saw him sitting there in a dark corner surrounded by a load of other cronies, all laughing away, smoking fags in a huge cloud of smoke and drinking their pints, it looked like a scene that happens every day all over the world, dark grimy pubs full of old men with their work clothes on and supping a few bevies before heading home to the missus.. He looked unremarkable and totally at home. And happy..
A few years later we had moved (yet) again and I kind’a forgot about The Van Man but one day I came into the kitchen and me ma was listening to some bloke being interviewed, I sat down to have some lunch and half listened, and then I thought “I know that voice.. he sounds familiar..” so I said to me ma who’s that bloke on the radio being interviewed and she said “Don’t be a silly clod, that’s Van Morrison, you used to run errands for him when we lived up north..he’s very famous…” and I said “What, you mean The Van Man???” and she laughed and said “no, NOT The Van Man, he’s called Van The Man!” and laughed..
Doh!! Well, he may of been famous but to us kids he was Mr Money Bags, Mr Bank Robber and of course ‘The Van Man..’
Many years later I went to see him play in Belfast City Hall, I had no idea what he was like but when he came onto stage (late) he looked even more of a mess, he had lost all his long locks and he was as grumpy as hell, he didn’t interact with the audience and it was obvious that he didn’t want to be there.. I suspect there may have been a footie match on somewhere that he was missing but he sang with no enthusiasm.. It was really obvious that his heart wasn’t in it, I was standing right at the very front and pulled a face at him… He gave me the dirtiest look ever and nearly spat at me… oh dear.. he was happier in that grotty old pub on the Ormo Road.
I went to see him do his Astral Weeks tour last year in the Royal Albert Hall here in London.. he is still not one happy fluffy bunny.