My old man said follow the Van: Jim White sees Van Morrison mark the end of an era at the Town & Country Club, London

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JUST inside the door at the Town & Country Club in London on its last night, there was a large plastic bucket.

'It's not a rubbish bin,' the woman selling souvenir programmes hastily explained to someone about to drop their screwed-up ticket stub into it. 'We're taking a collection.'

The collection, it transpired, was for the Town & Country Club. Considering that the club's management expect to open three new venues in the next year, you might not think it was a pressing cause. None the less, several sentimental tenners and a sackful of for-old-times'-sake shrapnel were deposited in the bucket.

In case anyone had still missed the point, the stage was decorated by a huge black sign reading: 'The T & C, London.' In front of this, Van Morrison, a ringer for Arthur Scargill in shades and a guitar, spent most of the proceedings with his back to the audience, dabbing at his brow with a box- load of tissues.

There was no 'Hello London, goodbye Town & Country' from Van. He is not one to be remotely soggy about a mere venue. But in a sense he was the perfect choice to reflect the old management's policy on its last hurrah. The whole point of the Town & Country was that international stars could be enjoyed at close quarters: close enough, indeed, to notice that this international star's parting apparently begins in his left armpit.

Generally, you know what to expect from Van Morrison: either grumpy and terrible or grumpy and storming. On Sunday he was a surprise. If you had a pound for every time he smiled, by the end of the evening you would have had about pounds 2.50 to chuck in the T & C bucket. By his standards, this was delirious. With a band as competent as his, he could afford to be.

So good were they, when he credited them for a particularly well- turned bar, riff or drum-roll as they galloped through his magnificent catalogue, he was reduced to blues-man raptures: 'Ronnie Johnson on guitar, layzgennelmen. Yeah, yeah, let me tell you 'bout it.'

At least that was what he seemed to say. Van Morrison is not the easiest of performers to understand. His singing was, as usual, a grumble and a mumble, which gave a wonderful earth and dirt to the songs, but not much in the way of elucidation.

To be fair, Morrison does not say much. Never mind giving detailed song introductions, he doesn't even allow time for applause, chopping into the opening chords of the next number while the conclusion of the previous one is still echoing round the hall. Often his fellow performers did not know what he would play next, and Ronnie Johnson had to engage in a speedy game of 'Name That Tune', scurrying around the other band members to inform them what Van had decided to kick into. Teena Lyle, the percussionist, was particularly ill-served by this habit, hurriedly scrabbling around beneath her xylophone to grab whichever of her array of odd-looking wind instruments was appropriate to the song.

In two hours, Morrison explored most areas of his work, from rasping rockers to sensitive little folk ditties. At times things went quiet enough to hear the orders at the bar, Morrison tackling the soft bits by singing as loudly as he could a couple of paces back from the microphone.

And, to his ageing fans' delight, he was in the mood for oldies. He finished with a crisp version of 'Brown- Eyed Girl', the 'Sha-la-la-la-la' chorus yelled back at a volume that could have been picked up in Belfast.

When he wandered off, without goodbyes, leaving his band to conclude the show, Morrison deserved the Town & Country's characteristic ovation of yelping and whistling. Few ever clap here: all hands are occupied with expensive bar products.

The whooping moved into another scale when the Man returned already strumming the opening bars of 'Moondance', which the others picked up in big-band swing tempo. They then concluded with a swamping, swirling version of 'Gloria'. Even here you couldn't understand what Morrison was saying. 'G-L-O- R-I-A' doesn't seem to be the hardest thing to enunciate, but despite his attempt at BBC English, he was all of a mumble. He then wandered off into a towel held up by a roadie and, despite endless crowd yelping, from the crowd, did not return. It was not, in the end, a wake. The T&C's old premises will be opening for business as the Forum in May. But it was a challenge to the new management: match that if you can. As the audience poured out, many dancing extravagantly to Engelbert Humperdinck's 'Last Waltz' playing over the PA, the bar staff were closing up.

'Go on, give us a drink,' someone who didn't appear to need another one was pleading as the shutters came down. 'It is your last night.'

'Sod off home,' came the reply.

Some things are above sentiment.

(Photograph omitted)