`In My Own Words' - Van, minus the Man

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The Independent Online
Van Morrison, the unsmiling, jazz-rock artiste who started life as a beefy tearaway fronting the Sixties Belfast pop group Them and metamorphosed into a prolific Irish-American singer of mystic invocations to God and rock 'n' roll, has always wanted to be taken seriously as a poet. For the moment, though, he's having trouble becoming an autobiographer.

Most of the rock-biography gossip at the Frankfurt Book Fair last month was about Elton John's projected drugs-and-shags confession, which is still being fought over by publishers with pounds 10m to spare. But Van's self- penned book, provisionally entitled In My Own Words, was also on offer. The agents, Sheil Land, were looking for only pounds 500,000 - peanuts when compared with the asking price for Elton's book, but a bargain for a publishing house anxious to cash in on the myriad fans of the man they call, er, "The Man".

So why, a month after Frankfurt, are there still no takers for this exciting work? I have in my hand an outline of the book, in Van's own words. He offers a "Chapter Breakdown" of 44 chapters, delivered with a terse economy worthy of Harold Pinter. "Chapter 6, Early Writing. Chapter 7. Musical Influences. Chapter 8, Songwriting. Chapter 9, Inspiration. Chapter 10, Music in General. Chapter 11, The Music Business. Chapter 12, Lyrics ..." It goes on like this, getting terser all the time: "23, The Media. 24, Fame. 25, Touring. 26, Interviews. 27, Bands ..." Just when you're wondering where the actual stuff about his life is - the Belfast rock chicks, the cult fame of Astral Weeks, the American-visionary make-over, the late- flowering love affair with the former Miss Ireland - you discover Chapter 42 (and only Chapter 42) is titled "My Autobiography" ...

Appetite whetted, you turn to a two-page extract called "Influences", in which the Rimbaud of Cypress Avenue gruffly disgorges very small bits of information about how he learnt to play guitar, and how he composes: "When I write there's an A, B and C. This is where I get the whole idea ... the lyrics and the melody to the song. That's inspirational writing which is very rare. B is where I get the melody or have a melody I'm working on, and I later then go on to work with the melody and the chords. C is the reverse of that ..." This gripping stuff has drawn several telephone calls from aspiring publishers, mostly to ask, "But isn't he going to tell us what it was like going out with Michelle Rocos?" The answer, I'm afraid, is, "Van does not want to discuss his private life in this book." (In an autobiography?) I should bloody well think not. "Next thing you know," sniffs one disappointed bidder, "he'll say he doesn't want to discuss his music either."

Those imminently involved in buying wedding gifts will surely look with interest at the 50th anniversary today of, not just the nuptials of the Queen and Prince Philip, but the list of presents bought for them by 2,500 thoughtful subjects. They make fascinating reading today. They range in scale and appeal from "a cinema" (thanks to the Earl and Countess Mountbatten) to "a hand-made plastic belt" (thanks a bunch, Mr and Mrs D Flood). Many writers kindly sent books, sometimes their own: You and the Jury by Miss Virginia Mather was probably a welcome choice, as was I Remember the Emersons by Miss M M Engel. The elaborately named Mrs C St Aubyn Ratcliffe thoughtfully sent two copies of her Furry Folk and Fairies, so the future Duke didn't have to read it over his wife's shoulder in the royal bedchamber. Handbags were a popular choice, running the gamut from straw to tooled leather, pigskin, crocodile and suede to the jewel-mounted, gold-mesh thingy from Contessa Marcella Gianotti. Lots of people sent stockings, sheer nylon ones rather than old-fashioned silk. Mr and Mrs Fred Grote, perhaps suspecting that someone else might have thought of their idea, sent three pairs.

The RAF slung the happy couple a cheque "for the Princess Elizabeth's own use" and threw in a Steinway grand piano. Two young subjects, Miss Jill and Master Jeremy Cotton, decided a dart board would be just the thing. Two district nurses from Corsham, Wilts, sent a Siamese kitten. And for some reason the silliest gifts were sent by people with silly names. Mrs H G Cronk gave them a waste-paper basket, Mrs Bapsy Parvy sent a two-handled soup tureen, while a "hurricane pipe", so useful in the tropical climes of Buckingham Palace, was the choice of Mr N Y Nutt. But you can imagine the Duke of Edinburgh having more fun with any of the above than writing a thank-you letter beginning, "Dear Mrs Kownaka and Mrs Bialous, Thank you for the two dolls dressed to resemble myself and Princess Elizabeth ..."

Thirty-three years after his death, Brendan Behan is making waves again this weekend. The new Taoiseach, Bertie Aherne, will be at the launch in Dublin tonight of a biography of the late playwright and celebrity drunkard. Michael O'Sullivan's book Brendan Behan: A Life claims, inter alia, that he fathered two hitherto unknown children, one allegedly on an ex-mistress of Ernest Hemingway in the early 1960s. (The existence of a Behan-Hemingway connection somewhere is enough to bring a sparkle to the eyes of the world's barmen.) At the same moment, it seems, Behan was also in the throes of a homosexual affair, if you believe the revelations by one Peter Arthurs, a former sailor and boxer, who wrote about his manly couplings with Behan in 1981, but has never had his confessions published on this side of the Atlantic. Things will come to a head on Saturday, when the biographer, the former rent boy and three of Behan's family - brothers Brian and Seamus, and sister Carmel - meet on the Pat Kenny chat show.

Brian Behan is a staunch fan of his legendary brother (he's got a one- man show called Behan Ain't Misbehavin' at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre this weekend) but has sharply divergent views about the great man's sexual orientation. "My brother had a strained foreskin," he reports, "and had to have an operation in America. And after it, in my view, he was quite unequipped for sex. So I don't believe any of it." And before America? "Brendan did say once," confesses Behan minimus, "that if it was a choice between Michelangelo's David and Whistler's Mother - well, there'd be no contest ..." Golly. Behan gay, straight and impotent. Where can I get a video?