I had to drive to Farnham in late November, to play at the Redgrave Theatre in a concert with that unique cabaret group, Instant Sunshine. Four miles short of Farnham, coming up a long hill in the dark, my car overheated and threatened to blow up, so I pulled into the side and waited for it to cool down. It’s a Saab 900, chosen because it is about the only car (short of an estate) that will take a double bass, lying down, (and I did indeed take my double bass round all the showrooms when I was getting a car and tried it in all the models they showed me.) It has done me exceedingly well, but even a Saab will occasionally erupt, and it soon became apparent that it wasn’t going to cool down before the concert was due to start, so I would have to ring for a taxi.
Not having a car phone, I clearly would have to start knocking on doors in the dark. There aren’t many houses on that part of the A287. The first one I came to had lots of security lights but no people. The second one was occupied. A little old man opened the door a crack and asked somewhat fearfully what I wanted. To phone for a taxi to take me to the theatre, I said. Perhaps he thought I meant, as part of the audience, because this didn’t relax him much.
The odd thing was that he was accompanied by two little girls, about seven or eight, both wearing ballet leotards, and this didn’t relax me much, because in these days of child scandals you tend to fear the worst in any situation, and I could already see headlines like : “Broken Down Musician Stumbles on Ballet Vice Ring…”
Of course, by the time he was relaxed enough to let me in for a phone call, we had cleared everything up. He was the grandfather, babysitting for his daughter. “She’s gone off to her yoga class tonight,” he said, “so I agreed to pick the children up from ballet class and look after them for a while. It’s just that these days, when you hear a knock on the door, you tend to fear the worst.”
So it was I who was the suspicious one, not he. And I must admit, I did look strange – a man in full dinner jacket appearing out of the night with some cock and bull story about double basses… Anyway, the taxi came, and got me to the theatre just in time to miss the first number, and rather than struggle with the car at midnight, I stayed the night at the Bush Hotel in Farnham, a Forte establishment which I imagine was once upon a time a Trust House, as it was ancient and agreeable, though the bar was full of businessmen talking evening business chat. “ I don’t mind another desk being put in,” I heard one say, “as long as it’s made very clear that it’s a spare desk, and not his desk, because as soon as he starts thinking it’s his desk, there’ll be no holding him and we’ll be back to square one.” God, I’m glad I don’t work in an office any more.
Next morning I rang the AA Relay, got back into my DJ, had breakfast (“Sorry, you can’t have an Independent, we only provide complimentary Telegraphs) and took a taxi back to the car, where I fell asleep at the wheel in the intervals of awaiting help. Glad I wasn’t discovered then, a suspicious unshaven dinner-jacketed form at first light. The first man to arrive diagnosed a cracked water pump with probable gasket trouble, and the second man to arrive just dumped me on his lorry and drove me home. Excellent company he was, too, reminiscing about some of the people he’d rescued, and some of the Welsh lanes down which people had assured him it was fine for an AA Relay lorry to go.
“ You get all sorts,” he said. “Last year I picked up some of those, what do they call them, travellers, hippies, you know. Shouldn’t be rude about customers, but once you get them in the cab, they don’t half smell. Keep the windows open, I should say I did.”
I was surprised that travellers should be AA members.
“They weren’t. We agreed to remove them as a favour to the police, who wanted them moved on. They help us a bit, we help them a bit, say no more.”
We passed Stonehenge on the way back. I reminisced that my father-in-law had, during the war, visited Stonehenge at the controls of a tank. My driver was not discountenanced.
“I picked up a Sierra from Salisbury way, once,” he said, “which had been run over by a tank.”
What was it like? His answer had Coward overtones.
“Very flat. The driver had been in it at the time of the incident, funnily enough, but the tank had only flattened the back end. Jumped into gear when the driver wasn’t expecting it, or something, and went straight into the Sierra.”
How was the tank?
“Not a scratch. I was very impressed.”
I had never used AA relay before, I was very impressed too.