Miles Kington: Travels (and travails) with a double bass

If it were not for Saab, I would not still be a musician. I once got my bass into a Volkswagen Beetle, but I couldn't get it out again
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On Monday night there was an interview on Radio 4's Front Row in which Mark Lawson, while talking to Kurt Vonnegut about his new book, expressed mild surprise that such a veteran author as Vonnegut was still writing. Vonnegut said that he himself was extremely surprised that he was still writing, especially as he thought he had given up the writing business some years before. He was now 83, he said, which was in poor taste, he said. It was kinda embarrassing to be alive at all.

In fact, he said, he intended to sue the company that made the cigarettes he smoked. They clearly stated on their packets that smoking these things would kill you. They had clearly failed to kill him, even though he had started smoking at 11 years old. He thought he had a good case...

Well, I hope I am making jokes as good as that when I am 83.

I only wish that Mark Lawson had not then proceeded to ask Vonnegut about the one time in his life that he had tried to be a regular American businessman.

Yes, said Vonnegut. He had once become a car salesman. In fact, he had been offered a Saab dealership and had tried to make a go of it. Sadly, in his opinion, Saab cars were no good and he couldn't make a go of it. He had said in public that he considered Saab cars were no good, and this must have turned the Swedes against him, as he had never thereafter been offered the Nobel Prize, which he could certainly do with now, as the money involved was very nice...

All very funny, if you don't own a Saab. However, I do own a Saab, and I felt the smile on my face draining away rather like the smile on the face of a Danish Muslim opening a copy of Jyllands-Posten and turning to the cartoon pages...

Well, perhaps not as drastically as that, but I would like to say, in defence of Saabs, that if it were not for the Saab car company, I would not still be a musician.

It was like this. In 1987 I left London after 25 years living in the capital, and moved to the wilds of Wiltshire. In London I had never owned a car, because it was a waste of time. I went to work on a bicycle or by Tube, and hired a car when I had to make long trips. But suddenly in 1987, out in the country, I needed among other things to drive a car to gigs with my double bass, and so I started haunting car showrooms in the Bath/Wiltshire area.

"I'm looking for a spacious car," I would say.

"Certainly, sir," they would say, pointing to some faceless hatchback or estate. "Would you like to take this for a spin?"

"No, I wouldn't," I would say. "But I tell you what I would like to do. I'd like to see if this double bass can fit in your car, lying down."

And hey presto I would produce a double bass from behind my back, and the man would say he was sure it would fit in all right, but it never did, not lying down. You can get a double bass in any car at an odd angle, if you try hard enough, and if you lay all the seats back. I once got my bass into a Volkswagen Beetle, over a reclining front passenger seat (useful tip - always put the big end in the car first), and although I couldn't get it out again, it showed what could be done. But a bass lying flat on its back is different.

And then one day I went to a Saab showroom, and found a Saab 900, which, if you put the back seat down, easily took my double bass lying flat on its back. I bought one and I've still got one. Not the same one. Even Saabs wear out. Especially if you have to buy them second-hand. Which I do, because they don't make the Saab 900 any more, and the newer Saabs are not so double-bass-friendly, so I have to go out hunting Saab 900s.

But I would never get anything else. Great car, the Saab 900.

I shall now print off this article and send it anonymously to the Nobel Prize people in Stockholm. You never know...