A broken clock and a major bollocking: James May on what started his reassembly hobby

The Grand Tour presenter ruined his parents’ bedside alarm as a little boy – and he’s been taking stuff apart ever since

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Old things were designed to come apart. This is where I find myself impaled on the horns of a deep internal conflict. I love reassembly, and I’m a tool pervert. And yet, by rights, I should rebuild a 1950s lawnmower and then throw it in the canal, because otherwise I am reintroducing to the world the smoke-belching cacophonous evil that ruined a billion neighbours’ sunny Sunday afternoons in the garden. A robotic electric hover mower is just better.

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Fortunately, I have no desire to retard the world. Reassembly is merely a form of therapy; something that stimulates a part of my brain that is left wanting in my daily life.

When I rebuild a bicycle, I reorder my head. So might you. I’m not an evangelist for it, I don’t think it will save the nation, and it doesn’t trouble me if the younger generation aren’t interested – why should they be? They’ve got Pokémon Go. I just happen to like putting things together. So I do.

It began for me around the age of five, and my first reassembly experience was the one that many of you will have suffered since, even in adulthood. That is: it didn’t go back together.

The object of my enquiry was my parents’ alarm clock, and this being the late 60s, it was a proper mechanical device with a huge internal bell, and on which the time to get up could be set on a small subsidiary dial, to within an accuracy of 15 minutes.

The “enabling technology” in this endeavour was the small, flat-bladed screwdriver that lived in a drawer in the kitchen (where else?).

It was the first tool I understood. I pointed the business end toward the forbidden bedroom and advanced, undetected. I can still see the three dome-headed and burnished slotted screws that secured the back of this clanking mystery.

Off came that back: suspiciously easily, I would now realise. More screws lay within, and on I went, like one of Howard Carter’s archaeologists, unable to resist the lure of the treasure that must soon be revealed to me, despite a nagging sense that the whole project was cursed.

What I didn’t appreciate, at the age of five, was the facility that the freshly wound mainspring had for completing the disassembly process for me. It was there, and then it simply wasn’t there any more, scattered to the four skirting boards as the spring’s impetus, intended to be metered out over 24 hours, was spent in a tiny fraction of time that a crude alarm clock could not in itself record.

I was left astonished, clutching the empty shell of the ancestral timepiece, a cartoon boing hanging in the air over my father’s approaching footsteps. Even today, I approach a spring that is anything other than completely relaxed with deep circumspection, the legacy of a very early bollocking.

It was with the bicycle that I finally achieved the satisfaction of what the Haynes Manual refers to as “the reverse of the above”, ie reassembly.

It became clear to me and a few mates that a basic bicycle could be completely dismantled with just a handful of simple tools. At first just the odd wheel came off, or the brakes were swapped for a centre pull set scrounged from a neighbour. But then we discovered the C spanner, so the bottom bracket could come apart.

Then the cones and cages of a wheel spindle. Even the derailleur could be dismantled. And each time we dared ourselves to stray further into the mapless forest of disassembly, we found to our amazement that we could put it back together again and re-emerge, blinking, into the dazzling light of a complete bicycle. (This metaphor needs taking apart and putting back together properly.)

Soon, the naked frame hung from pieces of string from the rafters, all the other components bestrewn around it, except some of the ball bearings, which had rolled down the drain in the middle of the garage floor.

Our bicycles enjoyed the use-to-maintenance ratio of a Formula One car. They were ridden furiously for a few hours, then completely rebuilt, for no reason other than because we could do it.

Bliss it was in those evenings for us to congregate like subversives producing samizdat; to strip a freewheel for sheer joy and then reassemble it, packed with fresh grease so that it ran almost silently, even though it already did, because we’d done the same thing a week earlier.

This was before we’d met any girls, obviously. Even today – old fart alert – I am outraged by bicycles that function in any way other than absolutely perfectly, because I know that with a few pressed-steel multispanners made from cheese, a mallet, a punch and just one screwdriver that has at some time served as a chisel, they can be made to work with the unerring certainty of Babbage’s Difference Engine.

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Edited extract from James May’s The Reassembler (Hodder & Stoughton) © 2017 Plum Pictures Limited and James May