My Secret Life: James May, TV presenter, age 45

Interview,Charlotte Philby
Saturday 27 September 2008 00:00
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The house I grew up in... I moved all over Britain. Home life was very happy. We all had food and shoes.

When I was a child I wanted to be... a fighter pilot because I like aeroplanes. Or a surgeon.

The moment that changed me for ever... Punching a guy called Kenneth Ingram in the face after choir practice when I was nine. We had an argument over who would be head boy. It was a brutal arena, the village church choir.

My greatest inspiration... I learnt to be quite thorough from my dad and to do things properly. And I learnt to be quite nice from my mum.

My real-life villain... Jeremy Clarkson or Richard Hammond. I don't really have any others.

My style icon... I'm not interested in style. "Normal bloke" is my style.

If I could change one thing about myself... it would be my innate idleness. Deep down inside I am lazy.

At night I dream of... ladies and aeroplanes. But I help myself go to sleep by dreaming about nice things like clouds and leaves floating down a stream. Or puppies' ears, that sort of thing.

What I see when I look in the mirror I see... A much older man than I expected. And bad hair.

My favourite item of clothing... I spend a lot of money on clothes, and I actually have some quite nice ones, but I have a fantastic ability to make them all look rubbish.

I wish I'd never worn... I once dressed up as a minstrel when I was young because I was a music student and I used to earn money at the weekends by playing medieval banquets.

It's not fashionable but I like... all sorts of things. Velour. In cars. Some of those Seventies fabrics and things we've forgotten about such as the plastic beaded door curtain.

You wouldn't know it but I'm very good at... darts. Good enough to have a good game down the pub. I can play darts reasonably consistently, once I've had three pints. That's the peak of dart skill, then it falls off very rapidly.

You may not know it but I'm no good at... nest building. I can't make a house homely. My house just looks like a garage or a shed. I'm not untidy but it just looks so uninviting.

All my money goes on... cars. I have five. Motorcycles, of which I have six. Aviation fuel. I have a small aeroplane. And drink.

If I have time to myself... I play the piano, go to the pub, hang around with my mates. Occasionally even a bit of cooking.

I drive... The one I use the most is my Fiat Panda. If I could have only one, I would say my Fiat Panda, though I also have a Porsche 911 and a Rolls-Royce.

My house is... in Hammersmith, west London, which I bought because it had a garage. It was an area where I wanted to live. A garage is pretty unusual around there so I took it.

My most valuable possession is... my aeroplane. Aeroplanes were something I was interested in as a small boy. I get bad vertigo and I never thought I would be able to afford to do it. I was a bit lucky. I only went down to the airport for a trial. I just kept going and ended up with a pilot's licence.

My favourite building... I like the Gherkin – it's terrific. And I like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. And Wells Cathedral, because I like cold, austere, medieval stuff.

Movie heaven... If it's a really rainy Sunday afternoon and I don't have to be anywhere I quite like sitting in a chair and watching The Battle of Britain or Where Eagles Dare. I'm not a big film buff; I like watching films but I tend to forget them.

A book that changed me... William Golding's Free Fall. It's about a bloke who's trying to identify the time in his life when he grew up. I've never read it again because these things are often disappointing if you revisit them. But at the time I remember thinking it was really accurate.

My favourite work of art... an Emil Nolde crucifixion triptych. I saw it at an exhibition 15 years ago and thought it was fantastic. If I could have any artwork I would have that one.

The last album I bought/downloaded... I downloaded a Chopin album. I play the piano and have just bought an iPod. I have suddenly become very modern.

The person who really makes me laugh... was Ivor Cutler, the Scottish, slightly surreal comedian who died a couple of years ago. He wrote stupid songs but they always got me.

The shops I can't walk past... Any shop with penknives, or tool shops. Tools, penknives, nuts and bolts, hardware, that sort of thing.

The best invention ever... is the mini cheese grater. It cannot be improved in any respect. It also means you can grate cheese without grating your thumb. It is a perfectly designed solution to a common but debilitating problem.

In 10 years' time, I hope to be... still alive, if that is a realistic possibility. Still in work.

My greatest regret... Not working harder at school. I sometimes think I could have done something more serious like be a surgeon or an airline pilot.

My life in seven words... Random, unplanned, but surprisingly rewarding. And happy.

A life in brief

Born in Bristol on 16 January 1963, James May is a presenter on BBC's Top Gear alongside Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond. He worked at Autocar magazine until he was sacked for inserting a hidden message in one issue, which read: "So you think it's really good, yeah? You should try making the bloody thing up. It's a real pain in the arse." He co-presented Oz and James's Big Wine Adventure with the wine writer Oz Clarke, and has written several books. He lives in London with his partner, the dance critic Sarah Frater, and will be co-hosting Top Gear Live at the MPH Prestige and Performance Motor Show, Earl's Court, London, from 30 October to2 November.

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