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When SCAN approached Lancaster University and Pendle College alumnus James May for an interview, he was sat enjoying the sun on the balcony outside Pendle Bar with a group of current students from the college – “[When I was a student at Lancaster] we used to do some revision, unlike this lot who just sit around on a balcony” – having spent the whole day on campus. Given the sporadic appearances of May at various locations on campus over the past 24 hours, the first question SCAN was most keen to ask was why the former Top Gear presenter had decided to visit Lancaster today. “I kept telling the Alumni association that I would come – I couldn’t come to the 50 year stuff because I was abroad, but they were very keen for me to see the new engineering department so I came up last night,” May said. “I had a look at that and I’ve had some lunch and stayed on campus and just had a general look round.”
May said that he was very impressed by the new engineering building. “It was fantastic!” he said. “That engineering building has been designed ecologically, so there’s a constant temperature and it’s all very comfortable, whereas in the old days it was all either baking hot – because the communal central heating was cranked right up – or it was absolutely freezing cold; it just didn’t really work. You young people don’t know how lucky you are.”
In addition to the new engineering building, a lot of campus has changed since May was a student at Lancaster (he graduated in 1985), although much of what he calls the “core” of the university remains the same. “I haven’t had time to see [all of campus] but we had a walk up and down the spine,” May said. “The core of the university [along the central spine] is the bit that we remember because that’s largely unchanged – we can still recognise quite a bit of it. And up at the other end, County and the Nuffield Theatre, that’s all still the same.
“But they’ve renamed bits and effectively moved colleges around, and there are all these new buildings around the outside,” May told SCAN. “It must be two-and-a-half times the size of what it was for me at university.”
While the passive observer may assume that his undergraduate degree at Lancaster was in engineering or a similar discipline, May graduated from the university with a bachelor’s degree in music. He enjoyed doing the degree, but apparently wasn’t very good at it. “To be honest I was a bit of a slacker – a bit like this lot,” he said, gesturing to all of the students gathered around him sunbathing.
Of course, Lancaster controversially closed its music department in the 2012-13 academic year. How does May feel about the fact he has a degree from a department which no longer exists? “Well I find it quite sad,” he said, although added that he believes there is still scope for the music degree scheme to rise from the ashes. “I notice that the Music Rooms are still called “The Music Rooms” – I know that they have concerts in there now, but that still bodes quite well for it [the music department] coming back, which would be quite nice I think.”
It’s at this point that we turn to May’s own current situation and future. He left the BBC show Top Gear around a month ago after the sacking of fellow presenter Jeremy Clarkson following a fracas between Clarkson and a producer of the show. While he “can’t tell you anything” about Clarkson or the fate of Top Gear, May is currently “unemployed. Unemployed by the BBC.” During his time since leaving Top Gear, he has been busying himself by making a series of videos on his new YouTube channel, JM’s Unemployment Tube. The first of the videos posted on the channel was a minute-long rendition of Greensleaves on his recorder. “It’s poor isn’t it?” May says of his performance of the famous tune. “That’s what a degree led to – I’m able to play Greensleeves on the recorder. I was a very poor student.”
May said that he will not only be working on more YouTube videos – one concerning the making of poached eggs on toast, another on how to mend old toy trains – but could potentially be returning to the BBC to make a documentary. “I am working on an idea for a documentary for the BBC, which they haven’t formally commissioned yet but I think they’re going to,” he told SCAN. “In the very immediate future I’m going to do two more YouTube films: one about poached eggs on toast, which has been popularly requested; and the other one that people have requested is ‘how to mend your old toy trains.’ I put that last one in as a joke, but a lot of people were very keen so I’m going to have to do it, I suppose.”
May’s endearingly amateurish approach to his YouTube channel can be traced back to when he was a student at Lancaster, although he was emphatically not a member of Bailrigg FM, contrary to the claim made by the student radio station’s Wikipedia page. Instead, May worked on the Pendle College newspaper (“we had to do it with a typewriter, take real photographs and then glue them on”) which he believes may have helped establish his future career. Or not. “I really liked doing it, and maybe it was portentous in some way,” May told SCAN as our interview in the sun drew to a close. “Or maybe I was just trying to get out of doing my proper work.”