Watching television this Christmas I saw James May reassemble his 1971 Flying Scotsman Hornby model train set. He was completely absorbed in his task despite the tight configuration of television cameras around his table. Quietly chatting to his invisible audience, calmly choosing the next part to assemble: the right screw or bolt for the waiting wheel or axle.
Perfectly illustrating W H Auden’ s description of vocation in his poem ‘Sext’:
You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,
you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon
making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,
wear the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.
How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.
Here was someone doing what he loved doing and so doing what he was meant to be doing. It came over in his calm confidence, his disarming lack of showmanship, his expertise and humility so unselfconsciously combined.
Why was this so satisfying to watch? James May was not making a train set: it had already been made. He was not mending a broken train set: the train was clearly perfect. He was putting together a train set which had previously been taken apart and laid out carefully and precisely on the table.
What made the programme so special was that May was doing much more than just showing us how to put a model train set back together. He was sharing his joy in what he was doing: reassembling the train set for the sheer love of it. Taking delight in the process of reassembling. Enjoying recreating the precision and the craftsmanship which had made the train set originally. Because May was absorbed in his task he drew us, the viewers, into the task with him. Because he delighted in it, we were invited to share that delight. We too could marvel at the workmanship of the model train. We could feel the satisfaction when the parts fitted together smoothly.
The programme drew a huge audience, as did all The Reassembler series, to the amazement of the programmers. Maybe it was something to do with the integrity of what we watched. No salesmanship, or propaganda or celebrity focus. Just one man doing something that he loved that made him fully human, and sharing that love with us. Showing us what vocation is all about actually.