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James May on: confusing electricity

Published: 21 Oct 2013

I'm restoring an old motorcycle. That sounds like a recipe for chipped tea mugs, engine numbers, owners' clubs and all the other rather turgid stuff that attends the preservation of old machinery, but, fortunately, it's a bit more cheerful than that.

Woman, having grown tired of the 20th-century marvel of the affordable motor car, has decided that she should learn to ride a motorbike instead. The idea terrifies me a bit, but so does letting the cat go out at night, and I still do it. So what I've bought her, in barn-find condition, is a Honda C70 step-through. It's a modest widowermaker of just five horsepower, but you can mount a basket on the front, and you can't with a Fireblade.

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For several weeks now, when I find an hour to myself, I step into the shed and continue my tireless work rebuilding this sparkling icon of post-modern personal transportation. I've painted it bright blue, but I'm going to have the protective leg-shields, the front mudguard and the side panels vinyl wrapped in a bright floral pattern, so people will know it's hers.

Yes - or do I mean no? - it's not a car, but putting it all back together isn't that different. The frame is largely a pressed-steel monocoque, rather than a tubular type, so that's not unlike very narrow car bodywork. There are only two wheels, obviously, but things like the brakes and the bearings work in pretty much the same way.

It's a bit like rebuilding one side of a Mini. And there is one aspect of this that admits no distinction between car, bike, or anything else with an engine in it, and that is the electrics. For some time in its early years, electricity was known by its full title, which was "the miracle of electricity", but I have no truck with this. Electricity is the responsibility of a mischievous imp at best; it may be the work of Lucifer himself.

I'm no fool, and I know my weaknesses, electrical comprehension being one of them. So when I took this thing apart, I checked time and time again that the colours of all the wires and connectors matched up, and labelled any that might outwit me when seen in the watery light of a fading torch.

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I also took dozens of photographs. But when I put it back together again, it didn't work, just like the Christmas tree lights of popular lore. But I can explain the tree lights. The act of coiling them up, storing them in a damp attic for exactly a year and then unravelling them again disturbs something that causes them to malfunction. The same might be true of the bike's wiring. How, though? I've
been through it all, and it's only bits of wire, and it's all joined up properly.

Please don't write in and tell me it's a bad earth or a dud battery, because I understand all that. What I don't really understand is what electricity actually is. Neither does anyone else, in fact. It's a flow of electrons in a wire. This is just a cop-out. Electrons are in the realm of conceptual physics, a device for thinking, and that sort of thing doesn't make an indicator flash. And how do they flow? Like machine-gun fire? Like migrating wildebeest? Not good enough.

It's like the flow of water through a pipe, and the battery is just like a water tank in the attic. This is arrant and apparent nonsense, because the battery on the bike is lower down than the headlight. And water in a pipe is either there or it isn't there, it doesn't suddenly emerge and blow your eyeballs out if you touch it in the wrong way.

It's all rubbish. No one I know, which includes a professorial physicist or two, can actually explain what electricity is. Just because a battery made a light bulb come on in the school lab, and we were told smugly that it was because we'd made a complete circuit, doesn't even begin to frame an understanding of the inside of an iPad. It's naught but a Victorian conjuring trick that has been sustained in the world by blind faith and acceptance, like religion.

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Look, I keep being told that the electric-car future is with us. Are we sure about this? We are delving into the occult, things that we cannot fully divine and that the diurnal world is somewhat reluctant to reveal to us. Is it wise?

Tell you what, I'll do a deal with the proponents of our electrical salvation. Come and make the Honda work, and then you can make a start on the next Nissan Leaf. Meanwhile, I've locked up the shed, and I'm off to the pub. The beer pump is mechanical.

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