(4 March 1923 – 9 December 2012)
The news of Sir Patrick Moore’s recent death has saddened me. Aside from being an eccentric, genius and national treasure, he was someone who I and my family considered a friend.
I first made contact with Patrick aged 12 after a trip to the observatory science centre at Herstmonceux. The staff talked about this monocle wearing, pipe smoking eccentric and I was curious to find out more about him.
Showing signs of early journalistic integrity, I did my research and wrote to him, talking about the stars and asked him outright, “Do UFO’s and Aliens exist”? To which Sir Patrick gave his expert opinion, “Yes, but they don’t come from space. As for aliens, yes in other solar systems, but there’s no evidence that they’ve ever come here”.
A few days later the home phone rang and it was the great man himself, saying he enjoyed my letter and asked if I would like to go to his house for a cup of tea and a chat. After the initial panic and fear of not knowing enough about the solar system, I agreed to make the journey to his house in Selsey with my grandfather.
As Patrick introduced me to his carers, other friends and his beloved cats, I felt grown up. I had obviously made a good impression on the great man as he insisted that my grandfather and I stay in touch.
Over the years, my grandparents had more contact with him than I did, exchanging letters and Christmas cards and keeping in touch, but I always found it quite exciting to know someone who was often billed as a ‘world famous broadcaster’.
Patrick always liked to hear how I was getting on and upon finding out that I won a cup for public speaking was thrilled and took a keen interest when I showed him the cup.
It has been a pleasure to have known him for a few years. Join me as I look back fondly on an interview I conducted with Patrick Moore two years ago.
Sam Evans meets Patrick Moore
Sir Patrick Moore CBE, the unique presenter of the Sky Ay Night and author of many books on the solar system. For 50 years, this man has been at the fore-front of presenting Astronomy to the common man.
I was ushered into his cluttered study where books, photographs and honours haphazardly jostled for space. Sir Patrick, wearing a red Kaftan and his customary monocle, greeted me enthusiastically and said, “Call me Patrick”.
At 88 and with an illustrious career behind him, he is as keen as ever about astronomy. But how did he first become interested in the subject?
“On many occasions I was ill, having to stay home from school I was given a small book on the stars, named The Story of the Solar System. The book was fascinating and I found it difficult to put down”. And with a wave of the hand, he points to the original copy still sitting on his bookshelf.
Patrick’s characteristic humour is shown when asked how he came into broadcasting. He looks at me with a wry smile and says, “Remember this, I was the one who was approached by the BBC and did the programmes all on my own”.
He adds how Brian May from Queen assists him now and comments, “Not as sprightly as I used to be.” Emphasising this frailty, the carer reappears with a tray of tea and tablets for Patrick which he humourlessly calls “Ground Glass”.
The tea interval gave me opportunity to look at the two observatories in the garden; Patrick follows my gaze and explains that the clear air is wonderful for stargazing. I was curious and he added proudly: “Anyone who was born in Selsey, returns to Selsey”. He explains that visitors from all over the worlds go there and says it’s with deep regret that he can’t escort people to the observatory because of the “wretched chair” (the wheelchair which confines him to the house). “But”, he says, “frequent enthusiasts enjoy using my equipment and I insist on seeing their results”.
In contrast to his frail state, Patrick talks about his cricketing days, “I was a somewhat unorthodox cricketer, couldn’t bat, couldn’t field, but I was a bloody good left arm bowler – leg breaks and googlies were my speciality”! It becomes clear that he had a strong affiliation with cricket and played for the local side, Selsey, until he was 77. He subtly drops in names linked to cricket. “You won’t know the names, Ted Dexter, Tony Greig and Colin Cowdrey. Well they are all pals of mine; I am still vice president of Sussex Cricket Club.”
A different photo caught my attention – a young handsome man in RAF uniform, a sharp contrast between that Patrick and the Patrick of today. “Yes that’s me, aged 17” he observes with pride and to my amusement tidies his hair. “I was desperate to ender” continuing speaking with his characteristic pace and crispness, “so managed to ignore the red tape, dodged the medical and told a few white lies”. He smiles at the memory and continues with the story. “I was hauled up before my C.O. who saw the funny side and told me if I could fool the medics, I could cope with the Krauts”! Patrick then explains that during this time he rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
“It wasn’t all good times”, Patrick mumbles. “Unfortunately for me, my fiancée, Lorna, was killed during a bombing raid, I never met anyone else to compare”. His voice trails off. “I will never forget Herr Hitler for his actions”. For a minute there’s an uneasy silence but it was broken by Ptolemy, his beloved cat, demanding attention. Patrick’s arthritic fingers struggled with a packet of treats which I opened for him.
Whilst putting the packet in the bin, I glimpse his dusty xylophone and realise the opportunity to move on to his other interests. When questioned, Patrick seems delighted to inform me that he loves music and played piano as well.
He eagerly tells me that he’s appeared on the Royal Variety Show and proceeds to manoeuvre the conversation towards a memorable trip to America. “Orville Wright was giving a talk on flight and Einstein was in the audience, with me! I volunteered to play a piano accompaniment to his violin recital to The Swan by Saint Saens – a great evening”. Patrick sighs, lost in his reflections of 70 years ago.
I am aware that Patrick is tired, so I turn the interview towards the knighthood. He agreed that it was an honour to be knighted by Prince Charles and I’m invited to identify the jewel sparkling in the middle of the framed award, I fail miserably, to his great satisfaction. Patrick confesses that the ‘jewel’ is sparkle from a Christmas cracker and has fooled all his visitors.
What looks like a rough old stone sits on the mantelpiece. I ask if it is a piece of moon rock. Patrick replies, “No, that is a fragment of the Barwell Metroite which fell in Leicester in 1966. I was allowed to search for fragments”.
Patrick then exclaims loudly “Now THERE is a piece of moon rock”. He proudly mentions that Neil Armstrong brought it back with him in his pocket, after landing on the moon. I cite this as the right opportunity to ask for an expert opinion about the future of man’s progress with space exploration. Patrick’s reply is: “It will be the Chinese, that’s my theory, mark my words”.
On leaving, I go to the door and chuckle to myself upon seeing a sign which reads, this house is maintained entirely for the convenience of our cat. Ironically, whilst looking at this a voice bellowed, “Careful of the cats, don’t let them out”!
Whilst thanking Patrick for his time, I jokingly commented that I was now linked with his famous interviewers: Sir David Frost and Parky. Patrick laughs and replies, “In your future journalistic career, Sam – remember this. Never take no for an answer. If I can assist you in any way at all, give me a ring if you feel so inclined.” With this valuable advice ringing in my ears, I left the great man alone in his jumbled study full of memories, photographs and beloved cats.