Sir Patrick Moore

Elaine Evans interviews - Sir Patrick Moore

A year ago I visited the Norman Lockyer Observatory at Sidmouth, Devon. It was an open afternoon and we were given demonstrations of how the three telescopes worked, and then an excellent night sky presentation in the planetarium: very impressive.

That started an unexpected chain of events, which led to my receiving a letter from Sir Patrick Moore which ended, “Hove and Selsey are quite close, if you are ever my way do look in to see me.”

What an opportunity! Sir Patrick must be one of the most famous people in Britain – just mention “The Sky at Night” to anyone – so I was absolutely delighted. Patrick is now 88 and not in very robust health, so a date was chosen and a friend drove me to his house, a lovely thatched residence with an extensive garden and – yes – an observatory.

We were led into his study by Chris, a family friend, and there was the great man sitting by his desk. No monocle, but unmistakeably Sir Patrick. I have to admit I was in awe, but he has such a lovely personality that Adrienne and I felt at ease right away. Patrick is confined to a wheelchair and arthritis has curtailed the use of his hands, but mentally he’s as bright as a button, with the most acute hearing. (He told me he can hear the squeak of a bat, and I don’t think he was joking.)

His study is a very spacious room, with desk, manual typewriter, computer and a cuckoo clock that he was given at age 6, but what caught my attention were many many framed certificates and citations, hanging from the beams. There must have been twenty or thirty from various universities and institutions awarding him honorary doctorates and other honours – Fellow of the Royal Society, just too many to mention. On the mantelpiece was a BAFTA, in a glass case hung various decorations, OBE, CBE.

I was looking at the case and Chris was explaining these honours when Patrick said: “You see the row of miniature medals” and there was indeed a small decoration an inch or so long, “they came out of a Christmas cracker.” It was so unexpected, so comical, it typifies Patrick’s great personality.

I don’t know much about astronomy but I told him of an incident in Canada last June. My brother-in-law Julian was driving me in the country, it was a cloudless sunny day, when in the sky ahead there were pastel tints, pink, green, yellow, so unusual that I asked him to stop the car to let me have a better view, then they quickly disappeared. Patrick said that they were “sundogs”, rather like Northern Lights but in the sunshine. He added that they don’t often happen, so I felt very glad to have experienced them.

I also mentioned a lecture I’d attended at Sussex University last summer, “Astronomy in the daytime”. I must say at the time the title sounded odd, but it transpired that it was about viewing the sun. It is extremely dangerous to attempt to look directly at the sun because it is quite literally blinding but our speaker had a special kind of telescope (Coronado solar) which allows the viewer to see the sun indirectly. The skies cleared a little, so we were able to have a go. The sun is an amazing blood red colour, glowing like red hot coals. Chris then warned us that it is possible to harm the eyes even using this instrument if the filters are damaged in any way.

I wasn’t sure how long we could stay without tiring Patrick, but the conversation flowed and I plucked up the courage to mention UFOs, asking if they could be of secret military provenance. Patrick does not believe that there is other life in our solar system. There are so many galaxies in the universe that who knows? Chris interjected that scientists had been sending signals into space for a hundred years now, signals which would get weaker with the distance. To attempt to come to terms with the immeasurable vastness of the universe is just overwhelming.

I also mentioned corn circles, another phenomenon that had interested my husband. Undoubtedly some hoaxers are involved, but both Patrick and Chris have an open mind about crop circles.

Patrick mentioned that he is the only man to have met the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong), the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin) and the first man to fly (Orville Wright). I replied that surely he’d written a book about his extraordinary life? Chris responded by withdrawing from the many books lining the study a volume entitled “80 – not out” – Patrick’s autobiography and an allusion to his love for cricket. He’d played for Selsey Cricket Club until his seventies, as a spin bowler.

Patrick had met Orville Wright in Canada, where he received his training to fly as a navigator in RAF Bomber Command. Tragically, his fiancée, a nurse, was killed when a bomb hit her ambulance. Patrick never married.

During our visit Patrick’s mobile rang, which he picked up and answered. I was surprised to be told that he’s in the phone book. I said that left him open to all sorts of unwelcome calls, especially unsolicited sales calls. Patrick replied, “I just say ‘Yes’, put the phone down and carry on with what I was doing. When I pick up the phone later, it’s dead. They’re paying for the call.” That made me think. My phone is registered with the Telephone Preference Service, but I still get pestered with unwelcome calls, which I dispatch as quickly as possible. However, the very next day I received an unsolicited call and employed Patrick’s technique. Later, I replaced the receiver. Simples!

Chris then asked us if we’d like to visit the observatory. It reminded me very much of the Lockyer Observatory in Devon. Patrick is no longer able to get to it but amazingly he still appears on “The Sky at Night”. Every month the BBC come down to Selsey and Patrick talks about current aspects. His one complaint is that the programme appears late at night, so I determined to record the next one.

Ptolemy, one of Patrick’s beloved cats, had joined us. Sadly, Jeannie, his favourite, had been put down the previous week, and Patrick said, “I am heartbroken.” On the wall there is an old wooden signboard with the words ‘Commanding Officer’, taken, I imagine, from a disused World War II building. It refers to Jeannie in the adjoining photo. In fact, at the front door there is a plaque saying that this house is ruled by a cat, or words to that effect.

An hour and a half had slipped by (punctuated charmingly by Mr Cuckoo!) and it was time for Patrick’s light lunch, which he takes in some style in a very large dining room. We shook hands and I felt moved to kiss his cheek as with a favourite uncle, saying, “It’s been a joy.” He responded, “You must stay for lunch next time.” What a gentleman!

Adrienne and I drove away on a high. The next day all I could think of was that extraordinary afternoon, and I have to admit I shed a tear of respect for his amazing intellect, his life’s achievements and his place in the nation’s heart. Here’s to your century, Patrick! Cheers!