INTERVIEWS: PATRICK MOORE
Illustration by Down on the farm
Patrick Moore: Moon-mapper, xylophonist and eccentric genius. He hates May bugs and loves cats. B3ta roving reporter Kirk Rutter tracked him down and asked him, "What are you like?"
It’s 3.30 on a windy Saturday afternoon. I have just driven two-and-a-half hours from London to Sussex.
Not sure if I have the right place (no door number) I look around a little and spot the observatory in the garden. This is it: Farthings, Sir Patrick Moore’s house. I ring the bell and notice the xylophones either side of the door. His assistant answers the door and invites me in.
"Patrick is waiting for you in his study," she points to the study across the hallway where he is sitting with his back towards me.
As I enter the room he turns round and offers me a handshake, I feel more relaxed than I thought I might and Patrick looks just as I expected. He is personable and disarming. His assistant offers me tea and we chat briefly before being joined by 2 other visitors; his two cats, which he loves dearly.
When did you start wearing a monocle? What made you start?
SMASH HITS-STYLE POP PROFILE
Fish, seafood. Never had a big appetite.
Politicians, they muck up everything!
None, I’m afraid.
I like all animals.
Top Secret, great fun.
Meaning of life:
To look out for one another.
When I was 16 and started to have problems with my right eye.
How many monocles do you own?
Just a few. I think it’s four in total.
How long did it take you to get used to wearing a monocle?
No time at all really. If I put my monocle in I have good sight in both eyes. Only one eye is bad. When I wear it they are equal.
I never wanted to wear glasses. I can just pop this in when I need it. I flew in the War wearing it. Here I am aged 17 (points out a picture. A very youthful looking Patrick)
After you left the RAF, what else could you have done if you had never become interested in astronomy?
I wanted to be a writer always. I was bound to be a writer. My education was ruined.
I couldn’t get to Eaton because I was ill and then we had a war. I said I was 18 and joined the Air Force. I wasn’t, mind you (18).
I’ve no idea what I would have written, but, becoming hooked on astronomy at age 6, I can now write about that. I enjoy it.
I’ve never worked. My hobby and my job are the same.
If you could give 3 pieces of advice to your younger self, what would they be?
(looks stunned) Oh Lord! Er. I don’t know!
"Don’t over-reach for things. Stay within your limits," I think is something I might say.
What about 3 pieces for the younger people reading this?
I would say the same thing my mother said to me: If you want to do something, ask yourself 2 questions. A, is it sensible? B will it harm or distress to anybody? If the answer is yes and no then do it. If not then don’t.
Happiest childhood memory?
Being elected as a member of the British Astronomical Association at age 11. I remember going up onto the stage and being welcomed by the then-president.
Exactly 50 years later I was president. My first Meeting was December 1934, my last the December just gone.
Worst childhood memory?
My cat dying. He had cat flu. I loved him very much. He used to curl up my shoulder. Then one day he wasn’t there.
Have you done something recently that you have regretted?
I really can’t think of anything! Nope, not a thing.
As you are aware the Hubble Telescope is due to be dismantled after 14 years. What are you thoughts on this?
I think it’s a disaster! There should be some method of keeping it going. It’s done so much and it’s in perfectly good order! I quite agree repairing it is a risk to astronaut, but they’ve done it before (taken risks). To cancel it on the grounds of expense is criminal.
The observatory in Hawaii is bigger than Hubble, but has to look through the Earth's atmosphere. Hubble can do things that earth-bound telescopes can’t. Certain waves are blocked out completely.
Mr. Bush’s venture into Iraq could have instead paid for the entire space programme for quite a few years. Hubble has seen further than anyone has ever seen before.
I think Bush is certifiable. He’s a danger. If we are not careful he’ll plunge the world into a Third World War. He’s power-drunk you see. If he goes for Iran or North Korea (hums) big trouble! What’s the difference between Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein? Mugabe doesn’t produce oil!
Are you satisfied with the changes you have witnessed in space travel in your lifetime? From the moon landing to Huygens successful mission to Titan in less than a century is a huge jump don’t you think?
Well also I met Orville Wright. I’ve met the first Airman, the first Spaceman and the first man on the Moon. They could have all met; all their lives could have overlapped in some way. They didn’t, but it would have been interesting don’t you think?
I wonder. The first man on Mars. Who is he? He might be out there now. Just being born or 6 months - a year old and unaware of his destiny. I’d love to meet him. (laughs)
To answer your question; I am happy in a way. I just feel we would be much further on if so much money hadn’t been wasted on stupid wars.
Given these changes and the fact the technology seems to progress exponentially, what do you see happening in the next 50 years?
Things are so quick nowadays! I remember a time before televisions! I still have my 1930’s radio. You have to wait for the valves to warm up though! (laughs)
Are you aware of any new projects that haven’t been released to the public yet?
The new James Web Telescope
is the only thing that comes to mind right now.
It will be much further away but is only infrared and won’t replace Hubble’s capability.
Are you aware of string theory, M theory and current theory on parallel universes? What do you think of these? What about “multiverses”?
These are all concepts. Parallel universes? Well, who’s to say? It may be right, it may be wrong. How are we going to prove or disprove it? I don’t know. String theory? Yes. It’s a lovely mathematical concept, except no proof of it yet. The mathematicians can theorise it, but we do not definitely know yet. M theory comes under the same category.
You have spent most of your adult life studying our skies and solar system. Do you believe there is a GOD, or that all matter came into existence as a result of the “Big Bang”?
Ask me that again in ten years time and I will be able to tell you. (laughs).
You were involved in the committee panel for the moon landing. What do you think of the theory that it was all staged?
I was a Moon mapper, helping to map the Moon. When I hear these theses I look round for men in boiler suits and white vans. If ignorance is bliss they must be very happy.
What’s your favourite anecdote?
I was lucky enough to be broadcasting when the first men were going round the
Apollo 8, it went round the moon. I was on air broadcasting live. I said “the first men on the moon are now on the far side of the moon.” “We can’t see them, we can’t hear them”. “They’ll come round again shortly; this is risky business with no rescue provisions. I will say no more now. We’ll wait in less than a
minute to hear the voices of the first men round the moon”.
Now this is one of the great moments of human history. The BBC changed over to Jackanory! Jackanory! (laughs)
You have met many interesting people; would you mind sharing your experience of these meetings. How did you feel? Were you very nervous etc?
Einstein? He had a violin, he played “The Swan” and I just happened to know it! I joined him on the piano. Pure luck. He was a very communicative man, friendly and unassuming. Exactly what you would expect from someone like him. A man apart from all others.
Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong? I like them both immensely.
In your opinion, what are the main factors of an intelligent or gifted person?
Courage. You need tremendous courage to be an astronaut. Calmness, Ability, courage and skill. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, for example, couldn’t be more different, one is extrovert the other introvert. Buzz presented me with the BAFTA award. (Patrick points it out to me, sitting humbly on a bookshelf behind me).
Can you name another person you met that was very interesting?
Steven Hawking. I knew him when he was mobile, when he was very young.
We also did a television programme together.
Who is the funniest person you ever met?
Eric Morecombe and I’d have to add Michael Bentine. A dear friend.
Can you suggest someone else for an interview?
Who would you like to poke in the eye with a sharp stick? You can choose more than one.
Well I wouldn’t want to hurt anyone really. Erm. George W. Bush
Do you believe in astrology?
Bunk! Absolute bunk! I’ve just written a book called “Stars of Destiny”
my scientific book of astrology. Came out last month. I created my own Zodiac! The Fish Slice, The Aardvark and The Petrol Pump etc. (Laughs). It’s just utter bunk. I once read in a newspaper astrology guide that on that particular day I would perform an outstanding athletic feat. I was playing cricket and in the end took 0 for 62! (laughs)
Has there ever been a Sky At Night which wasn't hosted by you?
Just the once out of 640 shows. I had salmonella poisoning and was so ill I
If you could visit any nebula which would it be?
The Orion Nebula, if you want to go and see a nebula. It’s 1,500 light years away.
The Crab Nebula is a pulsar and full of nasty short-wave radiation so wouldn’t be very pleasant!
If you had a giant space cannon who/what would you put in it, and which astral body would you fire it at?
Every politician and world leader. Then blast them to Alpha Centauri, a nice safe distance for them. (laughs)
What did the fly taste like?
(laughs) It buzzed all the way down!
Have you ever used a telescope to spy on someone - even just a quick one-off peek through someone's window?
(laughs) I’ve only spied on the moon. It turns everything upside down so wouldn’t be that great to use for spying anyway.
How long until I can go down to Heathrow and get a space shuttle to the Moon (return ticket, of course)?
That depends. If someone stops George W. Bush, more space research funds might become available.
When Richard Branson starts flying into space will you be booking a ticket?
Yes, if they could find a rocket to launch me.
Do you think it's important for people to start going back to the moon?
You can’t separate one branch of science for another. Going back to the moon would provide scientific data of immense value. When you consider the amount of money spent on space research it’s peanuts compared to the national budget. I mean look at the Millennium Dome. What does that do? It’s still costing a small fortune per month as we speak! If I were younger and fitter I’d be fighting as the opposition for the UKIP.
If you were in space without a space-suit how would you really die? So far I’ve heard you'd boil, freeze and burst at the same time.
Your blood would boil inside you and you would die straight away.
if you were travelling on a train approaching the speed of light, would Camilla Parker-Bowles look attractive?
I have no comment. (laughs)
You've seen a lot of probes and spaceships land on planets and moons,
which one has made the most lasting impression on you?
I must say, I’m a moon man you see. So Titan.
Was Titan what you expected?
We didn’t know what to expect, would it be rock, ice, slush or liquid? Amazing pictures came back from 900 millions miles away. Titan was featured on my last Sky At Night programme.
Where did all the science programs on TV go?
A lot of TV is run by women these days.
have you ever seen a UFO?
Yes, in my observatory one day. I saw a huge fleet of perfect flying saucers.
“The Martians have arrived,” I thought. Then I find out what it really was... Pollen! (laughs)
You've done a lot for the public understanding of science but what misunderstandings still irritate you?
People confusing Astrology and Astronomy.
Illustration by Tart Monkey
How do you feel about fox-hunting?
Fox-hunters hate me. I’m very much involved with the anti-hunting group. There is a chapter about it in my book. It looks like we are going to get rid of this month (February ’05).
Your favourite sport is cricket: Do you think we will ever bring the Ashes home?
Not unless schools start teaching cricket in the curriculum again!
What are your favourite TV comedy programmes?
Yes Prime Minister, Dad's Army and ‘Allo ‘Allo.
Have you played a video game?
Oh gosh no! I don’t know too much about them.
Have you used the internet?
No. I’m not too good with computers.
Favourite person and TV person
Edmond Halley, the English astronomer and mathematician
Have you ever feared for your life?
Yes, in the war. I’d like to skip over that.
What music do you listen to?
I love waltzes and marches. My all-time favourite composers would be Schubert, Grieg and Chopin.
When did you start to play the piano?
Before I could talk. My mother could never drag me away from it. I’m more of a composer though.
How did playing the xylophone start? It’s quite an unusual instrument to start playing. Is that what drew you to it?
Well I was about 9 years old and loved it straight away.
What do you think of the b3ta animation?
Someone showed me it [Weebl & Rob Manuel's Patrick Moore song
] and that was that.
The video of you playing Prodigy’s “FireStarter” is a classic moment. Very
funny. You carried it off very well. Anyone else might not have pulled it off. You don’t take yourself too seriously?
No I don’t. Once a year I get on stage to play the Demon King in the local pantomime. I enjoy it.
Are you a good cook?
I get by and can cook a few things. Hardly cordon bleu but edible. I can cook a few fish dishes.
I remember doing a BBC programme once called The Reluctant Chef. I got a telling-off for the way I was cutting things and the Chef showed me how to cut an onion and cut his finger up instead. (laughs) I can cook a very good African curry and make a mean seafood salad.
Do you have any other talents or skills we don’t know about?
I made my own wine, in particular I made a very good banana wine.
Do you smoke? Have you ever?
Yes, a pipe only. I’ve only ever smoked four cigarettes in my life. All of which I bit in half, I didn’t get the hang of it. I decided to stick with the pipe.
Do you drink? Favourite tipple?
Wine, I used a rather good banana wine. One time myself and a friend made a mint wine. It was the nastiest thing you ever tasted, rotten!
I can’t make wine anymore. My hands are suffering because of the wartime injury to my spine.
I was told back then I’d only have good health into my 30s. My spine held out to 77 and then went. I’m not a great drinker. I have only been drunk twice in my life. Once was my fault and the other wasn’t.
I take heart tablets. If you take an extra tablet you shouldn’t drink.
Well I forgot once that I had taken an extra tablet. (laughs)
Your last word Patrick?
I hope we’re going the right way. After all, we are at a critical phase in
civilisation. We have the ability to destroy ourselves and may lack the civilisation not to do it. I hope we come through this danger period. I won’t be around to see it but a lot of you will be.
The hour with Patrick has flown by; I could have spent much more time talking to him. He is charming, friendly and honest. He is very down-to-earth (excuse the pun). I enjoyed his company and feel a bit sad to be leaving him.
He gives me a signed copy of his latest book and shows me to the door.
Patrick Moore’s Autobiography at Amazon.
Interview by Kirk Rutter. Edited by Rob Manuel & Dave Stevenson. Illustrations by Down on the farm & Tart Monkey.