"Brian Cox? He's no astronomer! Patrick Moore turns his telescope on the young pretender - and concedes he's really rather good (for an ex-rock star)"
January 24th, 2012
January 24th, 2012
Sir Patrick Moore is 88 years old and he looks it. His huge body is battered by age — lurid purple bruises decorate his enormous forearms, his baby-soft hands are clawed with arthritis, and an old wartime spinal injury has left him dependent on a rotating team of carers who share his fairytale 15th-century cottage in Selsey, West Sussex.
They help him from bed to chair and back again, glue his famous monocle (yes, really) to his eyelid to stop it tumbling out, launder his lurid Hawaiian shirts and fix him a daily G&T at 12.30pm, on the dot.
His enormous brain, however, is as sharp as ever and flits from his beloved cats Jeannie and Ptolemy ('they rule the house), to his loathing of all Germans ('if I saw the entire German nation sinking into the sea, I'd help push it down') and the national obsession with Professor Brian Cox — the pop star-turned-physicist who idolised Moore as a child, presented the 700th episode of Sky At Night with him last year, and is adored by the British public.
Now, thanks to the BBC2 Stargazing Live show, Professor Cox has increased telescope sales by more than 500 per cent and is poised to take on Sir Patrick's mantle.
'These young ones come and they go, but he's a nice chap, you know,' barks Sir Patrick in his fabulously posh voice. 'Came on my show once. Can't say I've seen his, though. I've been so busy I keep forgetting. Sheer stupidity on my part. I think he and I could learn from each other.
'Though, of course, he's not an astronomer — he's a particle physicist!' he hurrumphs. 'And he was in a rock band! But I suppose the more people that come into astronomy the better. I'm all for it. And it's a good thing, because I'm ancient.'
So ancient, that he's planned his own death. In meticulous detail.
'I've got it all mapped out. I don't want a funeral. So they can take all my good bits and use them for medical science.'
What about the less 'good bits'?
'They can chuck it all away! I couldn't care less. But I've left some money in my will for a very good party. There will be a candle and a tape with a message from me, and they'll light the candle and play the tape, and at exactly the right moment I'll blow the candle out.'
And the message?
'I've already recorded it! I say: “I'll blow that candle out if it kills me”, ha ha ha!'
Sir Patrick may be cruelly incapacitated by a failing body, but it's hard to imagine his candle spluttering out any time soon. For one thing, he's too busy.
He's still filming The Sky At Night — the longest-running programme with the same presenter in the history of television ('I think we're on about instalment 760 . . . I can't see anyone beating it now, can you?') — recorded here in his cluttered study.
The first programme went out live on April 26, 1957, and he has missed just one since — in 2004, when he accidentally ate a rancid goose egg and nearly died of salmonella.
He has also just finished his Data Book of Astronomy — an enormous compendium of pretty much everything you'd ever want to know about the cosmos, which took him ten years ('so much has happened — the probing of the planets, huge advances in astronomy') and is now sitting glossily on his desk, topped by Jeannie the cat.
But for all his impressive industry, his world has shrunk dramatically in the past few years.
But for all his impressive industry, his world has shrunk dramatically in the past few years.
Sir Patrick and his trademark monocle, pictured in his home in Selsey, Sussex
'I went to sleep one night about ten years ago and woke up like this,' he says, looking down in disgust at his crippled body. 'Look at my hands. I can't play the piano or the xylophone any more. It killed everything.' Including regular games of tennis, cricket (his unorthodox bowling style involving lots of leaps, bounds and whirling of arms), travelling and even walking.
'My active life came to an abrupt full stop. It was a tremendous shock and it was permanent. Unlike all those new telescope users out there, I can't even operate my telescope any more — I can't handle the controls. I try to make the best of it, but I could have done without the last ten years.' So he'd rather not have woken up that morning?
'It might have been better, yes,' he says. 'I'm not scared of dying. I believe in some form of afterlife: I just hope my uncle George isn't there — silly, bald-headed old coot. But you've got to make the best of things and that's what I've always tried to do.'
Patrick Alfred Cauldwell-Moore was born in Pinner, Middlesex, in 1923, only child of Charles, a soldier ('who survived the Great War with a Military Cross and a lungful of gas') and Gertrude, a trained opera singer.
He had a weak heart and so was tutored at home. In his spare time, he would lie on the sofa reading about the moon and the stars, and saved his pocket money until, aged 11, he had enough (£7 10s) to buy his first telescope and became the youngest member of the British Astronomical Association. Fifty years later to the day he was elected its president.
On the outbreak of World War II, he lied about his age (he was 16) and his dodgy heart and joined the RAF ('I knew if I joined the Army or Navy I'd last ten minutes with my heart').
Today he's rather tight-lipped about his war years, admitting only to spending five years as a navigator in RAF Bomber Command, losing all his teeth in an accident, sustaining the spinal injury that has finally caught up with him and, rather mysteriously, 'learning enough Norwegian to get by'.
With the war, though, came great personal tragedy.
'My girl, Lorna, was killed,' he says. 'We were both 20 and engaged. She was a nurse and she was in the wrong place when a German bomb fell. There was no question of anyone else — I still think about her all the time. Second best was no good for me. So I didn't marry and had no family.'
He lived with his beloved mother, Gertrude, until her death aged 94 in 1981 ('the worst day of my life after Lorna died'), became an amateur astronomer and travelled the world chasing eclipses, mapping the moon, reporting from meteorite craters for The Sky At Night and playing the xylophone on Morecambe And Wise.
Despite being 88, he continues to work and has left money in his will for an almighty party when he dies. He has also created a video, at the end of which he blows out a candle
'I never thought the programme would go on so long, but there are various reasons for it — it's cheap, it goes on late at night so it doesn't bother anybody, and it's not controversial. Though we had plenty of disasters.'
Like the time he swallowed a bluebottle live on air — 'it buzzed all the way down' — and his ten-minute interview in pidgin French with a Russian who spoke no English — 'we just about got away with it, ha ha!'
His high point was when he saw the dark side of the Moon for the first time after it was photographed from a space probe.
Nearly 760 Sky At Nights later, his letterbox is still overflowing with enthusiastic fan mail (they haven't all defected to Cox yet), which he answers in full — despite barely being able to type on his specially adapted computer keyboard — though he does now lean on a few stock replies for the bog-standard queries. 'You know . . . how do I take up astronomy? What's that bright thing in the sky? Is there life out there?'
And is there?
'I'm sure there is. I refuse to believe we're the only living things. But I can't prove it. The clue is maybe Mars — not little green men, or not any near here, anyway — but if we can find trace of any life on Mars, that will be our pointer.'
He is also a magnet for rather more eccentric correspondence — from the man convinced the Earth was shaped like a teacup, the women who wanted to send a carrier pigeon to the moon . . . He wrote back suggesting a parrot-pigeon hybrid, so it could say hello when it got there.
Celebrating a continuous 25-year run of the Sky at Night in 1957 with a piece of cake. To this day he still gets hundreds of letters of fan mail
'There are plenty of nuts — the “flat-earthers” and “hollow-globers”,' he says. And he replies to every letter he receives, no matter how nutty.
Sir Patrick is surprisingly cheerful for a man whose physical life is restricted to his downstairs bedroom, wood-panelled study and a view through the mullioned windows at his cats playing on their very own scale model of Saturn in their luxury cat run. (He's paranoid about keeping them safe — there's a typewritten sign by the front door: 'Patrick's cats are fiendishly clever masters of escape. Please observe the airlock procedures'.)
'I used to wake up and think: “What have I got time for today?” Now, I get up, drink my usual four coffees, have a look at the obituaries in The Times, and if I'm not in them, I'll get on with the day's work.'
He is not a man afraid to speak his mind, whether it's regarding his own disabilities, or sharing some of his rather more, er, trenchant views.
There was an uproar two years ago when he said the BBC had been ruined by women executives drowning us in soap operas, cooking and quiz shows, and advocated two separate television stations — one for each gender. 'There should be a mix of men and women — that's what I actually said,' he insists (not very convincingly) today.
When I ask him about his comparing of EastEnders to diarrhoea, he smirks naughtily and says: 'I've never been a fan of soap operas.'
And don't, whatever you do, get him onto the Germans.
'Eughhh! A Kraut is a Kraut is a Kraut. And the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut.'
'Of course I'm a lot older than (Brian Cox),' he relents. 'In a fortnight's time I'll be 89! But I'm okay, just. Though I can't play cricket any more.'
Like many men of his generation, he is fervently anti-European (though he loves the Norwegians and the Greeks — 'the only people who fought gallantly all through the war'), is a keen member of UKIP ('if I were 20 years younger I'd be fighting for a seat next time') and frets about immigration.
'They need to be controlled. I'm not sure how, but let in the people you want and not the riff-raff,' he says. Perhaps it's time to change the subject, and ask if he wishes he'd made it to the moon himself. 'I had no chance,' he says, 'wrong age, wrong nationality and wrong medical grade.'
Yet he must take comfort in how many budding astronomers he has inspired and how much he has crammed into his 88 years.
He has mapped the moon (when the Russians and Americans went to the moon, they used his guides), played duets with Einstein ('exactly what I expected — charming, old-worldly, courteous and never wore socks'), excelled as a musician and composer ('one thing that is no credit to me is perfect pitch and perfect timing') and written more than 70 books on astronomy.
And he is surely one of the very few people to have met the first man to fly, Orville Wright, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong.
He's done an extraordinary amount in his 88 years. So would he feel happy to be passing on the stargazing baton to Professor Cox? 'I'm not dead yet!' Oh dear.
And, er, Professor Cox? 'Well, he's not the only one taking on the mantle. But he is very good . . .'
That's high praise indeed from the great man.
And with that I leave him planning his next project — 'I think it's high time I started concentrating on my composing' — fussing over his beloved cats and rubbing his vast hands at the thought of all those budding astronomers with their shiny new telescopes — ('a wonderful thing').
Sir Patrick is an exceptional man and one whom, for all his outrageously un-PC views, it's impossible not to like enormously.
After all, there aren't many octogenarians who can wear a glued-on monocle and a lurid green Hawaiian shirt and still exude gravitas. Professor Brian Cox has some very large shoes to fill.
More on Moore
An interview with Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw on physics