John Sandilands


Patrick Moore

Date published: 1971
Publisher: Nova Magazine

Here is astronomer Patrick Moore, seen through John’s eyes for Nova magazine

JS tracks Patrick Moore - and finds him out of this world

He is the man to talk to Them when They arrive, descending in a shower of sparks near the Post Office Tower and demanding to be taken to our leader. They will be a slightly intimidating lot with high, super-intelligent, domed foreheads and eyebrows like antennae, and they will speak very quickly in an odd, staccato fashion. In these respects, of course, they will actually bear a faint resemblance to Patrick Moore.

He will receive them in the Sky at Night studio, showing a marked lack of surprise but immense enthusiasm. ‘Mars, eh? Quite extraordinary! Jolly interesting though! Now let me start by asking you about those curious canals ... ’ He will nod vigorously while they confirm everyone of his long-held theories on the subject. then lean into the camera fizzing with didactic zeal: ‘A lot of very distinguished astronomers would insist that these chaps couldn’t exist up there in an atmosphere composed of four parts helium and seven parts Italian vermouth, shaken not stirred ... But! ... ’

He will hurl himself backwards in his studio chair to give greater prominence to his raised forefinger, then lurch forward again with hypnotic energy, the antenna over his left eye waggling madly, as though he has altogether too much fascinating data like this to convey, and is delivering additional information simultaneously to those with the good fortune to read semaphore.

He lives 238,857 miles from the moon at Selsey, a quiet sector of the galaxy near the Sussex coast but possessing, to the fevered imagination anyway, a singular charm. The countryside thereabouts, in winter of least, has that deserted, slightly menacing air familiar as the background to British science-fiction movies of the early 1950s. Here are the empty lanes along which lone policemen wearing bicycle clips cycle slowly, stopping to tip back their helmets and scratch their heads resignedly when some young idiot roars past in a low-slung, open MG, college scarf flying and goggles glinting under motoring cap of Harris tweed. Not for a country bobby to divine the importance of that roadhog’s mission.

The location was so authentic, driving between the damp hedgerows on the way to visit Patrick Moore, that it was even possible to make a stab at the dialogue: ’ Look here, old man, I’ve motored down from Town to dig you out of this country hideout of yours. Some ... chaps ... have landed near the Post Office Tower and they’re making a bit of a nuisance of themselves. Whitehall’s in a pickle but I happen to have read some of your stuff up at Oxford and Cambridge and I’m certain you’re the fellow to help us out ... ’

His home is ideal, a large, converted Georgian barn with a thatched roof, the whole surrounded by a mellowed brick wall with double gates and a gravelled drive leading up to the front door. Among the apple trees in the garden are his three powerful telescopes and a strange green instrument of scientific purpose but with rudimentary arms and legs, an appearance sufficiently humanoid to cause a tremor of apprehension in the messenger from Whitehall. Too late! The confounded Creatures have got here first!

The door is opened by a handsome lady, not young, who calls into the oak-beamed interior briskly but with perfect modulation: ‘Patrick, dear, you have a visitor!’ He appears past the barometer so accurately costumed for his role that it is difficult not to greet him with outstretched hand and a cry of ‘Prof! Thank God you’re here!’

He is a very large man, six feet three inches tall and rather portly at the age of 47, so that his ancient sports jacket flaps around his vintage grey flannels and the knot of his tie seems to have set off on a separate journey from his shirt collar with a promise to meet somewhere at the rear. He looks at once kindly and stern and his right, or telescope, eye flickers continuously, a pulsar conveying an impression of that powerful intellectual energy which has brought him deserved renown in his chosen field.

He leads the way into his study - no, his den - and that, too, is perfect. Bookshelves cover every inch of the walls and they are literally sagging beneath the weight of papers and learned tomes of every size and shape.

On every table and ledge are mysterious pieces of scientific paraphernalia, unrecognisable to the layman beyond those peculiar skeletal globes which feature in portrayals of Galileo, props perhaps to buttress the remarkable assertions he used to make to the populace in his day: Tonight we’re going to discuss something very interesting. Quite extraordinary, in fact! It seems jolly likely the world is not square at all but round! It remained only to discover if Patrick Moore, amid these cerebral surroundings, maintained that exact, invigorating manner which makes his performance on television so compulsive. There was a moment of delicious uncertainty while he poured two whiskies with a generous hand and sank into a comfortable leather chair, but then he leaned forward with all his familiar urgency and his eyebrow beginning its ascent towards his dynamic hair.

‘The lady you have just encountered is my mother,’ he announced. ‘Quite remarkable! Eighty-four and a half years old. Absolutely sound in wind and limb. Excellent eyesight. No trace of deafness. Trained in Italy as a young girl under a certain Signor Clerici. Fine soprano voice. Destined for the opera until marriage came along!’ His own voice gave the exact snap at the end of every sentence that grabs the attention like a sprung mouse-trap, and he was obviously incapable of uttering without saying something of riveting unusualness.

There was all the excitement of a lucky dip in asking him to account even for such basic matters as his early youth and the genesis of his enthusiasm for the universe. There was a pause while he lit a meerschaum pipe, that completed to the last detail his Professor’s set, then began with encouraging dispatch.

‘Born, Pinner, Middlesex,’ he said, puff, puff. ‘Moved to Bognor, Sussex when I was six. Mother was vaguely interested in astronomy. Borrowed a book of hers at about that time. Could read rather well for a chap of six. Joined the British Astronomical Association at the age of eleven. Hold the record as the youngest member. Vice-President now!’ He added a chuckle to the puffs, as he did subsequently whenever he mentioned some achievement. An unusually modest man.

‘Missed public school, worse luck.’ He tapped the breast pocket of his sports jacket. ‘Silly heart trouble as a child. Passed Common Entrance to Cambridge, though. Coaching establishment at Tunbridge Wells. Then Mr Hitler came along!’ He gave Mr Hitler the sort of contempt he might have offered a bully at the public school he never attended. ‘Always regret not going up to Cambridge. Particularly when I go there to lecture, as I do quite a lot.’

‘H’m. Yes. Pity,’ said the visitor. his own speech patterns taking on a surprising new trend. ‘Not too active as a youngster then?’ ‘Ah, not so,’ said Patrick Moore, pointing his pipe stem. ‘Wrote m’first book when I was eight. Stars and stuff. Told Mother it was written in simple language so the young could understand.’ He chuckled quite a bit at that.

‘Started mapping the moon in m’teens, you know. British Astronomical Association had a moon section, but nobody took it all that seriously in those days. Just a few of us moon-mappers before the war. Little group of lunar enthusiasts.’ He puffed, as they say, reflectively. ‘Old Goodacre. Old Wilkins. All dead now of course. In their sixties then. r was the youngest. Sole survivor now. Bit surprised how fast things have moved m’self. Didn’t expect a landing much before the 1980s, y’know.’

‘Mustn’t blame y’self’,’ the visitor consoled. ‘Anyway Mr Hitler must have kyboshed all that stuff as well. War years? Chairborne, I daresay, with the ticker playing up?’‘Bomber Command, actually. Swindled the medical of course. Knew the RAF was all I could do. One route march and the silly old heart wouldn’t stand up to it. Don’t like mud. Very bad sailor. Besides, machine guns, bayonets and so forth are rather dangerous, don’t y’think ?’ Chuckle, puff.

He was a navigator, actually, and served with a Pathfinder squadron, which was appallingly dangerous work, going in low-level, before the heavy bombers, to mark the target with parachute flares. Didn’t get any of that sort of rot out of him. No fear! The war, eh ? Only Bomber Command navigator who wore horn-rim specs throughout!’

[ asked him what rank he had achieved. ‘H’m ? Squadron Leader, I think. Lots of things. Pottered around. Did a bit of foot-slogging, y’know.’ Chuckle, puff. ‘Home Guard, 1940. Commanding Officer, Major J. H. Marr, MC (?) DSO, retired. Delightful chap. Knew him for many years. Dead now of course. Said he’d go home to lunch if Moore was given a rifle and some ammo!’

There was clearly nothing more forthcoming from him on that great struggle.

None of the major milestones in his career got much better treatment. After the war he was a master for a time in a prep school, teaching history and English and around this time was asked to write a book about the moon. ‘Rather odd, that,’ he said, seeming to be genuinely mystified. ‘Gave a lecture to the Interplanetary Society which got into the Press don’t know how. Publisher was looking for a chap to write a book about the moon and they thought I might be the one. Hadn’t written a book since I was eight: - chuckle, puff - ‘but I did Guide to the Moon which, luckily enough, went rather well.

He intensified the twinkle in the keen blue eyes beneath the antennae and wriggled a bit in his chair, signs which you came to recognise after a while as the signal for the mention of a particularly good jape.

‘Wrote a boys’ novel about the same time which was accepted first go.’ He rose, twinkling backwards over his shoulder and went to the bookshelves, extracting from between two massive works a slender volume with a rather exciting dust-cover. It was called Planet of Fire. ‘Written about a dozen of the things since then: he said, looking positively sheepish as though caught in some mild misdemeanour. ‘Rather fun to do.’ He riffled the pages. ‘Rather fun to do.’

There was a wooden shield on the wall bearing the Baden-Powell emblem. The inscription read: ‘Thank you Pat, from the East Grinstead Scouts.’

He was about to resume his seat and his curriculum vitae when his mother’s carefully-coiffed and silver head appeared round the door and she pointed out that we might be late for lunch, if we were not to depart at once. She made a small moue at the ways of country hotels and suggested, delicately, that the visitor might like to wash his hands before setting out. There was an excellent picture of the surface of the moon on the wall of the lavatory.

At table in the dining room of the hotel, empty at this season but for an anxious waitress of advancing years in a shiny black dress with a white ruffled pinafore, Patrick Moore revealed an even wider range of enthusiasms . He was a rather keen cricketer with the local team, producing quite a decent slow leg-break from lime to time. Appalling batsman but jolly keen on the game. He was also quite a bit in demand for opening garden fetes in the locality. One had acquired a certain local notoriety.

He was munching heartily some freshly-caught cod from the neighbouring English Channel and it seemed possible that there was very little to disturb the pleasant tenor of his existence down there in the country. He looked up abruptly from his plate and pursed his lips, another small mannerism.

‘There are certain things,’ he said, ‘that make me rather crawss.’ He paused then continued, enunciating clearly: ‘Weirdies, beardies, Commies, Lefties. You’ve only to switch on the television to see these longhaired gentlemen making nuisances of themselves on public money. If they don’t like it here let them go somewhere else.’

His good humour had deserted him temporarily. ‘Both Mother and I are rather keen on Enoch Powell. Enoch for P.M. we say, don’t we Mother?’ He lowered his voice conspiratorially. ‘I’ve nothing against our Coloured Brethren. Splendid chaps. But I may say that if I went to somebody else’s country I’d make a certain effort to behave myself!’ He twinkled again as though a shadow had passed. ‘On the other hand I suppose I’m a bit of a socialist in some respects. Dead against blood sports, you see. Absolutely dead against!’

He had brought the car, a matronly family vehicle, for the short trip to the luncheon-place and to make a space for herself on the back seat his mother had been obliged to shift an avalanche of ancient copies of The Times and abstruse astronomical journals, yellowed by possibly years of sunlight. She had drawn her son’s attention to this discomfort on the outward journey and now, on the way back, she discovered a smell of petrol which she mentioned several times.

At the front door again she returned to the subject. ‘I really do think you might take the thing to the garage, Patrick,’ she said. ‘You know I don’t usually go on about things.’

‘That,’ said Patrick, helping her up the step, ‘is not entirely accurate, Mother.’ He decided that he would prefer a short walk in the garden to show me his telescopes before we, too, went inside.

There were some windfalls’ still around the apple trees and he suddenly picked one up and set off across the damp turf, moving purposefully until his arm whirled over in a cricketing delivery. He turned his wrist and the apple left the back of his hand - definitely a leg-break! - and struck first bounce a distant trunk. He was very pleased again.

We examined the telescopes and he was pleased with them as well as if they were old friends living in their little sheds, always ready for a friendly chat with him if he should be feeling fed up with things.

‘This is the Big Chap!’ he said, patting a monster with the diameter of a dustbin and the Big Chap seemed to turn its single blind eye upwards and regard him with returned affection.

Back in the den we resumed our places and it was time to discover his route towards that curious pinnacle, his eminence as a television personality, a pundit of unchallenged supremacy in matters relating to outer space and a performer of unrivalled excellence. He has made of The Sky at Night, which he has presented without fail every month since April 1959, a jewel among the dross of earthly things which compose an average night’s viewing, galvanising even those to whom the night sky is no more than a signal to draw the curtains and whirling them into the convolutions of the Andromeda Spiral or across the blue-black infinity to contemplate, astonished, the arcane nature of Delta Draconis.

Even the conquest of the moon seemed somehow incomplete until the powerfully heightened activity of Patrick Moore’s eyebrow confirmed a major breakthrough.

He listened patiently to a summary of this, carefully tailored to take account of his modesty, and took the opportunity of re-stoking his pipe. He had also found a battered pair of horn-rims, maybe the self-same specs of Bomber Command and he put them on to increase the severity as he waved his meerschaum warningly.

‘Never claim to be anything I’m not of course. Would never make a real astronomer. Much too bad at maths. I’m an observer. Other people have to work out the sums. Other side of the moon was a very good example. I got the observations and they happened to be what the space people wanted.’

He rose again to disturb the precarious equanimity of his laden bookshelves by removing the top of a tall pile of exercise books. There, in his careful handwriting, was column after column of the fruits of his nightly communing in the garden with the Big Chap and the other telescopes, punctilious notes stretching right back to his boyhood. His lifetime preoccupation with the backside of the moon, in fact, was of international importance when the mighty space race caught up with his youthful hobby and NASA still listen respectfully to his papers on lunar subjects.

He seemed doggedly determined to remain an amateur however. He spent three years in Ireland as Director of the Armagh Observatory but he dismissed that with a wave of his pipe. ‘Suppose you could call it professional but it was the only official post in this game that I ever took. Not the right person for a routine job.’ He chuckled and puffed, enjoying perhaps the undoubtedly attractive role of a sort of buccaneer in space. It was necessary to insist that at least his masterly command of the terrifying medium, television, must have resulted from some sort of devotion to that black art.

‘Not a bit,’ he said, by now inevitably. ‘Ill again with the old heart in the early Fifties and gave up teaching. Decided to take a gamble on writing instead. Wrote Amateur Astronomer. Don’t know why, but it caught on. Become a sort of standard work, I suppose.’ He got up, went to the bookshelf again, but came back instead with a work of his on Roman Britain.

‘One of my hobbies!’ Chuckle, puff. ‘Quite happy pecking away at that beast.’ He indicated his desk with its stand-up typewriter of early Caxton vintage. ‘Never thought about television but I suppose I was known as a bit of a moon-man. Got invited along to some kind of unscripted discussion on some scientific thing and they got the impression - probably quite wrongly - that I could talk a bit.’

It seemed a slight enough preparation for the ease he shows before the dreaded camera, equalled possibly and only by David Frost. ‘Used to act sometimes as a younger chap. Expect that helps. Amateur dramatics, of course. Always used to get the funny parts. Nothing serious. Eccentric vicars.’ He chuckle, chuckle, chuckle, puffed as a final recollection struck him. ‘Ended up as the Demon King rather a lot!’

The revelation arrived with the blinding intensity of Halley’s Comet, making him totally recognisable for the first time, explaining his hair and his eyebrows and his magical mastery of knowledge even to the uttermost limits of the universe, setting in place his devotion to Enoch Powell and his accurate leg-breaks, his chatty way with Martians and even the smell of singeing petrol in the motor car. The Demon King! Of course !


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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>