“I’m a Moon man,” says Patrick Moore. He says it the way a soldier might announce his regiment. Britain’s most celebrated astronomer is a man of firm allegiances.
It is 55 years since The Sky at Night first aired, making it the longest-running programme with the same presenter in television history. In that time, Moore has flirted with the photosphere and dallied with dark matter, but the Moon remains his clearest passion.
He was 13 when he presented his first paper on the subject to the British Astronomical Association. (“I was the youngest ever member,” he points out.) In 1959, two years into The Sky at Night’s epic run, Moore’s calculations were used by Russian cosmonauts to correlate the first Lunik 3 pictures of the far side of the Moon. Nasa also drew on his skills as a Moon-mapper in preparation for the Apollo missions.
At 89, Sir Patrick is august and eccentric in roughly equal measure. Piled into a wheelchair, trousers up to his armpits, monocle screwed and glued (truly!) into his eye, he resembles a wise old walrus, scenting the air for woolly-minded cant.
A spinal injury sustained in the Second World War came home to roost ten years ago, when he woke up pretty much unable to move. “I can’t use my telescope,” he says, casting a fond, sad glance at the 3in brass refractor he bought with his pocket money in 1934 and that still stands sentinel by the chair in his study.
“I can’t play the piano. I can’t play the xylophone. I can’t type. It’s very frustrating. But,” he adds, waving at walls crammed with every kind of certificated honour, “I’ve had a long run.”
For Moore, as for so many of his generation, the Second World War casts a long shadow. As a child, he wanted to be a writer – the ancient Woodstock typewriter on which he has written more than 70 books on astronomy stands dusty testament (“With my two little fingers, I typed accurately at 90 words per minute”).
The son of an army officer and an opera singer, he hoped to pursue his vocation through the usual channels: “The idea was prep school, Eton, Cambridge. But when I was 15, I developed a heart problem and had to come home from school. Then war broke out and I fiddled my way into the RAF. I fiddled my age and my medical and I was a commissioned officer by the age of 17. Everyone called me ‘the Kid’.”
The Kid had, in the airy phrase of his time and class, “a rather interesting war”. There have been reliable rumours of remarkable heroism; reports of Flight Lieutenant Moore climbing over the dead bodies of his pilot and co-pilot to bring his Lancaster bomber safely to land, whispers of an equally distinguished career in Intelligence. Moore, however, remains resolutely tight-lipped about his war record.
“My Group Captain said to me, ‘You must never talk about it.’ I said, ‘Sir, I promise.’ And you don’t play that false.” And if Moore adheres to the “hush-hush” rules, it is at least partly because he feels that the threat of world domination has not passed.
“We must take care,” he says, with the utmost seriousness. “There may be another war. The Germans will try again, given another chance. A Kraut is a Kraut is a Kraut. And the only good Kraut is a dead Kraut.
“A German general said to me at the end of the war: ‘You won two wars. You won’t win the third. And that’s the economic war.’ I hope he’s wrong.” It seems a long time to nurse antipathy against a nation. And it is a curious thing to watch the kindly wizard turn cold. But there is no doubting Moore’s sincerity.
“Well,” he concedes, in an effort to humour the innocent, “there can be good, free, honourable, decent Germans. I haven’t met them myself, but I’m sure they exist.”
It is possible that the clue to his intransigence lies in the death of his fiancée, Lorna, killed in a wartime bombing raid. “We were 20,” he says, falling into the staccato of suppressed emotion, “She was killed. That was that. It happens.”
Moore’s loyalty to Lorna has never wavered. In his 2003 autobiography, 80 Not Out, he confessed that after 60 years, “There were rare occasions when I could go for a whole half-hour without thinking of her – but not often.” This remains true.
“That is why I am a reluctant bachelor,” he says. “It’s such a long time ago now, 1940. But I still feel the same about Lorna and, if it had been the other way round, I think she’d have done the same.”
His attachment to his mother, Gertrude, with whom he lived until her death in 1981 and whose whimsical paintings of space creatures hang on every wall, was equally intense. “I was devoted to her and she was devoted to me.
“She was a very good singer and a very good artist. I inherited her musical ability. I had a very nice voice as a boy but, when it broke, it shattered. I have written music – I like waltzes and marches – but I never had the time to follow through.
“I played the xylophone for the Royal Command Performance and once accompanied Albert Einstein on the piano while he played the violin. He was rather good. Not keeping up with the composing is the one thing I do regret. Too busy with my own little life.”
Self-pity is not Moore’s style. Much less, selfdoubt. His exorbitant opinion on everything from equal opportunities (“The trouble is, the BBC is run by women”) to human rights legislation (“I’d dismantle it!”) has never, curiously, displaced him in the affection of the nation. But he is not, he insists, playing for laughs. Nor is he inclined to placate the “PC brigade”.
A former chairman of the United Country Party and current member of UKIP, he is particularly vehement on the matter of immigration. “I’m no European,” he says, with magnificent understatement.
“Why? Go to Europe and look around. The Germans tried to conquer us. The French betrayed us. The Belgians did very little and the Italians made us our ice cream. Just look at the world now and look at it when we had a bigger say in it. The English are best. Stand up for England!”
For all his boisterousness there is, ineluctably, an elegiac tone to his conversation, a sense of chances closing down. He is frustrated by the foundering of the international space programme. “The amount we spend in a week on the war in Afghanistan,” he argues, “would finance all the space programmes until the middle of the next century.”
He is hopeful that The Sky at Night will continue to galvanise the energy and intellect of amateurs, but it will, he says, be different. “For more than 50 years I ran it entirely on my own, with one guest slot and one subject. Now it’s bitty, because that’s how the BBC wants it these days. It’s not my way, but it’s beyond my power to change it now.”
He is markedly unexercised as to who eventually succeeds him as presenter, but wouldn’t object to Brian Cox – “Very good, and a very nice chap.” There are, Moore knows, great strides still to be made in the study of space and the stars, but not by him.
“There are electronic devices now you couldn’t have dreamt of when I was boy, and technology will revolutionise the whole scene. I’d love to see what will happen next. Sadly I won’t. I’m in my 90th year, so I can’t have much time left. I’ll go on doing what I can as long as I can, but…”
He looks down at his hands, bruised and swollen in his lap, as if he’d like to make a fist. He is inclined these days, to take a view, which, if not religious, is at least metaphysical. “I think we’re certainly here for a reason. I’m absolutely convinced of it. It’s an arrogance to say we are the centre of the universe.”
Nor does he rule out the idea of life elsewhere. “Look,” he says, the old pedagogy returning, “in our galaxy there are a hundred thousand million stars, roughly. And we can see a thousand million galaxies. There are probably more than that. So there must be life out there and I should love to contact it.
“It could be done. It could be done by radio. If there were a race of people living in another solar system and if they had radios as good as ours, they could pick us up and we could pick them up. It might happen. I don’t know.”
On the subject of life after death, he has no such doubts. Somewhere, he knows, he will see Lorna and his mother again. Cats will be there too. And he intends to prove it.
“I don’t care what happens to my body. They can have the bits that work for students to dissect, that kind of thing. But in my will I have left a candle and a tape and they will have a party for me when I’m gone. Not a sad one – there’ll be a lot of drink. They’ll light the candle, play the tape and, at the right moment, I’ll blow that candle out.”
Patrick Moore is back in twinkly wizard mode, fizzing with enthusiasm for his final prank. “I’ll blow that candle out if it kills me.”