Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), an appreciation.
The Germans have a word we don’t have in English, and it really doesn’t translate very well because of that lack – Lebenskünstler. In a typical Teutonic fashion, they jammed together two words which each nearly expressed what they were after, and created a new word, which denoted exactly what they meant. Leben means life and Künstler means artist. It describes someone who lives their life with zest, humour, generosity, taste and a certain hardy gusto. Their life is not some piece of effete affected art, but much more inclusive; they want to share the fun they’re having and that’s exactly why we love them. That would be Patrick.
He lived to a ripe old age, and when you lose someone like that, you can’t help but think back on the enjoyment they brought to you over the years. In his own forthright fashion, he cruised straight through so many firsts and at the same time, engendered an outright affection. He was a master communicator of science, hosting the longest running television show in the world, on Astronomy would you believe, right up until the week before his death.
He started off broadcasting in that era when it was all in black and white, and live. A fly flew into his mouth while he was on camera, he swallowed it, and kept on going. He later remarked to his mother that it was a nasty experience, to which she replied, not half as nasty as the fly’s. I can just hear him laughing at that witty riposte, accompanied by that familiar involuntary dip of the head, as he laughed heartily at something possibly not too tasteful. It’s somehow easy to see where that sometimes wicked sense of humour, which delighted his fans, might have come from.
While filming in Utah, he was greeted by a local sourpuss with the words “Welcome to the Mormon state. We are quite different from the rest of America. You will find no swearing or drinking or wild women here” to which he quickly retorted, “It’s hardly worth coming, is it?”
The bare facts of his life are impressive. A heart condition meant he was home educated, which didn’t stop him voraciously devouring books. When WWII broke out, in traditional ripping yarns fashion, he lied about his age, faked some documents and passing up an offer to study in safety at Cambridge, finished up in flight crew as an RAF navigator. His fiancée was killed during the war driving an ambulance and he never married, though he once remarked rather poignantly that he’d have liked a wife and family but it just wasn’t meant to be. Some people feel they’ve just got the one shot.
He probably spoke too quickly to get a job in modern broadcasting, but I always found it made me listen that little bit harder. During a career in television, which spanned over half a century, he covered the birth of manned space exploration, from the first Sputnik to the Apollo landings on the moon. In a long lifetime, he was probably the only man to have met Orville Wright, Yuri Gagarin and that new kid on the block, Neil Armstrong. The moon was obviously his mistress, and he drew maps of its surface that were so good, the Russians used them for their unmanned landings.
In the course of over 700 programs, he probably interviewed as many people. He was a gifted interviewer, who knew instinctively how to draw out of his guest the best for the viewer. He stayed silent for long intervals and really listened to them. If they said something technical, he’d always hold them up for a minute to do an explanatory sentence, before handing back to them. He had that great knack of spotting something interesting or unexpected they’d say. You’d have heard it yourself and just as the obvious question was forming in your head, he’d ask it for you. He had a quick head to match that quick voice and was never afraid to go off script.
He was a true English eccentric, never taking himself seriously, and indeed, cackled in delight watching various impersonators doing their impression of him. A gifted musician, his artistic tendencies lamentably didn’t extend to his appearance. There was always a mad tuft of mutant hair sticking out of his head, the tie was never straight and the ill-fitting suits he wore would be a disgrace to a tent maker suffering from keyhole vision.
The worst thing any teacher of science can do, is to leave the young hungry mind with the impression that it’s all been discovered, it’s all settled. He never did this, and indeed, I think that’s the reason he influenced so many young people to study and make a career in science. He gave you the observed facts, but once it came to speculative interpretations, he always switched over to prefacing what followed with “we think.” Notice the inclusiveness of the “we”. He always presented the range of competing speculations and finished up with the closest thing he had to a catch phrase – “We just don’t know.”
That is a challenge, a gauntlet he was laying down for the next generation. So many of them picked it up too, and directly because of him.
If you’ve never been to a traditional Irish wake, it’s a cathartic and slightly scandalising experience. Instead of lauding the deceased’s achievements, it always ends up in recounting all the funny stories and questionable exploits of the guy in the pine box in the middle of the room. People laugh a lot but at some points in the evening, little moments of silence always descend, and to break it, you’ll always get a new story. A life well lived, always produces great stories. It’s a mark of real respect and affection. In that spirit, I’ll take my leave of him, by just recounting a couple of my favourite stories about him. There are a lot more.
He was at one time the treasurer of the Monster Raving Loony Party, a spoof party taking a swipe at how staid politics had become, until it was intimated to him that he was being entirely too successful and simply raising an embarrassing amount of money. In the end, he did the honourable thing and resigned.
Despite having the reputation of being a cunning spin bowler, such rare forays on his part into the world of sport were not always notably successful, though he still holds the record at his local golf club, for a round of 231, with the absolute jewel in the crown being a magnificent 43 on the third hole.
If there are angels weeping in Heaven after your passing, it’ll be from the pleasure of your company and the laughter. Without people like you, too much of the world might end up like some people in Salt Lake City think it should be. A lovely man. Goodbye Patrick, and for just one more time, that snatch of Sibelius’ take on Pelléas et Mélisande, which I and so many other people will forever associate with you.
On a personal note, thank you for giving me the lifelong pleasure of looking up at the stars. I stood in my garden last night and watched the peak of the Geminid meteor shower, and thought of you.
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