Saturday, 26 February 2011

English Eccentrics, Part 1: Gazing at the stars

One of the things I am most proud of about being British is our love of our own peculiar brand of eccentrics. But it’s only recently that I have realised that anyone reading who doesn’t hail from the UK probably hasn’t got the foggiest idea what I’m talking about.

There have been many of note over the years – and it could be argued that some simply played up their personal oddities to grow into the expected foibles of eccentricity. But there are a few who simply are what they are, and don’t give a monkey’s about what anyone else thinks. They just are who and what they are.

One of the things that often sets these “true eccentrics” apart is their consuming passion for their particular area of expertise, and an almost child-like innocence of the fact that the rest of the world does not see things like them.

Perhaps one of the best-known (and best-loved) examples is the man who is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the presenter of the longest-running TV programme - Sir Patrick Moore.

Though he has had no formal training, Sir Patrick has attained legendary status in British astronomy as an expert on the subject and is credited as having done more than any other to raise the profile of astronomy among the British general public. He is a former president of the British Astronomical Association, co-founder and former president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, author of over 70 books on astronomy and a number of science fictions novels (all bashed out on a 1908 Woodstock typewriter), and presenter of “The Sky at Night” for more than half a century. And he has had no formal training whatsoever.

He is well known for his rapid mode of speech, trademark monocle, poorly fitting blazers and a surprising virtuoso talent on the xylophone. Sir Patrick is also an accomplished composer – again entirely self-taught.

He was born in March 1923 in Pinner in Middlesex and moved to Selsey in Sussex as a child, where he has lived ever since. A sickly lad, he was educated at home by private tutors and developed a passion for astronomy by the age of six. At the tender age of 11, he was elected to the British Astronomical Association.

With the coming of the WW2 Moore lied about his age in order to join the RAF and served as a navigator in Bomber Command. His only known romance ended during the war when his fiancée, a nurse, was killed when a bomb fell on her ambulance. He later said he never married because "There was no one else for me... second best is no good for me...I would have liked a wife and family, but it was not to be."

After the war, Moore returned to Selsey and constructed a home-made reflecting telescope in his garden. He began to observe the moon and soon earned a reputation as an expert. Indeed, when the Russians wanted accurate information on the Moon over a number of years, after an extensive worldwide search, they got what they needed from a pile of exercise books filled with Moore’s notes and observations.

Late at night on 26 April 1957, Moore presented the first episode of "The Sky at Night", a BBC television programme for astronomy enthusiasts. Since then, he presented every episode each month - excepting July 2004 thanks to a near-fatal bout of food poisoning caused by eating a bad goose egg. Early editions were transmitted live, and on one occasion he swallowed a fly live on air. During the Apollo programme, he was one of the presenters of BBC television's coverage of the moon landing missions.

In 1968, he was appointed OBE and was promoted to CBE in 1988. In 2001, he was knighted "for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting". In the same year, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. In June 2002, he was appointed as Hon. Vice President of the Society for the History of Astronomy. He has also won a BAFTA for services to television.

On 1 April 2007, a 50th anniversary semi-spoof edition of the programme was broadcast on BBC1, with Moore played a Time Lord (mirroring the special role Dr Who plays in the British consciousness - hiding behind the sofa for fear of the Daleks is an experience shared by entire generations).

Despite believing that there may well be life in other parts of the universe, he has stated that he believes that there has not been any real contact with space aliens and he dismisses theories of the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs.

Along with many other celebrities, Patrick Moore has been the subject of crank-calls by comedian Jon Culshaw, as part of the show "Dead Ringers". But Moore got his revenge when Culshaw called him under the guise of Tom Baker’s version of Dr Who, supposedly seeking Moore’s advice on astronomy-related matters. Moore twigged that it was a prank and proceeded to out-play the prankster by launching into a stream of techno-babble which resulted in a rare pause from Culshaw as he tried to think of a response.

His sense of humour came to the fore again in 1976, when he played on his status as Britain’s favourite boffin for an April Fool's spoof on BBC Radion 2. Moore announced that at 9.47am, a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event would occur: Pluto would pass behind Jupiter, temporarily causing a gravitational alignment that would reduce the Earth's own gravity. He told listeners that if they could jump at the exact moment that this event occurred, they would experience a temporary floating sensation. The BBC received many telephone calls from listeners alleging that they actually experienced the sensation.

Moore also joined the Flat Earth Society as a joke (though some in dire need of an irony implant have taken this seriously).

Not bad for a sickly young lad from Selsey with his head in the clouds, eh?


  1. Thanks for this. He's great. I don't often watch The Sky at Night but I love his manner. The thing about eccentrics is they really don't care how they appear to others and secretly, the rest of us wish we could be more like them.

  2. When I was an impressionable teenager, I had the opportunity to have lunch with this wonderful character (I was the school swat and had just built a satellite tracking station out of junk, including a chicken-wire satellite dish, which was what got me the honour!)

    What a charming and endearingly dotty man he is. I was completely blown away by the depth of the man and remain a fan to this day, more than twenty years later).

    Definitely a model of the dotty English gentleman, in the best possible sense! :)

  3. Kate - yes, you're 100% right. I really do admire true eccentrics' uncompromising lack of need for approval for others (on the other hand, I found is rather sad and touching that he was equally uncompromising about love, deciding that it was not to be after his first love was killed during the war). And yes, I do wish I was more like such brave individuals.

    Emily - You're my kind of swot! I would have LOVED to have met Patrick Moore as a kid (though I never did anything as impressive as making my own chicken-wire satellite dish). I always loved science as a kid and was a complete sci-fi nut at a time when all my friends were reading "Jackie" and "Smash Hits".

    Long may Sir Patrick reign!

  4. He is so fascinating isn't he? and seems to be such a lovely person.