Sir Patrick Moore, right up to his passing, epitomised a particular spirit of adventure and awe that we are in danger of losing forever.
Right up to his final late-night broadcast, less than a week ago, he cut a giant figure on our screens. His schoolboyish excitement for all things out of this world shone as bravely and as effortlessly as they ever did, despite his fading health.
The entire space race – ALL of it – from Sputnik and Telstar to Gargarin and Armstrong, right up to today’s shovelling of Martian soil and mapping of Mercury’s mountains, was his playground and workspace. There was a lot of mind-boggling science going on, but Sir Patrick had a charming talent for translating even the most complicated theories into lay terms. He had an endearing and eccentric 300-words-a-minute delivery that proved irresistible to his public. Through four decades of Sky At Night he demonstrated, time and time again, that astronomy is a science for everybody. You don’t need to be a white-coated boffin to look up at the night sky.
Outside of stargazing he reveled in the sort of quintessentially British pride that the likes of Morrissey find magnetic. When World War Two broke out he gave up a place at Cambridge to sign up to defend his country, lying about his young age to get into the RAF.
He flew many missions into occupied Europe as part of Bomber Command. But tragedy struck when his fiancee Lorna, an ambulance driver, was killed by a Luftwaffe bomb. The devastated young man resigned, there and then, that there would never be another woman for him.
“That was it,” he wrote in his autobiography. “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.”
For one so interested in the cutting edge of discovery, he had an innate personal scepticism for technology. All his many books, letters and postcards to eager young viewers who wrote to him(including, I’m very happy to say, this writer) were hammered out on the same 1908 typewriter that has always occupied his desk in Selsey.
He loved his cat, he loved classical music, and he happily accepted his eccentric public persona, to the point that in the 1970s he would be as recognised for his xylophone playing and dueting with Albert Einstein (on violin) as he would for his diligent mapping of the lunar surface through a home-made telescope.
He had his dogmatic side. He hated Germany: the country, the people, everything. Alles. And he had no time at all for noisy pop or rock music. No doubt he would be quite unimpressed to be the subject of this Louder Than War tribute!
But the sentiment didn’t go both ways. In the sixties and seventies, the excitement and colour of space became embedded in our cultural landscape. Sci fi was in. There was a lot of silver stuff being worn by space cadets in the glam years…
Bolan, Bowie and Sparks producer Tony Visconti recognised this tangible influence in a post on Facebook today. “I have seen his show hundreds of times when I lived in the UK. Like a lot of little boys I wanted to become an Astronomer,” he said. “What a great man he was.”
His (and my) generation had great hopes and fears for the future, back then. Our imagination for whatever the 21st Century might hold was untamed. Would we be living on the moon? Or Mars? Or underground? Would we be cloning, hovering on boards, travelling through time? Hiding from killer robots?
No. Not yet, anyway. But that spirit of wonder, hope and imagination that Sir Patrick Moore regularly personified through cathode and then digital screens very much enriched our world and helped massage our inbuilt human yearning for answers to the big questions.
Outside, as I write this, the sky is magnificently, crisply clear – even in London. Jupiter is shining brightly in the south. Orion is slicing his nebulous sword through the darkness. It’s good to look up. And it’s good to wonder. I hope we continue to do so.
Tony Visconti’s online epithet concludes with a comforting notion:
“I have the illogical thought that with death’s release Sir Patrick now understands all the mysteries of the Universe.”
Rest in peace, Sir Patrick.