He’s one of the great English eccentrics. Legendary stargazer Sir Patrick Moore talks about life, death, the universe and...cats
It was one of those interview-stopping moments. ‘Einstein was exactly the kind of person I expected him to be. I accompanied him on the piano you know.’
Matter-of-factly, Sir Patrick Moore digs deep into the recesses of his 89-year-old memory and then, in the clipped tones with which he has endeared himself to millions, adds:
‘It was during the war. I was on leave in New York. I happened to be at the same function as him.
‘He had his violin – he was a marvellous violinist; could have done it professionally – and there happened to be a piano in the room.
‘I asked him if he knew Saint-Saens’ The Swan. He did. I asked if I could accompany him. He agreed. So we played.
‘He was old-fashioned, courteous, absolutely out of this world. If only there was a recording...’
At this point Sir Patrick’s trademark monocle falls from his eye, bounces a couple of times off his blazing, Hawaiian-style shirt featuring the solar system, and he’s left with his memories.
The clock ticks loudly in his study, lined with thousands of books – more than 100 written by him.
He ignites again. ‘I’m probably the only person living who has met and knew the first airman, the first man in space and the first man on the moon.’
He leaves the statement hanging. There’ll be no clues.
Another clock chimes the quarter in the hall. The pressure mounts. It’s like a pub quiz or a round of Mastermind.
‘You mean Orville Wright, Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong?’ I reply.
On the floor a striking black tomcat toys with two mice. They’re knitted and apparently stuffed with something irresistible to felines. Sir Patrick introduces me to Ptolemy, the great love of his life. He’s eight.
‘A friend of ours had a cat who had kittens. He brought them to show me. Put one in my hand. I looked at it. He talked and I heard every word that kitten said.
‘I can talk elementary cat. Have been able to for years. Ptolemy said: ‘‘I want to be your cat. Please take me.’’ And I said, ‘‘Your name is Ptolemy.’’ Every black cat in my family has been called Ptolemy.’
Which is why I’m sitting in Sir Patrick’s study in his thatched, part-15th century cottage in his beloved Selsey. In the porch there’s a sign: ‘This house is maintained entirely for the convenience of our cat.’
He has just written a book about his lifelong love and fascination for the animals. It features Ptolemy and Jeannie, a second cat he owned for 13 years but who died a month after he compiled the book last year. She was a Norwegian forest cat.
It’s called Miaow! Cats Really Are Nicer Than People. Does he really believe that?
‘I have loved all my cats. Of course they’re nicer than people. I have never met a cat I didn’t like. As for people, I think we’re a mixed lot.’
For 55 years he has presented The Sky at Night, the BBC’s monthly astronomy TV programme. BBC One celebrates the anniversary on May 6 at 11.55pm. He is an institution and Sir Patrick holds the world record for presenting the same show for the longest time.
But since 2004 he has presented it from his study. Today he is virtually housebound with Dawn, his main carer, by his side continuously.
He chats from a wheelchair, but refuses to have his picture taken in it. So Dawn uses a hoist to lift him out of it and into the chair by the desk he was given for his eighth birthday.
People ask for the moon and Sir Patrick has it – a small piece of the moon sits on that desk. It was given to him by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on Earth’s only natural satellite.
Sir Patrick lied about his age and joined the RAF at the age of 16 in the Second World War and served as a Bomber Command navigator throughout. His flying training was in Canada, which was how he managed to get to New York to meet Einstein.
But during the war his plane crashed. His teeth were broken and he injured his back.
‘I got my spine smashed and that’s why I’m like this now, otherwise I’d still be playing cricket for Selsey. I only stopped playing 10 years ago.
‘I can’t write with a pen. I can no longer play the piano or the xylophone [In 1981 he performed a solo xylophone rendition of the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK in a Royal Variety Performance], and I can’t use my telescope any more or get to my observatory in the garden. I miss it all, dreadfully.’
He points to an ancient Woodstock typewriter on his desk. ‘Until recently I could type on that, very fast with two fingers. Now I dictate. It could have happened years ago. I’m lucky I lasted so long. I’m not looking at many years left, am I?’
Sir Patrick adds: ‘I’m not afraid of death. It’s natural. My good bits and pieces will be donated to science. the rest they can chuck away.’
There have been terrible sadnesses in his life. He sighs and stares into the distance.
‘I was 20 when my girl was killed. I knew there would be no-one else. I still think of her about once every 30 minutes.’
His fiancee, Lorna, was a nurse in London in the war. They were together for three years until she was killed in an air raid.
Does he feel his cats have been his girlfriends?
‘Yes, Whenever I’ve come home my cats have always been there to welcome me.’
Despite all those meetings with famous people, he’s most proud of his relationships with cats.
‘Ptolemy and Jeannie taught me patience and tolerance. They helped me be more affectionate.’
Miaow! Cats Really Are Nicer Than People! is published by Hubble & Hattie at £7.99.