Thursday, 18 May 2006

Patrick Moore: the autobiography – Patrick Moore ****

If you come from the UK, the late Patrick Moore will be very familiar as one of the first TV celebrities, even if you’ve never watched his astronomy show. A wonderful eccentric, complete with monocle, xylophone and huge enthusiasm, he presented the longest running TV show ever with a single presenter, the astronomy programme The Sky at Night, as well as writing a magnificent output of books on astronomy and juvenile science fiction.
His eccentricity comes through very quickly in the autobiography. Doing away with the convention that we need to learn of the upbringing to discover the person, he pretty well skips over everything before 1952, when at age 29, his first book was published. It’s as if this was when he was truly born. In the process he also dismisses something that would, in most autobiographies, be central to the “plot”. Moore lived with his mother until she died when he was in his late 50s. This might lead to suspicions about his emotional life – but these are dismissed by pointing out that Lorna, “the only girl for me” died in 1943. That same eccentricity is also reflected early on in his admitting to still using the same 1908 manual Woodstock typewriter he acquired at age 8. This reviewer treasurers a couple of letters written on that very same typewriter with Moore’s typical warmth in responding to a request from a total stranger. There’s even eccentricity in the review quote from the Times in the blurb of the book. “A bundle of oxymorons,” it says. Pardon?
What you find here is a fascinating mix of stories from Moore’s experience as probably the world’s leading professional amateur astronomer. (Confused? He calls himself an amateur because he’s not employed by an observatory or university, but he has made a living from his astronomy one way and another for most of his life – perhaps it would be better to call him a freelance.) There are tales of chasing eclipses around the world. The difficulties of running a conference with practically no resources. The sad story of the demise of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Experiences in early, live TV trying to do an astronomy show with little more than a camera and cardboard. The struggle to get a planetarium (and for that matter a scout troop) operating in sectarian Northern Ireland. And much more. You won’t always get the depth you want – Moore will often shy away from detail saying it’s of no importance – but there’s no doubting the enjoyment in sharing what he does let us see.
To criticize Sir Patrick’s book seems a bit like kicking a favourite pet, but its main fault is a lack of tight editing. A couple of simple examples – the phrasing could often do with a little tightening up, and some of the facts bear checking. For example we hear that for his first radio broadcast “the subject was about Greenwich Observatory” – just dropping that “about” would have smoothed things over. And on the same page we’re told that flying saucers were called that because a pilot, Kenneth Arnold, after a 1947 sighting, described them as being “flat like pie pans”. But in fact Arnold said that the UFOs moved erratically “like a saucer if you skip it across the water”, and the term was coined incorrectly by newspaper headline writers.
Some readers will also find aspects of the book offensive. Moore is totally honest about his attitude to much of the rest of the world, which can be summed up as “English is best” – and his politics are anything but populist. But to object to this misses the point. He wouldn’t be the celebrated eccentric he is were it not for the overall package – and to be honest, after years of British misery, with the nation blaming itself for everything from empire to the slave trade, it’s refreshing to see some national pride, something that the US and many other countries find no shame in displaying.
So switch off your political correctness checker, and join me in warmly enjoying a book that gives an insight into a unique and often delightful astronomical life.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

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