An encounter with Patrick Moore (people are complicated)

A story I would like to share, on hearing that Patrick Moore passed away today (or perhaps yesterday). Already twitter is filled with a mix of sadness at his death and discussion of his positive legacy for science, but also reminders of his sexist comments and fairly extreme right wing views. I think it’s OK to talk about both these things, challenging the latter and celebrating the former.

When I was much younger I was a huge astronomy nerd and Moore was obviously an icon. When I was perhaps around 11 or 12 I was at an astronomy conference in London with my mother, who would escort me to astronomy weekends, observatory viewing sessions, and events like this. Yeah, I know, I was a weird kid. During a coffee break at the conference, Patrick Moore was there just sort of hanging out, and my mother encouraged me to go say hello.

I did, and Moore was charming and friendly. He was obviously pleased that I was so enthusiastic about the subject, apologised that he couldn’t talk for longer, and invited me and my mother to come visit him in Selsey. We arranged a time to do so via post (imagine, using the postal service to arrange a meeting!). I even kept his typewritten notes to me, see below, so I must have been a bit starstruck (pun intended).

A message from Patrick Moore
A message from Patrick Moore

We went to visit during a holiday nearby, and he was a great host. He showed us his telescope (no jokes please, seriously) and various bits of astronomical equipment and garden observatory. Finding out that I played music, he played his xylophone and recordings of some marches. We had tea and cake. He was clearly keen to encourage my interest in astronomy and science. We left after a couple of hours of visiting and that was the end of any correspondence, beyond a thank you letter from me of course, but the encounter left a huge impression on me.

Years later, I was immensely disappointed to discover his political views, and especially disappointed to hear his sexist comments about women ruining TV and so on. How to square this with the avuncular character I’d met who was so supportive of my enthusism for science? People contain multitudes, I guess. His views are clearly more complex than the impression you get from what is reported, but this isn’t a defence of them. It’s disappointing that he wasn’t challenged more on this in his lifetime.

We sometimes forget that people in the public eye are as nuanced, messy and complicated as any of the rest of us, and we shouldn’t expect them to be otherwise. We can be grateful for Patrick Moore’s kindness and great work in popularising astronomy and angry about his views at the same time.

15 thoughts on “An encounter with Patrick Moore (people are complicated)”

  1. Very well written, Martha. I was not aware of his comments regarding the BBC and women in general until today, when my fiancee informed me over a conversation about his passing.

  2. ‘Disappointing’ political views?.

    He was merely a supporter of UKIP, was Eurosceptic and was against unrestricted immigration. So am I. So are many people. And not all of them white. UKIP has black and Asian members and stood a black male candidate at the recent by-election.

    Since when did UKIP become equivalent with the BNP and true racist parties?. I am sick fed up with the idea that ANY lean to ‘the right’ (whatever that means) means you are some sort of reactionary bigot.

    The biggest people he hated btw were the white Aryan Germans who murdered his fiancee.

  3. Patrick Moore was a hero to me as well. A great writer who’s books inspired and taught me so much -and I still use them as references and sources and light reading. From what I gather he held some old fashioned, somewhat sexist political views which were not PC and could be described as moderately right wing. I don’t share those views but I can understand why someone from that era would hold them and he, like us all was a product of his time.

    I don’t really see why you should be “angry” about him having differing views and opinions to yours and the majority of modern people raised in a different age with different social expectations and understandings. Sad maybe. Angry, not so much. It isn’t a crime to have old fashioned different views (never a crime to have any thoughts or opinions really!) and if he hurt no one – and he didn’t as far as I know – then I think we should be willing to set the pettiness of Politics and Political Correctness aside and respect the man for the good he did and the happiness he brought to so many including me, and by the sounds of it you.

  4. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the author’s use of the word disappointing. It is up to her to feel disappointed or not. As she says, we are all individuals. I’m also disappointed. Not by his membership of UKIP – they really are not the BNP, and Nigel Farage is particularly HILARIOUS. But when Moore said immigrants were parasites and that he’d send them all back … well clearly that is stupid and you don’t expect stupid comments from an intelligent person. It makes you questions how much else they get wrong. Stupid comments from a stupid person are much easier to process. Disappointing sums it up pretty well for me. I guess that’s what comes of spending all your time somewhere between a telescope and a xylophone.

    I’m disappointed because I am an immigrant (well sort of) and a woman and because the man had a huge effect on me too – thanks to him I became enamoured with science and ended up in a science role after university when everyone else I knew went into banking.

    I don’t know if there is a heaven, but if there is and if Patrick Moore is in it, he’ll find an awful lot of other dead people there and some of them them may even be immigrants. Good luck to him.

  5. @Martha Hanson: I just so wish you hadn’t – sort of – apologized for being interested in astronomy as a kid. You weren’t a “weird kid” for devoting your free time to astronomy. You were a girl who had her priorities right. I think it’s great that your mother supported you and shared your enthusiasm. You are lucky to have such a mother.

    @Liz Jamieson: Thanks for summing it up in a nutshell. There’s nothing to add. Especially the last paragraph of your comment is spot-on.

    1. Oh, don’t get me wrong, not apologising for being interested in astronomy. But being interested enough to attend astronomy *conferences* and even residential weekends and courses at that age was definitely somewhat unusual amongst my peers! And in that sense “weird”, but not to be discouraged, of course.

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  7. Patrick was a very good aquaintance for nearly 40 years. I last visited him on 7 February 2011, days before the publication of his last serious book, Data Book of Astronomy. I admired Patrick and his work – he was the greatest communicator on astronomy and the World’s expert on the features of the Moon as observed from Earth.

    I first knew of his controversial views back in the late 70s / Early 80s. These really came to the public fore when his autobiography was published “80 Not Out” in 2003. Patrick told me he wrote the book not because he wanted people to know intimate things, but to put the record straight in his own words rather than someone else twisted things. He said, that way no one would be in doubt about anything to do with him or his views. Above all, he just wanted to be honest.

    This honesty was many times systematically challenged by numerous reporters and journalists in his last 9 years. Even on the last day I visited him (an invitation by him to visit), a reporter had called to go over all the controversial facts again. I only agreed with Patrick’s astronomical views – but this is the point: everyone has a choice to agree or disagree. Patrick said to me that he was just “him” and not unlike anyone else having a view. If people chose to ignore his views or even dislike him for his views, Patrick was comfortable with the knowledge that someone had made the freedom of choice just like he had made the freedom of choice.

    Patrick Moore was a great man of astronomy, broadcasting and authorship. That is how I choose to remember him.

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