7 June 2009 (Sunday) - Tea & Cake with Sir Patrick

One of the things the astronomy club was thinking about for the International Year of Astronomy was a trip to somewhere astronomical. There’s a planetarium in central London, the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and the South Downs Planetarium in Chichester. Some of the committee had been to the place in Chichester before, where they had met Sir Patrick Moore. Sir Patrick was very kind in giving the astronomy club signed books, and he said to both Jason and Monica that if ever they were in that part of the world again, they should call in to visit him at home. As secretary Jason wrote to thank Sir Patrick for the book. Sir Patrick phoned him back and renewed the offer to come to visit him.

We had a committee meeting. We would visit the planetarium in Chichester, to see if it would be suitable for a club day out. And write to Sir Patrick taking him up on his offer to visit him as we would be in the area. After all, if he was just being polite, someone like him could come up with any number of plausible excuses for us not to call. However Sir Patrick was overjoyed at the thought of us coming down, and so today the committee of the astro club set off for West Sussex. Pausing only briefly to reverse into a carwash machine near Arundel, we made good time until we found the A27 was closed. The plan was to leave home early, a two and a half hour journey, a pub lunch and then meet Sir Patrick at 2pm. What with delays and diversions we skipped the meal, went straight to the cottage and arrived with four minutes to spare. It was easy to find – it was the one festooned with UKIP posters from last week’s elections.

Sir Patrick is a wonderful chap – I can remember him being on the telly over forty years ago, and…. I won’t say he hasn’t changed. Physically he appears rather frail. But mentally, he’s as I imagined him to be from what I’ve read and heard of him. Whilst chatting over tea and cakes, he commented that he hasn’t done a day’s work in his life. It must be wonderful to have done what he has, and not consider any of it to be work. We mentioned about his meeting Albert Einstein, and he chatted about Albert. We spoke of his rumoured appearance on Big Brother, and he laughed about that. He said he’d rather be found dead in a ditch. He spoke of his love for tennis and cricket. He’d played cricket up until six years ago. We gave him a certificate of honorary membership of the astro club. Compared to the plaudits he’d already got, I would have thought this must have seemed rather weak. But no – he was genuinely thrilled by it.

His housekeeper took us around his garden and showed us his telescopes. And his house – it really was an Aladdin’s cave. Certificates and diplomas of honorary degrees and memberships of all sorts of prestigious bodies, as you would expect. But all sorts of bric-a-brac. Books everywhere, I saw his famous “Woodstock” typewriter. And there were a couple of Clangers next to his BAFTA award.

Sir Patrick gave us several books for the astronomy club, and whilst the others were looking round his cottage, I took the chance for a quick five minutes alone with the man. He’d given us a book about Neptune – exactly the subject I’d spoken about at astro club a couple of weeks ago. I would have liked to have seen his xylophone, but given the choice I chatted with Patrick about the book he’d written. He told me to drop the “Sir”. I told him that I would try, but asked him to forgive me if I felt I couldn’t.

We stayed for an hour. I could have stayed all day. The man was so welcoming, and so interesting. And he was genuinely pleased to see us. He’s offered to write for any future club magazine we may produce. But we didn’t want to outstay our welcome, and so we left. Assuring him we’d return. As we left, his housekeeper confirmed that he meant for us to return. He loves company.

After that, the South Downs Planetarium was something of a disappointment. I slept through large parts of the show. Quite frankly for all that it’s quite spectacular laying back and looking at the night sky projected above you, we’ve done better shows on Friday nights at the astro club. And as for the rest of the Planetarium… well, there wasn’t anything else. I don’t think people would want to travel for three hours to see it. Unless we can take the whole club to visit Patrick…

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