Sir Patrick Moore (April 15, 2012)
Sir Patrick Moore is a cat man. He’s just written his first cat book – Miaow! Cats Really Are Nicer Than People – and it’s all about the cats he has loved throughout his life and features mostly his two most recent cats Ptolemy and Jeannie.
The notice on the porch of his 15th Century cottage in Selsey, West Sussex says ‘This house is maintained entirely for the convenience of our cat’. And he believes that. Once inside every possible crevice and wall space has either a photograph of a cat or a watercolour of a Martian painted by his late mother Gertrude. There is cricket memorabilia and pictures of him with his mother, pictures of him in cricket whites about to bowl. Endless books. And the chairs he sat on as a child. Has he ever thrown anything away? ‘One of my ancestors was a squirrel.’
Moore himself is wearing a brightly coloured Hawaiian style shirt with planets and stars emblazoned on it. He is squeezed into an uncomfortable looking chair in front of the desk he was given for his eighth birthday. Besides him sits Ptolemy, a fluffy black cat with green saucer-sized eyes and a bushy tail.
They both give a similar miaow hello. ‘I speak elementary cat,’ he says in his clipped 1940s movie style voice. He tells me, ‘A friend of ours had a cat and the cat had kittens and he brought this little black one over to see me. I heard every word that kitten was saying. He said, “I want to be here. I want to be your cat. I want this to be your home. Please take me.” And I said, “Your name is Ptolemy.” Every black cat in my family has been called Ptolemy.’
Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer who lived around AD 120 and wrote the Almagest. He lived in Egypt where cats were sacred, but the name was chosen for quite a different reason.
‘My uncle Reg was a barrister who gave up the law and became a well-known comic actor in the D’Oyly Carte opera company. One of his first roles was one of Ptolemy in a show called Amasis. His parents had just acquired a black kitten so they called him after the character Reg was playing.’
Ptolemy has a loud purr and a very thick coat. He has his own special cat garden with a chicken write roof so that he is safe from the foxes and wandering on to the road.
Sir Patrick Moore himself is in no danger of wandering anywhere. He has two full-time carers, one day, one night. He is wheelchair bound and doesn’t get out very much at all. He can no longer make it to his garden observatory. His hands are puffy and smooth with arthritis and he can no longer operate the telescope.
Beside him is an old-fashioned typewriter that looks as old as he is (89). ‘I used to be able to type on it 90 words a minute with two fingers, but not any more.’ He can just about hold his coffee cup.
He tries not to feel broken about this. He tries to keep as busy as he can without being able to move. The Sky At Night is in its 55th year and recently its anniversary programme was shot with him at his old desk.
‘Cuckoo,’ says the cuckoo clock. ‘The BBC stopped it when they were filming, so the time is wrong. I was given that clock for my sixth birthday. I said I would dearly love a cuckoo clock and my mother got that one for me. ‘
The title of the book Cats Really Are Nicer Than People says everything about his relationships with humans and hints at the deep scars of disappointment and bereavement he’s suffered through his life.
Born in 1923, an only child to a soldier whose lungs had been filled with gas in the First World War and a trained opera singer who liked the stars, the planets and art – he had a heart condition which meant he was home schooled. He spent a lot of time on his own not moving around much. His brain could always go up to the galaxies and around the universe while his body had been limited.
When he was six he had an adult reading age and read his mother’s copy of G.F.Chambers’ The Story of the Solar System, and that book led him into a life with the stars. He points to it, a volume nestled among hundreds of others on his bookshelves. In so doing he takes his monocle out of his eye. I’d read it had to be glued there because he couldn’t use his hands properly, but there seems fortunately no evidence of that today.
I wondered if being an only child might have meant he didn’t relate to people his own age and preferred the company of animals. I wonder if he was missing the basic play instinct? Only children in particular like to have time alone, time to observe, time to explore, which is exactly what cats do. ‘Yes, maybe,’ he nods. It seems though cats in fact were more the link to all things earthbound.
Jeannie, a black and white fluffy cat with a beautiful face, features in photographs in picture frames all over his desk, his shelves and on the wall. She stares, she stretches, she sleeps, she cuddles.
‘Jeannie,’ he says, ‘was particularly sociable. She liked to be with people. She is a Norwegian forest cat. They are known for that. She wouldn’t hurt anything. She brought in a field mouse once, totally unharmed, and dumped it in the hall. We finally got it into a box full of straw and returned it to the wild. She just wanted to play with it. She was such a playful cat.’
Just after he finished writing the book, Jeannie was taken ill. It was kidney failure. ‘It was an awful shock. We did everything we could, but there it was. The vet said we can’t cure this and if we try to keep her going she may suffer. It was awful. I miss her terribly. I miss her now.’
Sometimes he can’t believe she’s gone and he talks as if he still has her. The book is dedicated to her. In it he says, ‘Some people may not understand how it is possible to have such a deep love for a little cat, but my love for Jeannie went very deep indeed. When I held her for the last time and kissed her I did not say goodbye Jeannie because I know she will wait for me and I will see her again. So instead I said “Au revoir Jeannie dear, until we next meet.”‘
He talks of death quite matter of factly. ‘I’m not afraid of it. It’s natural.’ He talks of the party he will have, not a funeral. ‘My good bits and pieces will be donated to medical science. The rest they can chuck away.’
He says the party will feature a candle and a taped message. They will light the candle and the recording will say “I will blow out that candle if it kills me, ha, ha.”
For one who has suffered so much he is surprisingly light-hearted. He tells me that Ptolemy liked to sleep on the fax machine. ‘I got a call from Australia with someone saying I’m trying to send you fax, you need to take your cat off the fax machine.’ They knew him well enough to know that was why the fax couldn’t go through.
It took him ten years to write Data Book of Astronomy, an enormous compendium – charts, maps, words, everything about the cosmos. One draft he says got a very ‘bad review. Ptolemy, who is an exceptionally clean cat, just look at him, once and only once decided not to go outside but showed me what he thought of my draft. I had to write it all again. I think he was telling me I need to do better.’ He chuckles. He exudes a kind of sweetness that is rare in a human. He is very gentlemanly.
Cricket is another great love. He was a spin bowler. He points to his cricket bat, which looks ancient, and stand among ornaments and trinkets from all over the world. He must miss playing it terribly?
‘I do. And I miss Jeannie. She had a long and happy life and I had a happy life. And I still have Ptolemy. He sleeps with me. I like to wake up to the sound of purr in my ear. It’s such a comforting sound.
‘My cats have always slept with me, or sometimes my mother when she was here. She lived with me here until she died (at 94 in 1981).’ He sighs, ‘I was 22 when my girl was killed. I knew there would be no one else. I was close to my mother and she was to me. So why should we split up. We never did.’ His girlfriend Lorna was a nurse in London in the war. They were together for three years when one of Hitler’s bombs killed her in an air raid.
He was a young and handsome man. There are pictures of him in his air force uniform looking slim, toned, handsome, with piercing kind eyes. Didn’t he want to find love again? ‘No, no way,’ he says with all the energy in his being. A long pause. ‘She was the only one for me. I knew that. Of course I would have liked a family. I’d have liked it to have been another way. But that was how it was.’
He felt he could not replace her and says that he still thinks of her. ‘Sometimes half an hour might pass when I don’t think of her.’ Does he feel his cats have been his girlfriends? ‘Yes. Whenever I’ve come home my cats were always there to welcome me. They have all been exceptional cats. My mother was equally fond of cats. We had a lot in common.
‘Before the First World War she went to Italy to train as an opera singer. Then the war broke out and she married my father. I had a nice voice as a boy but when it broke it shattered. But I also have a love of music.’
He looks at his hands. He doesn’t have to say it but he’s thinking how much he misses playing the piano and the xylophone.
Amid the cat ornaments and the cricket memorabilia are two glass penguins. When I tell him I like penguins he asks his carer to find the CD with the music he composed called Penguin Parade. It’s a jaunty, happy piece. It skips and it shuffles along like a penguin and when we have finished listening to it there’s a tear in his eye, I suppose for what’s gone and can’t be recaptured.
He tells me ‘Chester Zoo commissioned it to be played at their penguin enclosure.’ He doesn’t know when. Time seems to be mixed up in his head.
He was 16 when the war broke out. Lied about his age. Why did he do that?
He laughs at me. ‘I didn’t want to stay at home if everyone else was going off to fight. I knew I couldn’t join the army or navy because they had a higher medical standard.’
Did he join the air force because if he’d be called up he would have been sent into the army? ‘No, they would never have passed me, and I wasn’t going to stay at home. I had the wrong kind of heart.’
That was very brave. He shrugs ‘Everyone was doing it.’ Was he not afraid? ‘We all were, but we just did it. I had to find my way in and there it was. And now we’re trying to make friends with the Germans again,’ he says horrified. In 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 be playing cricket. I miss my cricket. I miss my music. Until recently I could type on that machine I’ve had all my life. Now I dictate. It could have happened years ago. I’m lucky that I lasted as long. I’m not looking at many years left, am it? I feel glad I’ve been able to do most of what I’ve done.
‘There was a time in my life in the war where I was flying so much I didn’t know what it was like to be on the ground. I would love to fly again. I would love to go to New Zealand.’
I tell him that Air New Zealand have a scheme where you can take you cat as an emotional companion. Perhaps he could go? He shakes his head. ‘I would love to but I couldn’t.’
Dawn his carer comes in with a round of cheese and tuna sandwiches and some Pringles. He pushes more Pringles my way and wants to know where Ptolemy. He worries if he’s out of sight. ‘He likes computers. He’s a very clever cat. He can’t type although he thinks he can.’
In the book he talks about when Jeannie got up into the attic and almost fell into a space between the walls of the house. He said he would have knocked the 15th century wall down to get her out. ‘She was terrified poor thing.’ Another time when he thought she was stuck up a tree ‘I called the fire brigade but they rescued a squirrel. She was in the airing cupboard,’ he chuckles.
He talks about his cats with more pride than is possible. When he was setting up the planetarium in Northern Ireland, Smudgie, a stray black cat with white paws, adopted him. He lived till he was over 20. Before Smudgie there was Rufus, a ginger.
‘I have loved all my cats. Of course cats are nicer than people. Just look around the mess we have made of our world. I have never met a cat I didn’t like. They all give me affection. As for people, I think we’re a mixed lot.’
Would I like a chocolate? He has a large box of Milk Tray on top of a table to the side of him. He struggles with all his might to lift the lid from the box so he can offer one to me. ‘Take two.’
He has met the first man in the moon, Neil Armstrong, the first man in space Yuri Gagarin, and the first airman, Orville Wright. He is probably the only man to do so, and indeed the only man to do many things.
His programme Sky At Night has inspired millions and it is the longest running TV show, first aired in 1957. He has only missed one episode when he was in hospital with salmonella. He counts Brian May from Queen, also an astrophysicist, as one of his friends. ‘I dragged him back into science.’ They wrote a book Bang! together. But he’s most proud of his relationships with cats and what they have taught him. He doesn’t know if at this age he’ll have another cat.
He is a supporter of Cats Protection and he’s chairman of his local branch. ‘I fear if I go there I’ll come back with a cargo of cats and I don’t think Ptolemy would like it.’
He is cat-like in that he likes to be awake at night. ‘I’ve never needed much sleep ever since I was a boy and I was a night flyer in the war.’ He rolls his eyes skywards. ‘I’ve got very good vision for a man in his ninetieth year. I’ve got things to finish. Being busy makes me happy. I can go out, but this wheelchair is a damned nuisance. I’m not happy about it at all, but you have to be philosophical, don’t you?’
Has he always been an optimist? ‘I hope so. In 50 years time the world won’t be like it is now. It will either be much better or much worse, but it won’t be the same. I won’t see it. I might get another ten years. But I don’t think it will be any more.’
He’s gazed into eternity. Does he believe there’s an afterlife? ‘Oh, I think so.’
His mother, all her life, drew pictures of Martians and flying saucers. Has he ever seen any? ‘I was in my observatory and I saw three flying saucers across the moon coming towards me and then they disappeared to the other side. I finally worked out what I had seen – pollen! That said, I’m sure there’s plenty of life in the universe. The number of earths are innumerably large and I refuse to believe we are the only habitable world. Either we are too far away or they have decided they don’t like the look of us.’
We talk about planet cat. How much nicer it would be. ‘Ptolemy and Jeannie both taught me patience and tolerance. They are both such affectionate cats. They helped me be more affectionate with people. If they can try, I can.’
In the ground floor bedroom there’s an oil painting of Jeannie over the bed and a life-sized photograph of Ptolemy and Jeannie together. Dawn tells me she’s only just been able to put that back up and it’s been too upsetting for him to see her. She died only a month ago.
I wander past the dark oak dining table, up the creaky stairs to the bathroom. I pass many more of his mother’s watercolours of Martians and endless books about the planets. He is an entirely self-taught astronomer. He had a place at Cambridge after the war but didn’t want to take it up because he didn’t believe in government grants.
Upstairs I thought I saw a ghost. He says nothing. I tell him it was a woman, it might be his mother. He says, ‘It was probably Claude (a male ghost he has given a name). I also see the first Ptolemy, a cat ghost. Why would I be afraid?’
For one moment it seems like he’s ready to reach over, to join them, his girl, his cats. Does he believe that perhaps he’ll come back as a cat? ‘Miaow!’ he says, with a grin and a bright light in his eyes.
* Money raised from Miaow! Cats Really Are Nicer Than People will be donated to Cats Protection. (Published by Hubble & Hattie on April 20 2012, £7.99. Visit www.hubbleandhattie.com).