Sir Patrick Moore and the Cult of the Amateur

Luke Honey writes about food, drink and the finer things in life over at his blog The Greasy Spoon. Today he veers away from victuals and reacquaints himself with a national institution…

We’ve just had a most entertaining half hour or so watching “The Sky at Night”, apparently the longest running television series in history.  Could this be the last bastion of English amateurism?  The BBC films the programme in sunny Selsey, West Sussex-  using the oak panelled dining room of Patrick Moore’s thatched and lattice-windowed cottage as a studio.  It’s terribly chintzy:  like a set from “The Mousetrap”, circa 1952.  Sir Patrick, now a splendid nonagenarian, cuts a dash in his egg-stained Air Force tie, monocle and clipped (albeit, slurred) tones amongst the spotty, bemused professional anoraks of the astronomical world.  His croquet lawn is littered with telescopes and observatories.  The low-budget lighting and shaky direction give the programme a certain je ne sais quoi:  it’s all slightly bonkers.

I like enthusiasts.  Why is that television presenters of this persuasion always seem to live in Sussex or, failing that, amongst the rhododendrons and silver birches of Surrey?  I’m reminded of the equally splendid Robert Alexander Baron Schutzmann von Schutzmansdorff, aka Bob Symes, the avuncular and tweedy presenter of the 1970’s series “Model World”, he with the buttery, exceedingly good voice, Tsarist beard and gauge one model railway running through the laurel bushes of his garden.  I seem to remember that his shed doubled as a signal box.

Several years ago, I was at a memorial service- for my great uncle, I think, and fell into a chat with some nice old buffer, who looked as if he could be a judge, or at least, if he wasn’t, should have been.  “Tell me, my boy”, he said, fixing a look at me over his half-moon glasses, “what are your hobbies?”  I was slightly taken aback, but it was a good question.  Do people have hobbies anymore?  I’m not sure that they do. Bird egg collecting and butterfly hunting are, of course, now taboo, and I suspect that today, any child of ten years old who collected stamps in a serious way, might be looked upon as slightly odd and even risk ostracisation in the playground.

But that’s the charm of “The Sky at Night”.  It’s not slick, it’s not contrived; it’s endearingly amateur-  and eminently watchable; even if those of us, of a non-scientific bent but seduced by the romance of astronomy, can’t understand a word of it.

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9 thoughts on “Sir Patrick Moore and the Cult of the Amateur

    May 16, 2012 at 22:06

    I have only ever managed fleeting snatches of the sky at night, normally in an alcoholic haze at some ungodly hour. The incomprehensible jargon has the same effect on me as the shipping forecast, pleasingly soporific

    May 17, 2012 at 11:17

    That’s exactly it: it’s a bit like the shipping forecast. There’s something hypnotic about the shaky stills of star clusters and nebulae, Sir Patrick’s squeaky voice overs, and the terrific theme music (Sibelius, I think it is). Gobbledygook indeed it is. Finisterre, Nine. Increasing.

    Dying to buy a telescope, but there’s no point getting one in The Big Smoke. It would be very exciting to see the rings of Saturn.

  3. Worm
    May 17, 2012 at 11:31

    There’s no guarantee of clear skies out in the sticks – at my parents house on bodmin moor the light pollution is terrible, whereas in my suburban midlands dwelling we can see the stars fantastically well

    I have that star viewing app – starwalk, that is really recommended if you like that sort of thing

    May 17, 2012 at 11:35

    Really? I’m amazed about Bodmin. I know exactly what you mean about the Midlands- we were staying on the Welsh borders- and the place is completely unpolluted- to have a bath was like having a soak in Evian or Badoit. And yet- Birmingham etc, isn’t really that far away. It’s weird. What’s the story with Bodmin?

    Indeed I do have starwalk- great fun.

  5. Worm
    May 17, 2012 at 12:16

    story with Bodmin is that North Cornwall county council have a fetish for lots of street lights and leave them on till very late at night (not entirely sure why as it’s hardly South Central LA out there)

    May 17, 2012 at 13:40

    Ever been to Belgium? Every road- big or small- has nasty orange-glow street lighting, literally. From space, Belgium is just one big fluorescent eye-sore. I’m very much in favour of switching the lights off…total darkness, please.

  7. Brit
    May 17, 2012 at 19:20

    Regarding the taboo-ification of egg collecting and butterfly hunting, I wonder if the hobbies of today’s teenage boys will come to be seen as equally quaint but unacceptable – that is, X-box and internet pornography and so on.

      May 17, 2012 at 20:40

      Probably, and very likely. In the 1930’s egg collecting would have been seen as a “good thing” and actively encouraged. Today, there’s nothing like a bit o’ kinky porn to give to your eager 12 year old: “just like Daddy”.

      If I may go slightly off tangent, tho’ it’s sort of related: a strange thought has occured to me. Imagine if Facebook had been founded a century ago. Wouldn’t it be very odd to look at the posts of dead Victorians from 100 years past? Their brief lives, neuroses and obsessions mapped out for all the world to see, and preserved in aspic; online. Is this going to be the case in the 22nd Century with us?

        May 17, 2012 at 21:25

        A topic touched upon in Toby’s glyptodon post yesterday. What will survive of us is Facebook status updates.

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