Arts: Stars in his eyes

When Patrick Moore puts down his telescope he picks up his xylophone beaters. Now, at 76, he has recorded a CD of his own works.
Click to follow
As events go, it was never going to be boring. Patrick Moore, Britain's leading star-gazer, was launching his first CD on the occasion of his 76th birthday. He had composed every track. It is an old-fashioned, light-music affair, with marches, waltzes and a surfeit of trills. The setting was the Windsor Suite on the seventh floor of London's Inter-Continental Hotel. Champagne and canapes were being served by people in maroon uniforms. Along one side of the room was a raised platform covered in dark green with frills round the bottom. On it stood what looked like a very large xylophone but which turned out to be a normal sized one (I had seen too many toy ones, clearly).

Most of the 30 people in this room were friends and there was no denying that we had gathered here in a dearly beloved kind of way. Everyone was tapping away to ferociously beating march music and swapping xylophone anecdotes. Then, before you could say John Philip Sousa, the man himself bounded into the room. "It's the birthday boy!" said Robert Vallier-Green who had organised the CD and the party as well as playing all the piano solos. "Moore! Moore!" came the chant. Then everyone sang Happy Birthday and Patrick Moore looked embarrassed.

"Seventy-six, isn't it awful," he said, looking at the floor. He is a large man but his blue suit was even larger. His monocle is dangerously independent and sort of dances round his right eye. "We are all waiting!" called Mr Vallier-Green. And with that, Patrick Moore bounded on to the platform and took up the sticks which I later learned were called beaters. Mr Vallier-Green scurried over to start the backing track tape to "The Hurricane". This is one of Mr Moore's compositions. It starts with a clash of cymbals. That is the quiet bit. It is very accomplished and the xylophone kicks in almost immediately. This is circus music complete with dancing ponies and plumes. It is the kind of thing you really do trip the light fantastic to.

Patrick Moore has loved the xylophone since he was 10 and he plays with complete absorption. "He's a wild man. Look, he's transformed," said the man next to me. I did take a close look and it wasn't a sight for the tame at heart. The music was pelting away but Mr Moore's head was bobbing away even faster. His hands were flying. Nor was he opposed to the odd dramatic pause. At one point, he extended both arms over his head, beaters poised, only to swoop back down to the instrument in full pounce. He ended in a fantastic flourish, sweeping the entire length of the instrument in a blur of beaters. "Bravo! Bravo!" shouted the crowd. "Yeah! More!" But Mr Moore stepped down, heavily, and accepted a glass of champagne. The beaters lay still.

The crowd buzzed. Xylophones and telescopes were the two key subjects in this room. The woman next to me said that she and her husband had known Patrick for decades. She has the wonderful name of Wendy de Faubert Maunder. They had accompanied him on a cruise to Antarctica. He was supposed to be lecturing on the Night Sky although, in fact, it happened to be more or less perpetual daylight at the time. "He even played the xylophone in Antarctica, you know," she said. "He has a portable one. It was given to him by Michael Bentine. They met during the war. But Patrick won't talk about it. It's top secret. You ask him!"

I made my way over to Mr Moore but ended up first talking to a man with a pound-sign badge in his lapel. His name was Donald Duparc Braham and he is a trustee of one of Mr Moore's many charitable endeavours. "This is to save the pound!" he cried. "People think it means that I am a member of the millionaire's club. I wish."

Most of the crowd is 70-ish. I introduce myself to two younger men who turn out to be involved in publishing. One introduces himself as Mr Millais. I make a bad joke about hanging out in galleries. "Yes," he says, "he was my great-grandfather." He is a photographer and has worked on Mr Moore's books. "I'm convinced he is a Time Lord. He's been doing The Sky At Night for 45 years and he looks the same. He goes home to his Tardis." I turn to the 30-year-old man in a black T-shirt from Macmillan. He has been to Moore's home, a thatched cottage in Selsey, West Sussex. Had he seen a Tardis? "No, but he makes his own wine so that might keep him young."

Perhaps it was the champagne talking but everyone kept on insisting that Patrick Moore is the last great British eccentric. He says this isn't true, but he also claims that he is no performer, which he obviously is. I cannot get over the fact that he did not go to university. It is his one regret. He became interested in astronomy at the age of six when he read G.F. Chambers' 1898 book, The Story of the Solar System. Then he fell in love with music when he was seven. Are astronomy and music related in any way? He shakes his head. But I had heard he did something called a "Space Concert" that mixed them both up. "Well, to be frank it was a bit contrived," he said.

Then his monocle seemed to get more serious. "I am so thrilled that at the age of 76 I am being taken seriously as a composer of light music," he says. The CD has been an idea for years. It took nine hours to record with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Derek Carden was the conductor. Patrick Moore has never had a music lesson but has perfect pitch. He plays the piano and xylophone, though only the latter in public.

He sees himself mainly as a composer, though, and says that he hasn't changed his style since he was a child. There is, for instance, his Woodland Suite which is made of up five parts called "Dragonflies", "Hedgehogs", "Elves", "Gnomes" and "Worm Wriggle". He composed some when he was 13, and others when he was 72. "And you cannot tell the difference!" he says.

He dislikes modern music, jazz and pop; nor does he like the human voice. Chopin and Mahler are favourites, as is Strauss. He is proud that his music is 100 years out- of-date. A friend of his, a cookery writer named Gretel Beer, tells me that she is trying to organise a performance of Mr Moore's waltz, "Vienna Dawn", in the city itself, with an all- woman band. By now, nothing fazes me and so I just nod.

Next to us, two men with rather strange ties are having a loud discussion about how to pronounce Halley's Comet. One hands me a card that says Donald Francke: Baritone and Actor. "Meet Old Deuteronomy!" It turns out that he played the character in Cats for nine years. Now he is to be in Phantom. He has been interested in astronomy since he was three. His tie has a space vehicle zooming round it. The other man's tie is truculent with percussion instruments. He is from the Ipswich Hospital Band which is, he says, the only hospital band in the country. Patrick Moore is their patron and has composed a march which the band plays as its opening number at most outings.

Patrick Moore goes off to talk to the women who made the CD and I am introduced to a man who tells me he is in telescopes. His name is Dudley Fuller and when I ask how old he is, he says that he is past his "die- by" date. Mr Fuller plays jazz piano and went on an eclipse cruise with Patrick Moore last year. He says that the telescope business is recession- proof: "People must have their hobbies".

Patrick Moore claims to have never worked a day in his life and that life is a hobby. I don't know about that but, after two hours of marching music, I am beginning to feel as if we are all in some kind of grand theatrical performance. And the stars? Well, that is easy. This is a show starring a xylophone, a monocle and lots of trills.

The CD, `Moore Music', is available by direct mail order on 0171-630 8100