"Are you a smoker?" asks Sir Patrick Moore, from across the study of his home in Selsey, West Sussex, as I search out the book that inspired him, aged six, to become an astronomer. I locate an ancient edition of GF Chambers's The Story of the Solar System just along the shelf from Crap Towns II. "I am," says Moore. "I smoke a pipe. I've smoked four cigarettes in my life, all of which I bit in half." Why did he do that? "I don't know, I just did, hur hur hur." He adds a typical non sequitur. "I knocked all my teeth out when I was 18."
Patrick Moore, 81, is known and loved by generations. His face, pinched around the monocle in his right eye, has been on our television screens for 48 years, during which time he has only missed one edition of The Sky At Night, his endearingly low-budget series about the heavens. "It's an all-time record," he says. "I had a second entry into The Guinness Book of Records for the slowest telegram in history - it took four months from here to Sidmouth. Then another chap had one that took eight years. I won't beat that."
There is another side to Moore, however, one that's not evident to those who only associate his brisk, Pathe-News-type diction with discussions of supernovae and asteroid belts. Moore's views are those of a brazen patriot and xenophobe, who thinks that "abroad" is a beastly place and, in the words of Flanders and Swann, "the English, the English, the English are best". In his newly published autobiography, he writes: "I have been to Borneo (no cannibals)", while Egypt is "all in all, a fascinating place, even if it is rather a pity about the Egyptians". And, when challenged, Moore remains staunchly unapologetic about his judgments. "Don't forget," he chortles, "I belong to the generation that was in the war, and therefore I know what they're like."
Ah, the war. Although he gives it barely a mention in his autobiography, the Second World War changed Moore's life in several key ways. Laid low as a child by a heart complaint, Moore was tutored at home rather than going to Eton, as planned. At 16, when he was due to take up a place at Cambridge, war intervened (afterwards, his Cambridge place was still open, but it would have meant taking a Government grant, and Moore wanted to stand on his "own two feet". By the time he had sufficient funds to pay his own way, he was too busy. Consequently, he has no formal academic qualifications, although he has many honorary degrees. Moore spent the war in the RAF, rising to the rank of Squadron Leader. It was while he was serving that his sweetheart was killed in the Blitz. No one could ever take her place, and from then on he remained single, living with his mother until her death in 1981.
His traumatic wartime experiences have coloured his views on Europe ever since and he's now an enthusiastic member of UKIP, So, does his Euroscepticism stem from a desire that Britain should rule itself or from a dislike for foreigners? "Don't they go together?" Moore chuckles.
His Euroscepticism seems to be one of the few remaining things in Moore's life that gives him pleasures. He admits that a lack of enjoyment is one of the banes of growing old. Four years ago he began to be affected by a spine problem, which has deprived him of much of the use of his hands. He can no longer play his beloved Chopin on the piano, nor swing the sticks above his xylophone, which lies propped on its side near the front door. Writing with a pen is near impossible, and bashing away on his 1908 typewriter is difficult. Even the two observatories in his garden have to be operated by others. He seems to have a growing sense that his own passing may not be that far off.
"When I was in hospital with salmonella," he says of the incident that made him miss The Sky At Night for the first time last year, "they'd given up on me. It wasn't very nice. But it was just the wrong moment. Although I can't go on for much longer, obviously."
Moore describes himself in his book as being "on the last lap". He has made plans for a party after his funeral, at which he wants a candle to be lit. A tape recording will then be played, on which Moore's voice will announce that if he is still around in some shape or form, he will attempt to extinguish the flame. "I shall blow that candle out if it kills me," he jokes.
Does he believe in an afterlife? "Ask me again in 10 years and I'll tell you. Ha ha ha." But as an astronomer, does he feel he has any special insights into what, if anything, happens after death? "Well if life began and ended here it would be rather pointless, wouldn't it?" So does he think he will meet people he has known on Earth again? "I'm sure of that, sure that I will. The thing I don't want to do is to meet my uncle George again." Not his favourite uncle, then? "No, not at all, ha ha ha."
I ask him if there was anything he wishes that he'd done differently. "One thing I do regret," he says, "and this may be the conceit of an old coot, but I do wish I'd taken my composition a bit more seriously. I think I might have got somewhere. I wish I had." He gets up to put on a recording of his music he made with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. This is a slow process, as Moore has to use walking sticks to move his enormous frame from behind his desk, past his many trophies and commendations, which include a Bafta and something called a Golden Egg award, over to his CD player. Setting the machine to the right track involves him banging it vigorously.
Eventually he gets the CD going, and a series of "light music" compositions of the type favoured by army concert bands emanate from the speakers. They're obviously derivative but entirely respectable efforts, as is his Nocturne in D flat for solo piano. "The kind of music I write belongs roughly to the 1880 vintage," says Moore. "That's why I love Schubert and Greig, and am slightly lukewarm about Bach and Beethoven. I'm a tunesmith."
We talk for a while about astronomy; about what a shame it is that Pluto is being downgraded from a planet to a "Kuiper Belt object"; about the book on cosmology Moore is working on with Brian May (the Queen guitarist has a first from Cambridge in astrophysics - "he's Dr Brian May," says Moore); and about the book on asteroids Moore has written with another old friend, Arthur C Clarke.
But Europe is the issue Moore keeps returning to. Even a conversation about his time setting up the Armagh Planetarium in the 1960s ends up on the subject. "My first job in Armagh was to join the local cricket club," recalls Moore, who was a useful leg-spinner for the Selsey side until well into his seventies. "They asked me what kind of bowler I was, and I told them. Then they asked if I was a Catholic or a Protestant. What did that matter? They said it mattered very much. So I told them I was a druid and walked out." It's as soon as I mention another cricket enthusiast of Moore's acquaintance, John Major, that we are back onto Europe. "He made one great mistake," says Moore. "If he'd offered a referendum on Europe, he'd still be Prime Minister. They all want to throw it away. That's why I'm in UKIP. But thanks to Robert Kilroy-Silk I don't know how we'll do." Moore is not a fan. "Was he a plant?" he asks. "The Tories are very worried about us. I can't comment, no proof, but I've heard it suggested. He was a Labour MP, why join a right-wing party?"
Although Moore says he would stand in the election if he was 10 years younger, his opinion of politicians is low. George Bush is "power-mad". "I think," he says, "we should take all the world's leading politicians, put them in a large spacecraft, and send them on a one-way journey to Alpha Centauri."
"I was offered a seat once," he continues. For the Tories? He replies with a "hmm" that I take to be a yes. "I wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes because I always say what I think. Don't put in that I'm extremely right-wing, it's just that I want the country back. I don't want to be handed over to Brussels, that's why I'm a member of UKIP.
"Law and order," he persists, "that's another thing. I was getting out of my car by Shepherd's Bush underground 10 years ago, and I was attacked by two thugs. About 18, both with knives. I broke their arms. Didn't dare call the police though. You know why?" He leans over in triumph to make his point. "They were black. Hur hur hur." On top of this, when the United Nations general secretary Kofi Annan comes up in our conversation (he "won't stop the Americans doing anything they like"), Moore guffawingly refers to him as "coffee-potter".
If only Moore would stick to his telescopes, his xylophone, his love of cricket, his cats, his irritation with the phone ("damn that machine," he shouts every time it rings), he could be a perfect, spotless English eccentric.
We've been talking for a couple of hours, and I have to leave, but Moore would evidently like to keep chatting. I think my host, increasingly frustrated by his infirmities, is growing tired of life on this planet. Maybe he's looking forward to seeing his old friends. As he says at the end of his autobiography, he expects new arrivals at the pearly gates will be greeted with "a stiff nectar and soda, and probably an ambrosia sandwich". There's probably room for a seasoned leg-spinner in the local side as well.
'Patrick Moore: The Autobiography' is published by Sutton at £7.99Reuse content