The real stars in my life My cats: Since he lost his girl, Sir Patrick Moore's pets have given him more joy than any human, as revealed in a new book
23:45 GMT, 13 April 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, mostly featuring his two most recent, 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.’
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.
Happy memories: Sir Patrick with Jeannie a Norwegian forest cat
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 bright Hawaiian-style shirt with planets and stars emblazoned on it and is squeezed into a chair in front of the desk he was given for his eighth birthday. Beside 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 voice. ‘A friend of ours had a cat that 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 your cat. Please take me.” And I said, “Your name is Ptolemy.” Every black cat in my family has been called Ptolemy.’
Ptolemy has his own garden with a chicken wire roof so he's safe from foxes and can't wander on to the road
Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer born around AD 90. He lived in Egypt where cats were sacred, but the name was chosen for a different reason. ‘My uncle Reg was a well-known comic actor in the D’Oyly Carte opera company. One of his first roles was 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 thick coat. He has his own garden with a chicken wire roof so he’s safe from foxes and can’t wander on to the road. Sir Patrick himself is in no danger of wandering anywhere. He’s wheelchair-bound and 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. But he tries to keep busy. The Sky At Night, in its 55th year, is the longest-running show on TV and its recent anniversary episode was shot with him at his old desk.
‘I have loved all my cats. Of course
cats are nicer than people. I have never met a cat I didn’t like. As for
people, I think we’re a mixed lot.’
The title of his new cat book says everything about his relationships with humans and hints at the bereavement he’s suffered. 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, Patrick 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 while his body was limited. I wonder if this might have meant he didn’t relate to people his own age and preferred the company of animals ‘Yes, maybe,’ he nods.
Jeannie, a black and white fluffy cat with a beautiful face, features in framed photos all over his desk, his shelves and on the wall. ‘Jeannie,’ he says, ‘was particularly sociable. She liked to be with people. She was a Norwegian forest cat. They are known for that. She wouldn’t hurt a thing. She brought in a field mouse once, totally unharmed. We finally got it into a box full of straw and returned it to the wild. She just wanted to play with it.’
A month ago, just after he finished the book, Jeannie was taken ill. It was kidney failure. ‘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.’ Sometimes he can’t believe she’s gone and talks as if he still has her. The book is dedicated to her. In it he says, ‘When I held her for the last time I did not say, “Goodbye Jeannie” because I know she will wait for me and I will see her again. I said, “Au revoir Jeannie dear, until we next meet.”’
Animal magic: Ptolemy thinks he can type
Sir Patrick with Smudgie (left) and his mother Gertrude with Rufus (right)
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 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 likes to sleep on the fax machine. ‘I got a call from Australia with someone saying, “I’m trying to send you a fax, you need to take your cat off the machine.” They knew him well enough to know that was why the fax couldn’t go through.’
It took him ten years to write his recent Data Book Of Astronomy, a compendium of charts, maps, words, everything about the cosmos. One draft, he says, got a very bad review. ‘Ptolemy, who’s an exceptionally clean cat, 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 sweetness that is rare in a human. Ptolemy sleeps with me. I like to wake up to the sound of purr in my ear. My cats have always slept with me, or with my mother when she was here.’ She died in 1981 aged 94.
There have been terrible sadnesses in his life. He sighs. ‘I was 22 when my girl was killed. I knew there would be no one else.’ His fiance Lorna was a nurse in London in the war. They were together for three years until she was killed in an air raid.
Sir Patrick says whenever he goes home his cats are always there to welcome him
Didn’t he want to find love again ‘No,
no way,’ he says with all the energy in his being. ‘She was the only one
for me. I knew that. Of course I would have liked a family. But that
was how it was. 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.’
Amid the cat ornaments and cricket memorabilia are two glass penguins. When I tell him I like penguins he asks Dawn, his carer, to find the CD with the music he composed called Penguin Parade. It’s a jaunty, happy piece. It skips and shuffles along like a penguin and when we’ve finished listening 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.
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.’ He was a spin bowler. He points to his cricket bat, which looks ancient, and stands among ornaments and trinkets from all over the world. He must miss playing it terribly ‘I do, 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 I lasted so long. I’m not looking at many years left, am I I feel glad I’ve been able to do most of what I’ve done.’ Dawn 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 is. 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.’
He talks about his cats with more pride than is possible. When he was director of Northern Ireland’s Armagh planetarium in the 60s 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. I have never met a cat I didn’t like. As for people, I think we’re a mixed lot.’ Sir Patrick has met the first man on the moon, Neil Armstrong, the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, and the first airman, Orville Wright. He’s probably the only man to do so. But he’s most proud of his relationships with cats and what they have taught him. ‘Ptolemy and Jeannie taught me patience and tolerance. They helped me be more affectionate with people. If they can try, I can.’
He is a supporter of Cats Protection, a charity that runs cat adoption centres, and he’s chairman of his local branch but he says, ‘I fear if I go there I’ll come back with a cargo of cats and I don’t think Ptolemy would like it.’ In the ground floor bedroom there’s an oil painting of Jeannie over the bed. Dawn tells me she’s only just put it back up because it was too upsetting for him. 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. Upstairs I think I see a ghost. ‘I also see the first Ptolemy, a cat ghost,’ he says. So when it’s time to reach over, to join his girl, his cats, does he believe he’ll come back as a cat ‘Miaow!’ he says, with a grin and a bright light in his eyes.
Miaow! Cats Really Are Nicer Than People! is published by Hubble & Hattie on Friday, 7.99. Money raised will be donated to the charity Cats Protection. Visit www.hubbleandhattie.com