Sunday, 30 January 2011

They don't make them like that anymore!

When I was growing up there were very few highly visible Scientists. But about the most visible of all, (possibly even from space!) was Patrick Moore. His rapid-fire delivery and astonishing knowledgeability always gave the impression that there was so much inside his head that it kept squirting out as though his skull could no longer constrain it.

Of course he is SIR Patrick Moore now and not such a feature of British television at the age of ninety as he once was but when I had the opportunity to photograph him last week I very quickly realised that he is still a force of nature.

A gradually deteriorating war-wound has left him confined to being seated or lying, his spine no longer able to bear the strain of standing. His hands and fingers seemed to visibly frustrate him as they refused to do as he commanded. But while manual dexterity may elude him, his mind is still limber. Sporting a bright Hawaiian shirt that lit up the room on a grimly grey January afternoon, he talked about the cosmos, cricket and his cats on whom he dotes.

He sat on a swivel-chair in his study - his mission control, every inch the English eccentric you would want or imagine him to be. Occasionally he pointed out some of the things around the room and recounted the memories attached to them. The sheer number of framed academic achievements alone was overwhelming but what made it more impressive were the models, books, bits of rock, photographs and ornaments that covered every available surface, all of which had a tale to be told.

To reach one's nineties and be so lucid and fascinating is a rare talent. When it came to making the portraits, I decided to glory in his age rather than gloss over it. The limited space and the fact that there was only one direction I could shoot meant being careful about where to set-up the lights. Two of his friends who lived locally had turned up by surprise and I had to pick my moments too, avoiding times when he was speaking. Added to which, the ancient mullioned bay windows meant that it was impossible to avoid reflections. But I slowed the shutter, letting a little daylight though to neutralise them.

As I gingerly stepped backwards and pulled the shot wider to include more of his study I saw the single bare bulb directly above his head. It reminded me of the way thoughts are illustrated in cartoons. It felt appropriate for a man whose life has been lived so intellectually. Indeed, at that moment, he did seem somewhat cartoonish; larger than life, seemingly indestructible and with a light-bulb appearing above his head as though a brilliant idea had just occurred to him.

The brilliant idea turned out to be a large Gin and Tonic but I was driving and so he and his friends chatted amiably as I packed away my kit and prepared to give my colleague a lift to the station.

Sir Patrick Moore, Astronomer extraordinaire, cricketer, author and accomplished xylophonist (though no longer playing), living legend and national treasure, has a new book out at the end of February. Paul Bignell's interview with him in the Independent on Sunday can be read here. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, 29 January 2011