Monday 10 December 2012

Who taught me the stars?

I've been away for a few days. The weather has been bad, and clear skies have been dominated by a harsh moon. I've just been outside looking for geminids in the worsening cold, and saw a couple in five minutes before I got driven back in, badly dressed for the chill.

The Geminids, yellow orange, smoky trails, slow moving in a slightly sinuous flight. The best shower of the year. And without two men, I'd never have known what they are.

I was sad to hear of Sir Patrick Moore's death...many years ago I sat with the little dark blue "Observers guide to the Stars" reading it until the spine fell off and the hard covers disintegrated, the picture of the dwarf galaxy in Sextans that scared me. Through Sir Patrick, I learned about the stars, and the classical myths behind the constellations. Eventually, as a tennager in a fogeyish jumper, I visited my home and looked at his observatories while my sister nearly broke his Noel Edmonds Golden Egg awards and ate the Jaffa Cakes supplied by Woody, his very formidable housekeeper.

She asked my parents if they were communists!

So yes, I learned the planets and constellations. But it was Donald Rudd who got me looking in the first place. He was an eccentric Scottish sailor and painter, who used to terrorise the Dee Estuary in his smoky boat "Fourness", and paint impressionistic nature scenes of the Stewartry; one of them is on the wall behind me. Never made any money out of them. He had a car with moss growing in the engine, a dog called Speedy who's saliva was so toxic I had to be hospitalised after Speedy bit my arm as a reward for pulling his ears, no doubt.

Later in life, he brewed this weakly alcoholic fruit punch in endless 2 litre lemonade bottles, and ran a fast food joint called "Rudds Spudds" that didn't set the catering world of South West Scotland alight.

But crucially, he had been a navigator on HMS Warspite, and he had a star chart, again bound in blue, that he used to show me as I sat by his knee and admired his sideburns and never unlit pipe. And I looked at the book, and revelled in these strange yet beautiful constellations I saw. What on earth was "Bootes"???!!! It fascinated me, it was always my favourite, especially compared to Libra, which seemed very boring - small stars, no spiky edges in the chart - and I hated having as a star sign.

It was Donald who encouraged my love of Astronomy. And Patrick who nurtured it. I shall miss them both, the world needs good old fashioned eccentrics who give of their time to anyone who asks. Without them, it is a bland bland world getting blander by the second.

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