My best teacher

I was down for Eton and Cambridge, but I never made either. I was ill throughout my boyhood with heart trouble and only managed one term at Dulwich College preparatory school. In my second term I was there for one day, and that was the end of my schooldays. Then, when I was 17, war broke out. I said I was 18, manipulated the medical and joined the RAF's bomber command.

As a boy, I had a number of private tutors, but the one who stands out was the Reverend John Nissen. He was a great chap. He gave me a tremendous hand. He was the vicar at Coleman's Hatch, not far from East Grinstead, where I lived. He taught me maths, which was my weak link. I have a more or less photographic memory, so English and history were no problem, but I was never any good at maths, and I'm not now. I had to work like blazes.

Mr Nissen taught me enough to enable me to get by in the equivalent of O-level and A-level - in those days school certificate and matric. You had to pass maths, English, another language, history and one more subject - all at once. If you got five distinctions, which I did, they gave you matric on a plate. I never had to take any more exams. They gave me my Cambridge entrance by the same method.

Mr Nissen had been a science master at Lancing College, and gone into the church on his retirement. He had a tremendous sense of humour and we had great fun. I was ill, and in and out of bed all through my childhood, but I managed to cycle over to the vicarage for lessons a couple of times a week. By the time I was about 15, just before I went in for the exam, I remember sitting with him in the study and he fished out an old tobacco pouch and we both filled our pipes and lit them.

I kept in touch with him after he stopped teaching me. He became a friend of the family. He knew what became of me, although he died many years ago. However, it wasn't due to his encouragement that I went on to write or broadcast or do any of the things I've done since. I was completely self-motivated and self-disciplined. I didn't need encouragement. My interest in astronomy was not due to his influence either. Physics was his subject. I'd been fascinated by astronomy, in which I am entirely self-taught, since the age of six, and had actually published a few papers about the surface of the Moon as a boy, based on observations made with a three-inch refracting telescope I had acquired second-hand for pound;7 10s (pound;7.50).

My mother, who was the greatest influence on me, was interested in astronomy and I picked up and read some of her books. The first one, which I still have, was called The Story of the Solar System by G F Chambers. It was an adult's book, but by the age of six I could cope with it. Then I found the companion volume, The Story of the Stars, which I also still have. I searched the second-hand bookshops and went on from there. I was elected to the British Astronomical Association at the age of 11. As far as astronomy is concerned, I am most certainly my own "best teacher".

Opposite my home in East Grinstead was a big estate built by a man named Hanley, a multi-millionaire. He had in his garden a little observatory run for him by a man called W S Franks. I got to know Franks when I was a teenager, and when he died suddenly, Hanley asked me to run the observatory for him. So from the age of 14 I was running an observatory on my own.

Oddly enough, I recently gave what is almost certain to be my last lecture to the British Astronomical Association in London, where I gave my first paper at the age of 13, and my subject was W S Franks.

The story so far

1923 Born in Pinner, Middlesex

1933 Acquires first telescope

1936 Publishes first scientific paper (about the Moon)

1948 Guide to the Moon, first of more than 100 books, published

1957 onwards Presents The Sky at Night for the BBC

1959 Cosmonauts use his charts to correlate first pictures of Moon's far side

1962 onwards Edits Yearbook of Astronomy

1974 First of several honorary doctorates awarded by Lancaster University

2000 Knighted

2001 Honorary fellow of the Royal Society

July 2002 New series of The Sky at Night begins on BBC2

Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore was talking to Pamela Coleman

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