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Allan Chapman: Mr Starman – by Ali Hull

What makes some of us determined to fulfil our dreams, where others give up? This is a question I found myself asking when I first met Allan Chapman. Nowadays, he is a highly respected astronomer and historian. He took over the presidency of the Herschel Society when his friend Patrick Moore died. He lectures and writes on science and history, and turns up on Brian Cox’s television programmes. Yet he left school with no qualifications and none of his teachers thought he would amount to very much. In fact, when he was back in Lancaster, after finally making it to Oxford, he met one of his previous teachers, and when he told the teacher what he was doing, the reply was, “Pull the other one, Chapman!”

Yet the signs were always there, for anyone looking for them. While not getting on particularly well at school, even as a lad, he was making telescopes at home… How come?

“I was fascinated by the moon. The little terraced pit cottage we lived in (before being rehoused to the palatial grandeur of a council house) had a beautiful view of the western sky and brilliant new moons. By ten or eleven, I was making telescopes from old lenses and cardboard tubes, and I also made a tripod from brush handles. It magnified about 20 times, showing the craters. Even then, I was lecturing, showing the moon to passers-by. Our next-door neighbour, Sam Deakin, a real character who drove the shunting engine at the local pit (and who used to give me rides on the footplate), came out once and asked: ‘What at lookin’ at, Cock?’ So I showed him the moon. ‘Bloody ’ell fire, lad! Ah them’t craters?’

My parents bought me a real telescope, costing £3 10 shillings, for my 12th birthday, and I still have it. That was a lot of money in May 1958, but I was an only child, and my parents were in regular work. And we took the telescope on holidays with us, to look at ships.”

It wasn’t just telescopes that fascinated the young Allan. “Steam engines and trains were also a passion going back to infancy. All forms of science, machinery, and technology, in fact. I also made a microscope, dismantled clocks, had a chemistry set which I built up into a lab, kept a weather journal, and loved explosives. I made a musket – drop a lighted firework and a ball bearing down the barrel, and bang. And I made a cannon from a piece of scaffolding tube and a pair of pram wheels. My very genial and progressive headmaster, Frank Cawley MEd, gave me a firm (yet grinning) warning after I had tried to buy weedkiller at the local hardware shop to make an explosive mixture for my cannon. The proprietress, quite rightly, guessed that 12-year-old roughnecks did not generally go in for gardening!”

It is common for those who have not done well at school to blame their teachers, especially if they later make something of themselves, but Allan doesn’t. He recognises that the teachers believed they were doing what was the best for the boys in their charge.

“My teachers were a good, thoroughly decent, bunch of chaps; I was at a boys’ secondary modern. It is just that after the age of 11 (and I never even sat the 11+ exam) we were all being tailor-made to fit into local factory jobs, as our parents had been. We secondary modern kids, quite simply, were being trained for the industrial workplace, and that was it. Telescopes, home-made cannon, and an airship which I designed were just, ‘All right lad, and very good; but it will never get you a job in the factory. Folks think you’re a bit tapped.’

“‘Happy Harry’ Harrison, who was careers master, had to interview me when approaching leaving age. I said I wanted to work as an assistant chemist in a factory lab. I have never forgotten his words: ‘Chapman, with your tiny grain of intelligence, you will be lucky to become a bottle washer.’ And it was said in perfect, honest sincerity. When medic and astronomer friends ask why I never became a surgeon, or an astrophysicist, I reply, ‘My school only did butchers’ boys and car mechanics.’”

He thinks his failure at school might have been an undiagnosed learning difficulty – possibly dyslexia. “I have an acknowledged genius for wrecking computer databases, mixing-up passwords and bank codes, and losing pieces of paper, bags, and keys.”

Whatever the reason, Allan did not shine at school. When he left, instead of going into a factory, he got a job in a library, and he started night school. Night school led to qualifications, and these, in turn, led first to Lancaster University and then to Wadham College, Oxford. Not that his parents were sure this was a good idea…

“When I planned to go to Lancaster, at the age of 23, then Oxford at 26, my parents thought I was heading for an almighty fall. After all, I had a rock-solid, secure muggins job in the town hall, in the days when all you could get sacked for was criminality. Mere incompetence and unsuitability did not count. I had a secure job down to 65, including sick pay and a pension. Only a fool would give up such a cosseted life. Yet once it was clear where I wanted to go, my parents and grandparents gave me their fullest support; Dad, who loved being behind a steering wheel, took days off work to drive me to Lancaster and then Oxford for interviews. They did become proud of me, while remaining uncomprehending. And I in turn remained rock-solidly loyal to them, and our local world. We always were close and in touch. Working-class parents were always fearful that university would alienate their offspring and give them air and graces. But never with me.”

Fuelled by the sheer love of finding things out, he got himself all the way to a DPhil, and then had to decide what to do next.

“Being independent was an ambition since childhood. Not to be some boss’ muggins. I was inspired, in part, by the lives of the comfortably off scientists of the early Royal Society whose biographies I lapped up as a lad, and of the exotic and courageous madcaps in Jules Verne’s novels. Those gentlemen who could trot off to the centre of the earth, the moon, or cross Africa in a balloon, or go around the world in 80 days – just for a lark. Nobody ever had a job, but they came and went, frequented their gentlemen’s clubs, and always had spare cash for a mad caper with their chums. Much more up my street than doing a 48-hour week on the shop floor. I suppose a lot of other lads were similarly inspired, but I did something about it. So, scenting no chance of a job in the left-leaning history of science scene, I set up a small business to make detailed working replicas of a collection of 16th century astronomical instruments which I had researched in my thesis. And they did more than keep me in bread and dripping for a year or so. I also started to get noticed – about 1975 – by American universities who ran courses for visiting students and summer schools in Oxford, and who paid quite handsomely. Then invitations to the USA to lecture came in, and my early TV work – and so on. I realised that having financial independence was the only way – even if what I planned was not quite so colourful as being blasted to the moon by a cannon. I have always been grateful to God for my blessings, and recognise a duty to give back. The British homeless are my main concern: Christian-based charities such as the Salvation Army, the Gatehouse and Porch in Oxford, and the Booth Centre in Manchester and the north.”

We are often told that “science has disproved God” but this is not an idea Allan has much time for.

“In my mid- and late- teens I read a lot of Bertrand Russell’s books, and still love his History of Western Philosophy. I read various atheist writers, and was fascinated by Charlie Darwin. Yet I never felt that unbelief gave you anything. It only took away. And as for agnosticism; it never had much appeal to someone who never had much time for shades of grey. As far as science went, I have simply never quite – with my simple, unsophisticated little brain – been able to grasp how so much glorious and intricate wonder, which I see as the creation, could have just happened out of nothing.”

Allan Chapman is still proud of his roots – he regularly invites children from his old school to come and be shown round the dreaming spires of Oxford. And he hasn’t stopped being the inquisitive boy who just wanted to see what might happen. Invited to give a lecture to a local astronomy society, he went first to “the Society’s Christmas dinner. There were party poppers on the table, which set me thinking, for they really are miniature firearms. Anyhow, I used my penknife to remove the cardboard ring and stuffing to make a little gun barrel. I then found that using a five-pence coin as a cannon ball, tamped down with paper streamers to get a tight compression, I could blast the coins some six or seven feet across the room, even hitting the ceiling. We all had great fun. Some little roughnecks just never grow up! No wonder I was chucked out of the Wolf Cubs.”

He recognises that his granny would not believe he has got a proper job, even now: “Nay. All that ‘ere talkin’ is what toffs do. Folks like Lords’ sons, an’ doctors’ and ’t vicar’s sons. Gentlemen’s sons. Not folks like us.”