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Jacqueline Mitton

Jacqueline Mitton: 1

Astronomer and Writer

I find it difficult to label myself. I’ve done a lot of things. If I have to sum myself up in one word, I either say ‘astronomer’ or ‘writer’. Astronomy was something I wanted to do from a very early age, 7 or 8. I’ve always regarded it as not so much a job or a profession as a calling. I remember being quite small, outside at night in the dark, looking at the stars. One of books I still have in the bookcase is my treasured first book about stars, the Giant Golden Book of Astronomy, which my parents bought for me at that time, a real luxury in the post-war years. I still get most delight out of seeing a completely black night sky, so dark that you can see every possible star – most of us have never seen the sky with no other lights. Built up environments and the light pollution they make lessen our awareness; our ancestors’ experience of the sky was totally different.

I owe a lot to my mother. My wide interest in many things and my early devotion to reading and writing were all fostered by my parents, who knew the importance of education. My parents read a lot, and visits to the library were part of the structure of family life – we all went together and borrowed huge numbers of books. I was really encouraged if I showed an interest in anything. I was an only child, the one in whom all hope was invested. They felt that I should have complete freedom to indulge in personal development. Reading was never frowned upon, they thought the more time I spent at it the better. I wasn’t expected to do anything around the house.

My father was very distant in some ways, although I knew he did care about me greatly, but he was never able to demonstrate it in the easy way modern fathers can do. But as a designer and art teacher, he had a great influence on me; there were always art materials around in the house and I was encouraged to do artistic things. It was that background that got me going with my first illustrated children’s book, Zoo in the Sky. Although I never had an art training, I could see in my head what I wanted the pictures to look like. It was frustrating not to be able to do it myself, but I was lucky enough to be teamed up with an artist who picked up what I’d envisaged and even took it further. I sketched out simple ideas that she was able to develop.

Right up to end of university nothing stopped me. I sailed through school and university and was able to do pretty well everything I thought I wanted to do at the time. Even so, I had very broad interests, and found it difficult to put myself in either the ‘arts’ or ‘science’ category. I opted for science training. I now realise that if you have a high level of training in a humanities subject, it equips you in a different way that I can never hope to make up for. But you have to go for one thing or another.

I read physics at Oxford, but I knew that astronomy was what I wanted to do, and I was able to get a place working for a PhD in astronomy without too much difficulty. But I soon realised I wasn’t going to be good as an astronomy researcher. I didn’t have single-minded devotion to the mathematical side of it. Also, I found it quite difficult as a woman; you either had to be good at the theoretical side, or you had to be good at practical things, able to tinker with instruments. Although I was deeply interested, my interests were broader than either. A desire to put things into a wider cultural context was already there. But I was glad to get as far as a PhD because it gave me the professional credibility I needed to operate in the world of astronomy as well as being a fantastic training and discipline which has enabled me throughout my life to keep up with what’s happening at the forefront in a very general way, and so to be able to act as a bridge between the profession and rest of world. That is what has ended up as being my life’s work.

I hesitate about calling myself an astronomer, as it sounds as if I’ve spent my life on research, but astronomy is my academic background and I’m very much part of the professional community. For fifteen years, I was press spokesperson for the Royal Astronomical Society, and I was editor of the journal of the British Astronomical Association at the time of their centenary in 1990. That led to having an asteroid named after me – and Simon. We both trained as astronomers. Simon was a writer at first, then he went into publishing, working for Cambridge University Press for many years. He retired from that two or three years ago and has now gone back to writing. He’s just published a biography of Fred Hoyle and he’s got ideas for a couple of other books in the popular science and biography genre. There are tens of thousands of asteroids up there all looking for names. Someone has to nominate you – the person who discovers it puts forward a name. In our case, they felt they couldn’t have two separate Mittons, so we got a joint one.

I have been quite a driven and ambitious person; I’ve always had a determination to achieve things, even when I was quite small. There wouldn’t be a lot of fun in being famous, but a sense of wanting to achieve recognition has been always there. As to money, I’ve never been strongly motivated to do things just for money. We got married when we were students and had very little. We’re pleased with what we’ve managed to achieve; we have been lucky being able to earn a living involved with something we love. I’m not envious of people who are better off than me.

I tend to the conventional. I’ve never rebelled; I was probably too suppressed by the traditional approach of my family. Sometimes I feel like having a delayed teenage rebellion, doing something crazy. Perhaps I should act more positively for the things I believe in, but you can’t embrace everything in the world. I’ve had so much to do within my own family. After having children, I felt a strong drive to make them high priority. Simon and I both have a deep sense of the value of family life. We’ve got two daughters, now grown up, but they are still very close.

Caring for my mother mentally and latterly physically has been an important shaping force to what I felt able to do. My father died in 1973 when I was twenty five. It was an enormous shock, not losing him, but having to deal with the legacy: the full weight of responsibility for my mother landed on me. I felt very ill-prepared, emotionally. She was only 56 and she didn’t cope well – she was very centred on the home. So there was a very sharp change in my life from having been able to do almost anything, take the path I wanted to take. She moved to be near us in Cambridge, and lived here for ten years. She helped when the children were young but she never in any sense settled; she didn’t make a life for herself but relied entirely on us. So for almost the whole of our married life and while bringing up the children, she was a very high priority. It wasn’t in my nature to do anything else. It took up a lot of my time and influenced the amount of work I could do and the amount of time I could spend away. Then she made a very brave decision, to go back to where she’d lived before, Stoke on Trent. We helped her get settled in a house, where she lived out the rest of her life. But I went over to visit frequently, and for the last five or six years I had to commute there regularly. Our relationship wasn’t a close one, it was typical of its generation, parents were always more distant then. Perhaps we were also just very different characters. It wasn’t ever an easy relationship, so it was a matter of ‘this is where my duty lies’, and I wouldn’t have done anything other than my duty, but it was a situation that I wished had been otherwise. She finally died last year, and since then I’ve been re-evaluating things.

Jacqueline Mitton: 2

I’ve no regrets about what might superficially seem blind alleys in my career. The oddest in retrospect was the 15 months I spent working for a life insurance company. I still find it a bit of a mystery why I did that. I was in my late 30s, the children were at school, and I’d got frustrated with my job, doing publicity for the British Antarctic Survey. I had originally greatly enjoyed it, but they weren’t letting women go to the Antarctic and I was ambitious. So I thought, I’d do something completely different. It was the mid 1980s, and financial services were really taking off. There was an enormous recruitment drive, and I thought it might be an alternative career. In fact the business wasn’t out there; it didn’t matter how good a sales person you were, people were struggling. I realised then that the true sales person, who can talk the hind leg off a donkey, is just born; you can’t acquire that kind of drive. It wasn’t me, but it was fascinating in some ways. It showed me more about myself, and I met a load of different people I wouldn’t have met otherwise and it revealed a quite different area of life. It was a challenge which at the time I quite enjoyed; though it proved a dead end, I still look back on it as an exciting period. Lots of the people they recruited didn’t last much longer than I did. And in the end, the call back to astronomy was very strong.

I used to think politics was not important - certainly not in relation to contemplating the whole universe! But In about 1987, when I was coming up to forty, I had a political conversion. It dawned on me that apathy was no good. If people didn’t take part in politics, then they were leaving it to others. I joined the Conservative party and within a year I was put forward for the county council, and a year after that I was elected with the tiny majority of 22. There was a recount; it still stands out as the most amazing night. I really enjoyed being elected. I set out with the idea that I was going to be all things to all people, a wonderful councillor who would make everyone happier. I was quickly disillusioned, and I realised that you can’t. Politics is about having your own views; the really successful politicians are those who lead by having very clear views. Many politicians are quite bigoted. My academic training meant I could see both sides of a story too readily, but that’s no good in politics. It requires a single-minded vision.

But I loved it. I was able to sit on a lot of different committees, I learned an enormous amount, and I was able to contribute something. I realised that you had to have the courage to made difficult decisions, like closing old people’s homes if they were unsuitable, deciding about the roads and the library budget and selling off playing fields to make money to build decent school buildings. People criticize, but when you were in middle of it, you could see there were good reasons for doing these things. At the time, I was very sad that I didn’t get re-elected.. It’s a pity that local politics have become so party oriented. People used to be elected because they could serve the community, which was where I was coming from, but the reality now is that you can only do it within a party political framework.

One result of being on the council was that I became a member of the local health authority for a time. More recently I became an Associate of the General Medical Council, serving on panels that hear cases about doctors’ fitness to practice. I find this work very interesting; it is a big responsibility as it involves making difficult judgements as a representative of the community.

After leaving the life insurance behind, I became completely self-employed, as a writer and editor. I also found that I had a facility for writing technical stuff for children; getting the science right, but not compromising, whatever the level. But it was very hard to break into. There seemed to be a cabal: unless you were a children’s writer, you couldn’t write for children. But Simon and I did a couple of factual books for older children and then I had the idea for Zoo in the Sky. My agent believed in it, and Frances Lincoln published it. I have loved working on my more lyrical children’s books like Zoo in the Sky which I’ve done because I think the night sky is so inspiring. We’re fortunate to live on a planet which isn’t totally cloudy, which we might have done.

When I’m working on reference books, I like to get the latest thinking from research papers in, making it filter down even into books for 8-year-olds really quickly, not 20 years later. That’s very necessary in a subject that moves as fast as astronomy. For the last seven years, I’ve been a consultant on many of Dorling Kindersly’s space and astronomy books. I’ve never written a book for them, but I sometimes feel I’ve rewritten them. It’s part of my mission that the information going into these very widely sold and read books is accurate. There is a lot of completely mistaken and misleading information around. I’m horrified that some of the books put out even by respectable publishers are full of mistakes.

My visual sense is probably my strongest, and looking at the stars is still one of the things I love best. As for hearing, all sorts of things are a delight, the voices of people I love, and classical music is important to me. I learned to play the piano as a young child and even taught the piano at one time. I unashamedly like romantic and impressionist music. Debussy has been my favourite composer since I discovered him when I was about twelve.

Touch? Stroking my cat, perhaps; there’s something very sensuous about that. Smell makes me think of gardens – brushing past lavender and rosemary. And lilies - I adore their scent and there are nearly always some in the house. As to taste, I’m quite a foodie, I love all manner of culinary delights. I’m very particular; I buy and prepare good, fresh food and nice wine. I used to think I was addicted to cheese, but I eat less now; I wanted to lose a bit of weight! But I found I couldn’t give up chocolate or wine.

I find myself empathising closely with other people’s pain; I find people’s suffering very distressing; it is difficult to take on board some of the horrible things that go on in the world. Sometimes I think I should have more courage, think about how I would face up to coping with unpleasant things if I really needed to. I hope that I would cope if I were faced with it, but I have to admit that it’s a weakness; I’m not especially good at dealing with such things.

I’m not a party animal at all. I find it hard to get going in social situations where you’ve got to go up to people and make the first move. I usually come away feeling I’ve made some terrible gaffe. Perhaps it’s the result of working alone at home for a very long time. But I enjoy one-to-one conversation; I’m really a friendly and open person and if I click with someone, I can easily get into conversation.

The close friends that I made in the very early years are now scattered, and I haven’t made close friends so easily in later life; I think that’s a natural thing; it’s quite hard to find people with whom you have a close rapport later in life. I have one friend from college I see regularly, and some much-treasured Christmas correspondents; though I only occasionally meet them, when I do it feels as if the years hadn’t existed. You can make friends when you’re older, but we’re all tied up with our husbands and our children and our jobs and we don’t have enough time to form new relationships. I’ve got people living almost next door to me about whom I know next to nothing.

I’m actually married to the person who is my best friend. Not all marriages are like that. Unless one or other of us is away, the normal routine is a proper dinner on the table with wine every night, and we usually sit down for a long time, so we rarely watch television. We spend an enormous amount of time talking – it’s part of the ritual. We bounce almost everything off each other. Typically, we sit down at 7 and it’s not unknown for us still to be sitting here at nine o’clock. We used to do it even when the children were here. The table gets laid and the wine put out, the coffee’s made properly and if it’s nice weather we sit outside.

I don’t worry about being alone. I’m happy to have periods to myself. Despite our very close relationship, I think it’s quite a good thing that I work here and my husband has a room in his college because otherwise I would feel that I had no privacy. I like that time during the day. If he were in the house, I would feel I had to explain myself all the time.

I have a sense that things happen around me and I keep wondering why I can’t get more control over my own time; there always seems to be more and more to do. I have visions of a future in which I have time to do the garden, play the piano, sit down at the book I really want to work on, feeling in control instead of up against deadlines. I taught in a school for two years, and I really disliked the feeling that I was expected to perform at certain times. I do have some regular things, I quite often go to the gym on Sunday morning. But the nature of the things we do means that plans have to be made day by day, or week by week.

I sometimes dream of not having more things to do than time to do them in, but in reality I suspect the novelty would soon wear off. I’ve got used to the idea that there’s always more to do in life. I realise that’s because I set the agenda, I agree to take on things.

Whenever one starts to talk, half-formed thoughts take real shape. Maybe this conversation will change things for me. Until now priorities have been thrust upon me rather than chosen, due to a rather strong sense of duty – a thing that affects women more than men. I’ve suffered frustration at never being able to focus in a single-minded way; I’ve had too many facets. Now I’ve reached the point in my life when I need to think about all the things I’d like to do but I’ve never done. Am I going to have time left to test myself out doing them? As a child I used to try to write music. I’d like to have the space to study composition seriously. But I suspect that’s never going to happen.

I’d also like to write a novel. I feel that’s more likely to happen at some point. I’ve realised it’s a process you can go through not with your eyes on being a best seller but simply for yourself, and if it turns out to be something other people want to read, that’s all to the good. Just preparing to write fiction is an extraordinarily interesting process that makes you appreciate great novelists, or ones you enjoy, how much they add to understanding the world. I won’t be tackling global problems. I think a novel should have a good story, be gripping. The ones I read are those that make me turn the pages, rather than being too introverted. I wouldn’t be aiming for high literature. Most people’s first attempt at a novel has to be somewhat autobiographical, because that is the experience that you have to draw on. You need to prove you can go through the process of doing a novel using the material you’ve got close to you, because you feel more plausible when you’re doing that. Then you can start branching out into other areas when you’ve got to do more research.

We are buying a property in the south of France, so I’m looking forward to a different style of life. We both hope spending time there will be inspiring; I’m determined to improve my French. At the minute, we’re treating it as a holiday home; as long as Simon’s mother’s alive we won’t be moving out of the country. We’re a closely knit family with a clear sense of our responsibilities to each other and there are great rewards from that.