EVENT REVIEW: Gary Fildes: An Astronomer’s Tale

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8th October

Palace Green Library

Review by Megan Goundry 

It might be said that Gary Fildes is an unlikely astronomer. Growing up in Sunderland (which he light-heartedly describes as ‘Not the best place to breed baby scientists’) to a working class family, marrying young and being an avid football fan, it is probably fair to say that no one expected him to pull away from bricklaying to immerse himself in the world of astronomy.

Astronomy wasn’t a new passion to him. Ever since the age of 6, when he saw the moon through his older brother’s telescope for the first time, Gary has been fascinated by the universe and all its surprises. In this event, Gary answered questions about the stars, Star Trek, and his own unlikely journey from being a bricklayer to founding Keilder Observatory.

Somehow, this event managed to mix humour with sobering profundity in an evening that allowed the audience to immerse themselves in the subject. Gary was relaxed, contemplative, and held the audience’s attention for the full hour.

The audience were animated and visibly excited, anticipating an enjoyable experience. Gary responded to this atmosphere with light-hearted humour, engaging people immediately. After reading the preface of his book, they immediately opened questions to the floor. This opportunity to interact led to thought-provoking questions and thoughtful answers.

Responding to various questions, Gary provided a brief insight into his life growing up and key events, which led to his interest in astronomy. Describing Sunderland, he used humour and honesty to help the audience empathise with the struggles he faced when he was forced to subdue his passion for astronomy. It is apparent that he learnt the hard way, telling the audience of when he ‘had his head kicked in’ by some lads from Pennywell, a nearby estate, in response to his enthused explanation of the stars.

Throughout the event, Gary discussed his influences in astronomy. Describing Carl Sagan, he joked; ‘I may be a heterosexual man, but…’ trailing off with a laugh and leaving the rest to the audience. It was this constant reminder that he was a normal man that allowed the audience to relate and empathise with him, laughing when a joke was made and silently contemplating when Gary’s utterances became more profound. He referred frequently to the friends he made through the Sunderland Astronomical Society, as well as through Durham University, showing that perhaps astronomy isn’t all about solitude but about friendship, shared memories and learning.

His passion for astronomy could not have been clearer, and it left the audience feeling both inspired and empowered. Sometimes we need a reminder to look up, and that night was definitely one of them. As Gary said: ‘It’s a very human thing, I think – astronomy’.

Cuckoo Review is an arts journalism programme for young writers aged 15-23. Through the Cuckoo Reviewers in Residence programme at Durham Book Festival, young people have reviewed festival events and books, and have interviewed featured authors. For more information about Cuckoo Review visit