Excerpt: An Astronomer's Tale by Gary Fildes
Our latest recommended read is the inspirational story of how a bricklayer from Sunderland became an expert stargazer. By day he built houses, and by night he studied the stars. Now Gary Fildes tells his story.
About the book
When he left school at the age of 16 in 1982, nobody—least of all himself—could possibly have imagined what Gary Fildes would be doing 34 years later.
From an early age, he’d been fascinated by the stars. But for reasons of not getting beaten up, he says, it was an interest he kept to himself. Then, after leaving school, there was the rather more immediate business of earning a living in recession-era Sunderland. Eventually—after a spell as a football hooligan—aged 19 and already married with a child, he became a bricklayer and remained one for the next two decades.
In the mid-90s, though, he finally came out as an astronomer, buying himself a proper telescope and joining the SAS. (That’s Sunderland Astronomical Society. Motto: “Who Stares Wins”.) Over the following years, both his knowledge and his reputation greatly increased. Even so, it came as quite a shock when he was asked to found and be the lead astronomer at the Kielder public observatory in Kielder Forest, Northumberland—a post he’s held ever since. When it opened in 2008, the plan was for 240 visitors a year. In 2014 it had 24,000.
In The Astronomer’s Tale, Gary tells this astonishing story with impressive modesty. His feeling of awe about celestial bodies remains undiminished, as well as infectious. As a true evangelical for the subject, he also provides tips for the rookie astronomer and a full guide to the night sky over the course of a year. (“It all begins,” he says, “with looking up and being curious.”)
But we join him here back when he and his mate Shaun were still working the local building sites…
An Astronomer's Tale by Gary Fildes
The summers were the best. In the early 90s it wasn’t unusual for us to be working onsite with a group of other lads, everyone in just a pair of speedos and a set of steel-toed boots. What a vision. Bare-chested we would toil all day in the sun, returning home to our family sunburnt and worked out.
Winters were not as pleasant. One year we were doing contract work for Barratt Homes. We were self-employed, which was better for the money, but if you didn’t work you didn’t get paid—even if it was freezing. With four kids now to provide for, and nearing Christmas, the pressure to earn was intense. I bundled up warmly every day to fight the biting winds, but that didn’t solve the problem of the ice-cold bricks. Bricks have a knack of getting wet, and can absorb enough water to nearly double in weight.
One morning I went to pick one up. It was hard and cold and so I grabbed it more vigorously than usual. When it didn’t budge, I hit it with my hammer and up it came. But there it stayed; I couldn’t get it off. The water had frozen my fingers to the brick’s surface. I shook my hand, which only made matters worse as it was too heavy for that. Eventually I tore my fingers away with my other hand, and off came the skin; or rather it remained attached to the brick. In exquisite pain, I screamed up into the grey hanging sky, heart pounding, and I remember thinking, Get used to it, you are here to stay.
"Most had no idea that by day I was trowelling, and by night I was reading physics book"
I was back on the site again the next day, and the day after. Without brickies and this army of workers who endure these conditions, we would have no homes to live in. I knew this and felt proud to be doing the work. But internally I felt numb and the dream of astronomy from my youth was a distant memory. What I was doing now I would be doing until I could do it no longer.
As I grew older, things got tougher. Backache is probably the worst part of the job. After a shift I would need to lie down on the floor at home and the kids would stand in the small of my back, to ease the pain and stretch me out. Afterwards I would gingerly lower myself into a hot bath.
I had tried everything to get out. But I could never find an escape. Although the winters could be hard, few jobs around Sunderland could match the money. As well as the physical toll, the thought preyed on my mind that somehow this life wasn’t for me. I had internalised my passion for astronomy since I was a child; around most of the lads at work I was Gaz the lad, Gaz the Sunderland football fan. Most had no idea that by day I was trowelling, and by night I was reading physics books.