Captain Tom: ‘I’ve always believed things will get better. The sun will shine again’ | NHS

“I’m absolutely overawed,” says Captain Tom Moore. “Never in 100 years did I anticipate this would happen to me – that my name would go around the world.” When, aged 99, he set out to walk 100 laps of his garden before reaching his 100th birthday, the intention was to raise money – his target £1,000 – for the NHS in its fight against the coronavirus. His daughter, Hannah Ingram-Moore, imagined that her father’s effort might make it into their local paper, the Bedfordshire Times & Citizen. Little did either foresee that he was about to become a global sensation. Within three-and-a-half weeks, Captain Tom had raised a staggering £38.9m, with 163 countries pitching in worldwide. And once his 100th birthday was reached, a tidal wave of honorary titles followed: colonel, doctor of science, member of the English cricket team. Since then, he has been on a fast track to further fame and almost become an industry in himself. He accompanied showbiz baritone Michael Ball in his rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and became the first centenarian to reach the top of the charts. He has published an autobiography, Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day, and a children’s picture book, One Hundred Steps. In July, he was knighted by the Queen.

On the birthday itself, he received 225,000 birthday cards (more are still coming) and a bombardment of gifts: booze, tea, homemade offerings and even furniture, including a chair (someone evidently thought he deserved a rest). And I am glad to meet this sweet man – on Zoom – sitting comfortably with Hannah alongside him (though I’m alarmed to hear he has done 800 interviews since 9 April). What is it about Captain Tom that has warmed so many hearts, moved admirers to tears and emptied wallets worldwide? Hannah, whose background, not insignificantly, is in international sales distribution, puts it down to his appeal as a multigenerational family man and “inspirational veteran”.

When I ask whether he ever felt tempted to give up his walk, he answers: “No, no, no never ever – the hardest part is the first step; once you’ve done that, if you do another one, it becomes a natural thing.” But he must have got tired? “Absolutely, but you don’t give up. I come from Yorkshire. We don’t give up.” No need to ask whether for Captain Tom, born in Keighley in the West Riding, the willing himself to take a first step amounts to a philosophy. His appeal is in making us feel, no matter how tottery, that there is a first step we might all take towards a brighter horizon.

Tom Moore with his motorcycle racing trophies.
Tom Moore with his motorcycle racing trophies. Photograph: Maytrix Group/Reuters

It would be easy to assume that Captain Tom’s optimism was no more than a measure of his good fortune, but his autobiography reveals that he has had to endure the rough with the smooth during his long life. We learn of a first wife with mental-health difficulties and a second who succumbed to Alzheimer’s at 65, prey to painful delusions. When she went permanently into an institution, Captain Tom felt it “a tragedy” not to be able to look after her himself. He visited her every day and helped the nursing team by feeding her (he relates that throughout his life – mentioning skin cancer and a broken hip – he has had “the greatest support” from the NHS). Friends would ask him why he felt the need to visit his wife so devotedly. This made him indignant: “I signed a contract when I married Pamela. I promised to care for her in sickness and in health and I’m a man of my word.” His new charity, The Captain Tom Foundation, set up in her memory, is to help those who have no one else to help them. The foundation’s aim is to combat loneliness. Today, he urges me to go out and give a “little smile” as I pass other people on the street (an interesting project in London).

Captain Tom fought in the brutal Burma campaign during the second world war and explains: “In the army, you change from an individual to a unit – and join in fighting for the same cause. Camaraderie in the forces helps everything go on well.” After the war, he became managing director of a concrete company. But his passion was for competitive motorbike racing. As soon as I mention motorbikes, the conversation revs up: “New bikes are completely different animals now,” he confides. “I’d enjoy being on one of the new motorcycles with all the springing.” And he cannot resist throwing in that the cushy upholstering is for “softies”.

The Queen knights Captain Tom Moore, Windsor, July
The Queen, ‘such a magnificent person’, knights Captain Tom Moore, Windsor, July. Photograph: Reuters

Captain Tom is no softie, that’s for sure. Nor is he frightened of the virus: “I’m not a worrying sort of person,” he says. He feels sad for those who are. “I’ve always believed things will get better. The sun will shine again, the birds will sing and we’ll all have a lovely day tomorrow.” Hannah believes that what her father has started is a “family legacy, a mission to inspire hope where it is most needed worldwide”. She says: “Loneliness is imprinted in our souls. We understand its negative effects. And we understand bereavement. My father lost his wife and I lost my mother at a time when I’d just had my first baby and needed her most.” And then she tells me about the foundation’s latest coup: the London marathon is to support #Walk With Tom. Her father is determined to get us all walking and has already inspired several fundraising walks (imitation being the sincerest form of flattery).

For Captain Tom himself, there is no contest today about what has thrilled him most. “When you come to the end, only one person stands out more than anyone else – the Queen. To be knighted and to stand so close to her – she is such a magnificent person. That was the greatest joy and something I shall never forget.” And what did the Queen say to you? He pauses – looking as pleased as punch – and then replies: “I’m not going to tell you that.”


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