MARSTON MORETAINE, England — Hannah Ingram-Moore always knew her dad was a good story.
A decorated British Army officer from World War II, Tom Moore is charming, droll and confoundingly energetic. Spry doesn’t begin to cover it: At 99, he was mowing the lawn, tending a greenhouse and driving his own car. When he fell and broke his hip 18 months ago, he bought a treadmill to speed up the rehabilitation.
“How many 99-year-olds have a treadmill and still drive?” said Ingram-Moore, as she explained how she hit upon the idea of having Moore undertake a one-man fundraising campaign for Britain’s National Health Service. “We were not ignorant of that fact and we will never claim total surprise.”
Still, nothing could have prepared her for the media whirlwind that has swept Moore, in less than six weeks, into a rare altitude of superstardom: prolific fundraiser, chart-topping performer, book writer and all-around national hero — an enduring symbol of British pluck during a coronavirus pandemic that has confronted the country with its greatest test since the Second World War.
When Captain Tom, as he was quickly nicknamed in the British press, turned 100 on April 30, Queen Elizabeth II sent him a personal greeting. It’s a customary honor for centenarians, but in this case, it felt more like a mash note from one national icon to another. And it was all because Moore did 100 laps of an 82-foot walk on the brick patio next to his garden in Marston Moretaine, a tranquil village an hour north of London.
“The first step was the hardest,” he said this week. “After that, I got into the swing of it and kept on going.”
Moore’s feat grew out of a challenge from his son-in-law, Colin Ingram: he would pay him a pound per lap if he completed 100 laps before his birthday. Ingram-Moore upped the ante: She suggested posting the campaign on an online charity service, JustGiving, to try to raise 1,000 pounds, about $1,220, for the NHS, which was then girding itself for an influx of coronavirus patients.
Ingram-Moore, who runs a consulting firm with her husband, wrote up a news release for the local papers and TV stations in Bedfordshire. Sure enough, Captain Tom’s daily walk caught fire. It was the perfect human-interest story in a country spooked by the mounting death toll and going stir-crazy in lockdown — an antidote at a time when there were no actual antidotes.
By the time the BBC, CNN, NBC and Al-Jazeera had finished broadcasting pictures of Moore ambling up and down next to his garden — hands gripping his walker, military medals gleaming on his natty blue blazer — his campaign had raised 32.8 million pounds, or $40 million, for the NHS. Prince William, who kicked in his own unspecified donation, called him a “one-man fundraising machine.”
Cordial and wry, Moore seems tickled by his success but not overwhelmed by it. During the interview, conducted over Zoom to observe social distancing rules, he said he viewed the charity walk as a way to give back to the NHS, which he said gave him “magnificent” treatment after his injury. He suffered a punctured lung and a broken rib, in addition to his hip fracture.
“Never in 100 years, when we started, did we anticipate this sum of money would be raised,” he said, speaking in the well-rounded phrases of a man who has recently done more than 200 media interviews. He drew a direct line from the beleaguered health workers of today, fighting an invisible enemy, to the brave soldiers in World War II.
“At that time, the people my age, we were fighting on the front line and the general public was standing behind us,” Moore said. “In this instance, the doctors and nurses and all the medical people, they’re the front line. It’s up to my generation to back them up, just as we were backed up.”
Moore chalks up his success to his cheerful disposition, and there’s truth to that. But he has also tapped into two of the most revered traditions in British life: World War II, when Britain vanquished the scourge of tyranny, and the NHS, a symbol of the nation’s postwar commitment to a fairer, more humane society.
“There’s a reason Captain Tom has struck a chord,” said James Holland, a writer of World War II histories, most recently, “Burma ’44,” about Britain’s desperate campaign to expel the Japanese from one of its Southeast Asian colonies.
“He is a representation of what we British imagine we are like: stoic, phlegmatic, and we just see it through with Churchillian spirit,” Holland said. “He is an example of how we, as a nation, should be handling this experience.”
Moore, he added, “has got to be one of luckiest people in the world.” He emerged from the Burma campaign, one of the deadliest in the British army’s history, with a case of Dengue fever but otherwise unscathed.
Born in Keighley, a village in Yorkshire, to a family of builders, Moore was trained as a civil engineer. In 1940, at 20, he was conscripted and assigned to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. First stationed in Cornwall, in southwest England, he was chosen for officer’s training and deployed to India. He trained Indian recruits to ride motorcycles, a lifelong passion he picked up as a boy.
Later, Moore was sent to Burma, now known as Myanmar. The British mounted a desperate counterattack on the Japanese occupiers in the coastal region of Arakan, now called Rakhine. It was jungle warfare, fought against a ferocious enemy in deplorable conditions, where tropical disease and creepy-crawly things lurked in equal measure.
“If you took your jacket off at night to hang it up, in the morning, you had to shake it to shake out the spiders and the other little creatures,” Moore said. Still, he added, “I don’t recall getting frightened at the time at all.”
Back home in 1945, where he trained troops to drive tanks, Moore recalled his ambivalent feelings on the day the war in Europe ended. Amid the rejoicing, he thought of his comrades still fighting the Japanese in Southeast Asia.
Moore’s wartime service has been much celebrated in recent weeks, which coincided with the 75th anniversary of V-E Day. He was named an honorary colonel of the Army Foundation College. The Royal Air Force dispatched fighter planes in a birthday flyover of his family’s Bedfordshire home, a gracious compound, parts of which date to the late 16th century and sits on 6 manicured acres.
On Thursday, Moore announced he had signed a lucrative contract to write a memoir, “Tomorrow Will Be a Good Day,” which will chronicle his days in the Burma campaign, as well as his civilian life racing motorbikes and managing a concrete company. He will also produce a children’s picture book.
The proceeds will finance a new Captain Tom Foundation, which will support efforts to treat loneliness and bereavement, as well as relief efforts for the pandemic outside Britain. The $40 million already raised is being used, in part, to create therapeutic facilities for doctors and nurses to decompress after work.
Moore and his family, meanwhile, are coping with the bewildering fallout of sudden worldwide fame. They’ve stockpiled the 220,000 cards he got for his birthday at a local school, where a team of 140 volunteers open them in shifts. They’ve received 5,000 gifts, keeping only a handful, like Christmas ornaments made by children, which they hang from a tree in the garden.
On the radio, Moore had the No. 1 song on the charts, a duet of the Rodgers & Hammerstein standard, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which he recorded with the English singer, Michael Ball. The song knocked out one by The Weeknd, a Canadian R&B artist who urged fans to support the captain. Moore thanked him on Twitter, saying his grandson “tells me you’re rather talented and very popular!”
Nobody, it is safe to say, is more popular in Britain right now than Moore. He said he would like to travel the world after the pandemic subsides.
“That is something I would love to do, but at 100,” he said with a quiet chuckle, “you’ve got a certain time limitation.”
This article was written by Mark Landler, a reporter for The New York Times.