Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yuri Gargarin in London 1961

Yuri Gagarin (1934-1968, centre), Soviet cosmonaut and first man in space, at the USSR exhibition at Earls Court, London, UK. Gagarin made the first manned space flight on 12 April 1961. He orbited the Earth once in the Vostok 1 spacecraft, a flight that lasted 1 hour and 48 minutes. Gagarin became a hero in the Soviet Union and famous worldwide. He later returned to active service as a test pilot, dying in a crash during a training flight in 1968. His ashes were interred with full military honours in the Kremlin Wall. Photographed in July 1961.

In 1961 Yuri Gargarin, the first human in space, visited London with great pomp and circumstance which is due to the man who undertook and survived one of homo sapiens greatest achievements to conquer the universe.

I was fascinated by this man. Being in the business of having to do the impossible under trying circumstances as I had discovered performing professionally was stressful to say the least I thought it would be interesting to if not meet him just to see him. At the time I was at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama as a Music/Drama student and as we had a spare afternoon I persuaded two of my friends Hilary and Sarah to accompany me to the Earls Court Exhibition Halls where the Soviets had a huge trade show.

It was a salutary lesson of many kinds and my first into the myth of press coverage. The first surprise was there was no one there. The place was empty! Apart from the staff and the Soviet Staff there were no spectators at all. Just us. The three of us were astonished. We had expected throngs of admirers.

The three of us waited in splendid isolation and in due course unheralded Gargarin arrived. We had a close up view. The first impression was that he was tiny. He was dwarfed by the huge Russians that flanked him on either side. When I thought about it later obviously a tiny man   is required for the cramped space module but it did come as a surprise.

The next thing that struck me was that he looked 'thick' as if the whole thing was over his head and I expect it was. All the Russians needed was a body to put into space who may not come back. Garagin 
looked as if he fitted the bill perfectly, tiny and thick and of the right class.  The empty hall made him look even smaller.

He was greeted by I suppose the manager. There were no speeches and no pictures. The one above looks as if it were taken as he got out of a lift. Please note it is the lift attendant who is greeting Gargarin. Nobody of 'note' was available! However the three of us were very pretty.

All this was surreal and then a huge Russian arrived with the most enormous bouquet of light pink roses which looked like an 'enormous' funeral wreath which would have graced Stalin's coffin. It was taller than he and a strange choice of colour I thought at the time It was virtually a wreath and this was held in front of him as they entered the exhibition. The atmosphere was quiet and slightly spooky! Strangely he died a few years later and it was as if I had seen his funeral. There is no doubt that this man was out of his depth and doing exactly what he was told. 

At this moment I made the biggest mistake of my life. We were the only audience. Had I been brave enough I should have stepped forward and shook his hand as it was we got a tiny wave of recognition from the great man who must have been as disappointed at the turn out as I was ashamed of my countrymen who on this occasion had sent. possibly the most famous man since Adam. to Coventry.

But I didn't. I am too English and too shy. I just stood there and smiled.

Later the three of us looked around the exhibition which was mainly farm machinery and we went home but we were astonished at the lack of interest.

Reading about him and this visit today 50 years later it sounds as if the whole of London came out to welcome him. They didn't! Just three students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama!

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