Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gagarin goes to London and Manchester---a good book

           During the last few months much has been written about the 50th anniversary of the first flight by Yuri Gagarin on April 12,1961.

           Most of them make an interesting reading and ``Beyond Moon and Mars (BMM)''  has preserved some of the articles.

           But, BMM has hardly come across a book which is exclusively devoted to Gagarin's visit to a particular country.  But, there a notable exception, and it is recently-released. Called ``Yuri Gagarin in London and Manchester. A Smile That Changed the World,'' it is written by Gurbir Singh, an IT official. based in the UK. Thank you Gurbir for autographing and sending it to BMM..

           This well researched and fascinating book has been written against the background of the Cold War between the East and West. BMM therefore would describe the book as a sort of a political history too which focusses how the Soviet's triumphed over the West in the propaganda war using the visit of Gagarin to the UK.

           The book describes how the UK did not extend a formal invitation to Gagarin as it would indicate that that the country was acknowledging a Soviet victory over the West in the Cold War scenario. It would also mean that the UK was not accepting the success of the first manned space flight in US by Alan Shepherd on May 5,1961.

           The book has published a lot of confidential documents of the British foreign affairs office which clearly establishes the dilemma the government was faced with in the wake of the world's first spaceman's visit. Sure, it makes a terrific reading and be assured BMM will definately read the book again.

           Invited by the Soviet trade fair authorities and others, Gagarin landed in London accompanied by Nicolai Kamanin, who headed the cosmonaut training programme on July 11, 1961 to a tumultous welcome. Everywhere he was mobbed by admirers and of course there were quite a few interactions with the media which always did not result in intelligent questions .After all who would not like to shake hands with Gagarin! Old and the young lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Gagarin, and hats off to Gurbir for interviewing many of them and providing the reader with their personal recollections.

           It is clear from the book that Gagarin's thanks to his upbringing was a workers' man and felt at home with this class. This is amply evident in the chapters relating to his Manchester visit which the author has brought out so powerfully. Back in London, he was invited by the British PM and the Queen. That Gagarin was a ``working class'' man is once again evident when he was puzzled with so many forks while having lunch wth the Queen!

           Though the first man to risk his life and travel to space, he did not wear his super achievement on his sleeve. Wherever he went he endeared himself to everyone with his warm attitude and smile for which he has become famous. In fact it would be right to say that his smile has become as well known as his space flight! Yes, this is true. Infact how many are aware that this is one of the reasons why Korolev finally chose Gagarin for the world's first manned space mission even though Gherman Titov--the back up-- scored higher in the tests?

            It is apparent that the author has not taken too kindly to Gagarin's autobiography, ``Road To The Stars.'' BMM with considerable difficulty procured a copy of this book which is autographed by Viktor Savinykh, a Russian, the hundredth man to fly to space. Savinykh's visit to Mumbai in June 2011 was in fact in connection with the 50th anniversary celebrations of Gagarin's flight. 

            A very good account of Gagarin's visit to the UK , but one thing has to be said at the end----the author need not have given a detailed account about the history of Manchester, its aviation background, the Cold War and a few other items as well. This tends to divert the attention of the reader.

            Once again congrats Gurbir for such a wonderful and well produced book with so many exclusive pictures. Why is it not available in India? 

             In this connection, BMM recalls that it in October 1961 BMM was taken by its mom to the Mahalakshmi temple junction not far from its house in Breach Candy to wave to Gagarin as his motorcade passed by. Gurbir's book has inspired BMM to wirte a similar one about Gagarin's visit to India in 1961!  But, now it is too late. Is'ni it?

            Surprisingly, Indian bookstores did not think it necessary to stock books about Gagarin during the 50th anniversary celebrations.

            This is unfortunate.


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