Salute the Cosmonauts!
Both the USA and the CCCP could be seen as menaces to Europe as they prepared to fight each other across Europe. The prospect of the war was terrifying. The news of Gagarin's flight was exhilarating. The fear has mostly gone now that the CCCP has crumbled and pulled it's occupying forces out of Europe. It's a pity that we're still waiting for the USA to do the same. I still remember going abroad on holiday in 1968, in fear, as the tanks were rumbling into Czechoslovakia and thinking that I'd never see my family or friends or London again. I expected nuclear devastation across Europe when the USA retaliated.
You asked about Gagarin? Well I was a schoolboy who was thrilled to watch Sputnik 2 with a Laika on board, burning bright in the night sky over London in 1958 - that must have been bright to penetrate the polluted atmosphere and glow of the old fashioned sodium lights! In 1961 I had no idea that the USA was trying to put men into space, but I followed every detail of Gagarin's voyage in newspapers, magazines and radio news. Suddenly our world had a new kind of person in it - the cosmonaut! Only two years later and I was reading about Valentina Tereshkova - cosmonauts were here to stay! Then there were grainy pictures from the far side of the moon. Frankly, as a young scientist, working in Britain I took little notice of the USA space effort until it put a man on the moon. That was a brilliant achievement, but even then I thought they were unchivalrous to name their crew anything but cosmonauts. Why couldn't the USA accept the normal rules of precedence in naming?
My recollection is that Gagarin came to Britain for the Soviet Exhibition in London. Did I imagine seeing him there when I was a schoolboy?
Anyway, Gagarin and Tersechkova were two of the big heroes of my youth. And yes, they were very exciting! Cosmonauts beat the pants off lesser heroes like Bob Dylan, Giacomo Agostini, Christopher Cockerell and John Lennon. This statue will make a stroll down the Mall something to put a spring in my step and warmth in my heart. Yuri Gagarin was one of the great heores then and still is now.
Beer, because there's no Vodka to toast Yuri with.