On the Road(show)

A little Russian rocket

The Antiques Roadshow is a British institution. For decades, this nation of collectors have scoured boot fairs, attics, and garages, lugging items, large and small, to discover whether their treasures from the past will make their fortune. In 2014, I did the same.

The appearance on the Roadshow wasn’t exactly a matter of chance. Judith Miller (of the eponymous antiques guides) was a friend of a client and when she heard of the Space archive I’d inherited she was quick to make contact. “Your father’s photography would make great TV, Alastair. Do bring it to the Roadshow”.

The show in question was to take place at Waltham Forest Town Hall, a stately municipal building designed in the 1930s which, somehow, had avoided the Blitz. We turned up at 10, and it was besieged.

Fortunately, when you’re actually asked to be on the show you can avoid the queues. I’d been along with some of the photography years before and stood in a queue for hours before finally giving up and going back to work. I couldn’t take an entire day off. This time it was different. I even had a parking space.

Which was just as well. The side-streets around Walthamstow were packed with cars. Cars parked on pavements, in car parks, on crossings, double-parked, you could hardly move. It was clear: the Roadshow was in town. Brandishing our letter from the BBC, we sailed through the gates, however. They knew what it would be like.

Judith came to meet us in the Green Room. I’d come on the day with two of my oldest friends, one from Hastings and the other who, coincidentally, lived in Walthamstow. John Baddeley would be doing to piece to camera, but we’ll make sure your chums are in prime position for the interview.

And then it was time: the archive items were all set up on tables, the easels blu-tacked lest they wobble, the cameras ready to roll, and the smattering of interested observers ranged round us in the background. And then one lady pushed her way to the front. Oblivious, I was just in the zone. In the background it was all my chums could do not to giggle.

We went through the history of the archive, who my Dad was, how we’d discovered it, and some of the stories behind the prize pieces, such as the large photograph, mounted on aluminium that the Apollo 11 astronauts had signed to my father which had sat framed in our hall throughout my adolescence.

“And what of this? I’ve never seen anything like it”, John Baddeley said, asking after the small wooden rocket I’d brought along. “That is my favourite thing, and I’ve had it since I was a child”, I explained, picking up the small Soviet souvenir and breaking it into three to release the tiny wooden figures within. “Oh my goodness, it’s a Russian doll”, said John.

Indeed it is, but not just any Russian doll. I don’t know, but in 1963 the Soviets sent the first woman into space – Valentina Tereshkova – decades before the Americans followed suit. I’ve always thought that my little Russian rocket was made to commemorate that, since it has a figure of a man astronaut and a woman.

“One forgets the Russians were as excited about their space race as the Americans and the British were for the Western side and they must have produced quite a lot of memorabilia but one never sees it,” he added, barely containing his boyish enthusiasm for the toy. “I absolutely love it. Certainly, it must be worth £1000-1500.”

The lucky prospectors always say they’d never sell their items but life, house extensions and children’s marriages have a habit of changing people’s minds. For me, that little rocket is priceless, a tiny emblem of a political conflict which consumed the planet as it reached for the stars.

And it works just as well as the day I was given it. You can watch the clip of the archive on the Antiques Roadshow. Just click here:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02dl89x