I Spy

Coinciding with the October 23rd commemoration of the 1956 uprising, and an exhibition by the CEU connected with the role of surveillance of citizens living in the communist bloc, this month’s Time Out magazine has an article with a photograph that immediately caught my attention. It is a slightly grainy black and white picture from the 80s of an old friend, Peter Doherty, in Vörösmarty tér. Blithely unaware of being the object of interest, he appears to be eating something, walking in the company of a friend in front of what was then the smartest department store in Budapest, the Luxus.

The photograph was taken by the communist authorities as part of their monitoring of foreigners living in the country. Like us, Peter arrived in the early 1980s and – there being fewer than a dozen British people resident in Hungary – we were all regarded as potential spies. Peter was here to take up an official post organised under the auspices of the British Council, to teach English at ELTE university. The other handful of our compatriots were all married to Hungarians, so they also had a reason to be resident here – though they and their spouses were regarded as odd in the extreme, since marrying someone from The West was the dream of hordes of Hungarians who regarded it is a passport (literally) to a quick exit and a better life.

Prior to Paul’s first visit to Budapest in 1978, he was sent a leaflet by the British Council in London: Advice to Travellers to Communist Countries. It warned in stark tones of the likelihood of being compromised by communist agents posing as landladies, interpreters ready to inform on shared conversations, and bedrooms concealing microphones in plant pots.

Politically, nothing at all had changed by the time we arrived to spend a year in Budapest in 1982. Though realising we would inevitably be far more suspicious than our countrymen (both of us being British, and having arranged our stay quite independent of any organisation), we had obviously been screened before our visas were granted and did not expect to be followed. However, occasional odd occurrences reminded us that this was a naïve illusion: letters, posted weeks apart all arrived on the same day; the phone call in the Academy library, answered by the librarian who looked around the room, and when her eyes settled on Paul merely uttered, “Yes,” and replaced the receiver; the unexpected and unexplained visit from the police from the office responsible for foreigners in Hungary. Although from a discreet distance, there was little doubt we were being monitored.

In light of the fact that Peter was obviously followed and photographed going about his everyday business (when he had a university teaching post recognised and supported by the authorities), I have every intention of visiting the office in possession of such files, in the event that our daily lives were also photographed and documented.

It is a fact that Paul’s landlady, though grasping and with an envious, unrealistic view of foreigners (see my previous blog entry) was no Mata Hari; the interpreter provided on Paul’s initial visit later became our closest friend, as he is to this day; the police visits probably did little to contradict the generally-held assumption that Paul was indeed an eccentric musician; and we never found any bugs in our pot plants….. but who knows?

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