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Playing a blinder in Budapest

One of my favourite destinations in Europe is Budapest. I have visited it many times in recent years with my wife and also with groups of MICE buyers on fam trips. I always find the Hungarians light-hearted, co-operative and great hosts. However, I can also recall visits to Hungary in the depths of the Cold War and things were very different then.

On one visit in the early 1960s I had seen a demonstration of electronic scoreboards in the Hungarian National Stadium, then called the Nepstadion. It is now renamed Ferenc Puskás Stadium, after the internationally famous Hungarian footballer. I mentioned that these would be a terrific boon for use in the stadia that would host the 1966 World Cup matches in England. The scoreboards were being marketed by Elektroimpex, the Hungarian state monopoly for the import and export of all things electronic. They approached me and asked if I could assist them in introducing the scoreboards to the right people who might be able to influence a decision on buying them for our World Cup.
I did some telephoning around in England and gathered a pretty high-powered delegation for an inspection visit to see the scoreboards in action in Budapest. They included Bob Rutherford, Vice-Chairman of Newcastle United and Eric Taylor, General Manager of Sheffield Wednesday. Jimmy Hill, a friend of mine at the time, was Manager at Coventry City and he sent a chap called Charles to represent him and we also had representatives of Wembley.
In addition, another friend of mine, Michael Winner, said he would like to join us. He explained that a remotely controlled board that displayed information instantaneously could be very useful on large film studio sites such as Pinewood or Ealing. He said hundreds of people turned up daily and had to find out where to go if they were extras or technicians or just delivering materials. So we were a mixed bag of people who eventually flew out to Budapest on a BEA flight.
We landed, took our bits of hand luggage and were ushered into the immigration centre. There were two uniformed officers who asked for our passports. I stepped forward with mine and explained that I was leading the group. They peered carefully at each document.
“Why you all come here?” I was asked.
“We are here on business”.
“What business?”
“We have come to look at Elektroimpex scoreboards”, I replied.
“You have no business visas. Why you come to look at scoreboards?”
“Because we are from the football stadiums that will hold the World Cup matches in 1966 in England”.
I had expected that to be my trump card that would have them eating out of my hand, but instead they looked through the passports again, looked at each other, spoke a few words and then the spokesman of the two officers turned to me quite brusquely.
“You cannot enter Hungary”, he said.
“What!?” I said. “Why not? What do you mean?”
“You say you come to buy scoreboards. Not possible”.
“What do you mean, not possible?”
“Hmmm!” The officer stood up and glared down at me like a detective who is about to drop a bombshell discovery.
“You are a journalist. He is a film director. He is a doctor. You not football managers”.
Believe it or not, but in England it wasn’t legally permitted to be in charge of a football club if you had anything to do with football. All the board directors were otherwise employed. Try explaining that to a Hungarian immigration officer during the Cold War.
“Look”, I argued, “we are here as an official delegation to help Hungary sell scoreboards to England. Why not call someone at the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Trade to check it. They will confirm what I say”.
One of the officers left the room. The other one looked even more harshly at us, as if daring us to try to force our way into the country.
About ten minutes later the officer returned.
“There is no one at the Ministry”, he said. “The Minister and all top people have gone to airport to welcome important guests.”
“That’s right”, I shouted. “That’s us. The Minister has come to greet us”.
The officer looked totally unconvinced. We were just a medley bunch of suspects. Then the phone rang on his table. He picked it up and looked at us. “Anyone here called Sydney?” “Yes, that’s me”.
He handed me the phone and I heard the voice of Agics Istvan, whom I called Steve, who had acted as my Budapest correspondent .
‘Sydney. It’s Steve. What is happening? We have girls here with flowers to give you. We have press photographers. We have Hungarian television. We have the Minister of Foreign Trade. All are waiting to greet you”.
“They won’t let us in”, I said, and explained the situation.
“OK”, said Steve. “I see what I can do”.
I put the phone down and we all waited, sensing this was the last chance to break the deadlock. The phone rang. The officer answered and handed it to me again.
‘Sydney. It’s Steve. I have the answer.”
“What can we do, Steve?”
“Tell the officers that you made a mistake. You are not here on business. You are here as tourists.” “How will that help?”
“Tourists can get a visa issued on the spot”.
I put the phone down and heard an intake of breath from my group of delegates when I turned to the immigration officers and said: “I apologise. I made a mistake. We are not businessmen. We are here for a holiday. We are tourists.”
The uniformed officers stood up behind their table, their faces beaming.
“Ahh”, they said, their arms open as if to give us a bear hug. “Welcome to Hungary!”
They stamped pieces of paper, they stamped our passports, they chattered to each other and within minutes we were walking through to the reception hall that was filled with cameramen, TV crews, girls holding out bouquets and a massive handshake from the Hungarian Minister of Trade.
All was well at last.
Or was it?
We went to collect our baggage only to discover that the authorities had refused to allow our luggage to be unloaded as we didn’t have business visas and whilst we were being held at immigration the aircraft had flown on to Bucharest in Romania – with our bags.
We had to scrape together clean shirts, toothbrushes and toothpaste, socks – everything needed for the next three days - and these were hard times in Hungary.
At every snag and shortfall during that stay, poor Eric Taylor of Sheffield Wednesday used to comment: ‘Sydney, you’re playing a blinder”. I say “poor” Eric, because not long after that he was in a terrible car crash in the Midlands. He survived for a while but I learned of his death some months later.
There were hitches during the visit, not least because Michael Winner was one of our group. For example, when we were at the National Stadium we were allowed to sit at the keyboard that controlled the giant electronic screens at each end of the ground. We invented scores such as England 10,Hungary 0 for a joke, but then Michael had his turn and we had to prise him away when we read the obscene jokes he decided to put up there.
Another example of Michael’s high spirits that caused some alarm was when we were being ushered through an ante-room in a state trading HQ in Budapest to meet a Minister in his office. Michael noticed that there was a photograph of Kruschev on the wall. Michael pointed to the picture and laughed out loud. “They’ve still got Kruschev here!” he shouted to everyone in the party.
The Soviet leader had been deposed in October 1964 and was now an “unperson” in the Soviet Bloc countries.
Our Budapest hosts hurried us through to the Minister waiting to greet us in his office. We had the usual discussion about the need for East and West to trade, remain friends and co-operate.
After about 20 minutes our group trudged out of the executive office and once again there was a great guffaw from Michael Winner and he pointed to the wall. “The picture’s gone!” he shouted and indicated a very clear rectangular area of clean wall where the Kruschev photograph had been keeping off the dust for some time. Our hosts hurried us through the room and out of the building.

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