A tea party in Hungary

IT is a sunny spring afternoon in Buda. At the British Embassy they are giving a tea party. The guests, the Brits attending a conference in the town, are ushered through the magnificent old mansion, dating from the great days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They admire the circular marble staircase and the Bluthner grand piano on which recitals are given from time to time.

They gather outside on the patio where the ambassador’s wife, who has injured her ankle in an accident, reclines in a chair to receive them. Beyond the balustrade the garden, lined by chestnut trees and bounded by a row of poplars, descends to a croquet lawn. Off to the right a hose plays water on the rose garden and signs of construction confirm that the British taxpayer is investing in a swimming pool.

Over the garden wall an opulent townscape is draped on the slope where Buda falls away to the Danube and, beyond it, Pest: more mansions, more poplars and chestnut trees, the plonk of tennis balls. We could be in France, except that on the patio a very English tea has been laid out on a table to the side.

There is a silver tea service. There are cucumber sandwiches, cakes, pastries, strawberries. The guests, as they engage in that restrained and cautious social intercourse which distinguishes English from more boisterous Scottish parties, eye the fare with anticipation.

A butler in a white coat moves between the house and table, carrying bits and pieces in penny numbers. He is a tall and impressive man. His sad look is not of itself surprising: it is the natural expression of most Hungarian faces in repose. A few of us earlier that day commented on the melancholy of the figures created by the artist Ferencz Beni whose haunting sculpture is on permanent exhibition in the old town of Szentendre (St Andrews), a little up the Danube from Budapest. The Hungarians are not unique: examine the faces of passengers in a passing Glasgow bus and you will find a similar sadness.

But there is something going awry at the embassy this afternoon, and the ambassador is a little edgy. When I ask him if he knows of a couple of Scots working at the university in Budapest, he replies rather irritably: ”The Scots are everywhere.” So too, I think sardonically, are the English.

Perhaps he is on edge because his wife, with her injured ankle, is hors de combat. More probably it is because an hour has elapsed and no tea has appeared. The butler continues to pass to and fro, going priest-like about his duties. The maid hovers and fusses. The gastric juices rise. But no tea appears.

Eventually the ambassador takes matters into his own hands. He summons us to table. He presses strawberries on us. Under his prompting the butler eventually appears with a brew in the silver pot. It has to be renewed from time to time, a lengthy and elaborate process. But eventually we are all served.

It is a trivial incident, adding a touch of eccentricity to a pleasant outing. But as we head back to Pest, we talk it over. It provides a straw on which to build a grand edifice of journalistic speculation.

The butler, someone says, has been with the embassy for 21 years. Ah, says another, he must have been the KGB man. And, adds a third, he must have lost his second salary when glasnost threw his trade on to the scrapheap. Therefore, concludes a fourth, he must have been on a go-slow, a work-to-rule. That was why the ambassador had been obliged to be mother.

It is a fanciful train of thought. As a journalistic process it is similar to that by which a convincing account of a how a goal was scored is constructed by a committee in the press box.

But it prompts a more serious question. What has happened to the old secret policemen? In some of the Eastern European countries, like East Germany and Czechoslovakia, they have become a redundant group, reviled and resentful and pursued by the law. Some have fought back and in Moscow you hear of ex-KGB men going into the new advertising industry. In Poland there is bitter controversy over the presence of former spies in the Government (this was the issue which led to yesterday’s dismissal of the Polish Prime Minister, Jan Olszewski).

No modern state can do without its secret police and no doubt the KGB will continue in some form or other. As capitalism brings its own accompaniment of crime, at least some of the secret policeman’s energies may be turned to work of a more conventional kind just as, with the end of the Cold War, our own MI5 is bending its mind to Northern Ireland.

Yet the spy is a professional like any other. He has his wages and conditions; he has his pension fund. Indeed it was because he was bitter over his pension that Peter Wright wrote Spycatcher, the book which the British Government fought so hard and foolishly to suppress in the eighties.

The author Phillip Knightley, in his book The Second Oldest Profession, noted that the KGB and the CIA needed each other. Their rivalry sustained the espionage industry, which pumped out so much intelligence that no-one could keep pace with it. It was often the curious fate of the spy that when his information was accurate his political masters disbelieved it. (Stalin dismissed the prescient reports of an impending Japan-German axis which he received from Richard Sorge, his spy in Japan from 1933-41. Sorge was eventually caught and hanged for his brilliant but disregarded work.)

Since the war European literature has been obsessed by the Holocaust. Our own has dealt in themes of betrayal — emotional, sexual, political. The spy has been the hero both in substantial literature and drama (Le Carre, Alan Bennett) and in popular fiction and cinema (Bond et al).

The spy, I fear, will be with us for some time yet. The industry will not disappear: it will be restructured and diffused more widely through our culture. In a shop round the corner from my club in London there is a window full of the gear of executive espionage — remote listening devices, concealed microphones, machines to detect telephone bugs, recording briefcases that enable you to eavesdrop or capture what is said at meetings when you are out of the room.

It evokes a deplorable picture of mutual distrust; but spying is part of the human condition. The ambassador’s butler may live in hope that better times for spies are sure to come again. If they do not the ambassador may have to add tea-making permanently to his diplomatic skills.