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THE FWA INTERVIEW: TONY HUDD

BEING A LEYTON ORIENT FAN ALMOST A CRIME IN NORTH KOREA

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

THE broken biro was the clue. It would take a mind of Derren Brown proportions to guess someone who wanted to buy a new biro was a journalist, but for the, ahem, North Korean travel representative the two and two became a very uncomfortable four for Tony Hudd.

According to a recent survey a newspaper reporter was chosen as the worst job. In North Korea, a journalist – well, a foreign journalist – does not simply have a bad job, he is the enemy of the state. Hudd had been granted a visa to visit the world’s most secretive country on the premise that he was a retired insurance broker. His pen proved to be a mighty sword for the North Korean government officials, sorry, travel representatives who immediately suspected the long-standing member of the Football Writers’ Association’s national committee was a journalist.

Hudd realised his ambition to visit Pyongyang after his curiosity was heightened by M*A*S*H, the TV series based around the staff of an army hospital in the Korean war. Maybe he should have preferred Neighbours because unsurprisingly there were precious few laughs in North Korea, starting with his arrival at Pyongyang airport which makes up for its basic facilities with a new line of customs questioning.

“What’s this?”

“Shaving foam.”

“What?”

“Shaving foam.”

“What’s that?”

“For shaving.”

“How you mean?”

Hudd had to spread some foam over his cheeks and fake a mock shave for the benefit of the now satisfied customs official. One wonders how North Korean men shave though it is probably best if this remains one of the mysteries in the land that time seems to have forgotten.

“M*A*S*H was written by Larry Gelbart who was responsible for some of the best one-liners ever,” said Hudd. “Watching the series I became interested in the whole Korean peninsular. I never thought I’d go there, but when I saw details of a tour in a Sunday newspaper I put the wheels in motion. It was a party of 18, all Brits, we flew from Heathrow to Beijing and then Air Koryo to Pyongyang. I was granted my Korean visa by the travel company via an office in Germany. I hope I’ll still be able to enter the United States. It was an adventure, an ambition fulfilled. I wanted to see first-hand a country so diverse from where I live.

“We couldn’t take mobile phones or lap-tops. I did take a pen but when it broke they gave me the third degree. Why did I want a pen? Because I was writing a diary to show my wife when I return. They had their suspicions and immediately asked me whether i was a journalist, but I got away with it. My questioners were allegedly guides but were really government officers assigned to the party. There was another guy who filmed everything, claiming he was taking a holiday dvd of people on holiday. It was surreal, someone filming me while I was taking photographs  where I was allowed to take photographs.”

Talking to the minders about world affairs was futile. “They spoke good English, but would go off at tangents. It was obvious they had never forgiven George W. Bush for calling their country ‘an axis of evil.’ We were told that North Korea would crush the imperialists – ‘make no mistake.’”

The tour party’s day started with a slap-up breakfast of egg on toast and a cup of coffee (one cup was the permitted maximum).

“There was no free access,” said Hudd. “I couldn’t even walk a few hundred yards down the road unaccompanied. I was told that a Danish tourist last year feigned illness and stayed in his room when the party left for the scheduled trip and decided to go walkabout. He was immediately picked up by a soldier and there were all sorts of problems. The Dane had to write a formal letter of apology to the government for his actions before they would set him free. You have to realise when you go there, you do so on their terms.”

When in, do as and the party had to bow when they passed a statue of Kim Il-Sung (the great leader) and Kim Jong-Il (the supreme leader) and lay flowers in respect of the founding fathers of North Korea.

While Pak Du Ik, who scored the winning goal in the 1966 World Cup tie against Italy, is a rare idol in a society that is based on equality, being a Leyton Orient supporter is considered almost a crime.

“One of the party was an Orient fan and walked into a store wearing their shirt. He was immediately thrown out. Orient are sponsored by Samsung who are a South Korean company.”

A visit to the Demilitarized Zone showed that a little capitalism is alive and well in North Korea. “They had a thriving merchandise shop with T-shirts and all sorts of souvenirs.”

For Hudd, the most revealing – as much as was allowed – part of the day was when he sat outside his hotel and people-watched. “It struck me how well dressed people were, the men had fine suits and the girls wore modern dresses. Many of the children had never seen a Westerner before and looked at me as if I was from the Planet Zog.” Pyongyang was free of litter and less surprisingly, graffiti.

A pleasant surprise was the beer in Pyongyang. “Apparently, the old Ushers brewery in Trowbridge was bought by the North Korean government, dismantled it and reassembled it in North Korea. The beer was not bad at all.”

During his 10 days in North Korea there was no contact with the outside world. “In certain suites in the hotel you can tune into Al Jazeera and possibly the BBC World Service, but North Koreans have no idea what goes on anywhere else. They are told what happens which is rather different.”

Some cynics may say that certain areas of English football also follows this principle.

Tony Hudd spent  36 years working as the Kent Messenger Group’s chief football writer, covering Gillingham and then Charlton plus England internationals and now co-presents BBC Radio Kent’s Saturday afternoon sports show.

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