Refugee from Communism becomes mayor of Poynton

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The Independent Online

When Gabor Bartos arrived in London in 1978, his only possession was a small black bag filled with a weekend's worth of clothes. The 27-year-old Hungarian was one of a handful of carefully vetted tourists who had been allowed to travel abroad by the Communist authorities who ruled his homeland with an iron fist.

Secret-service agents accompanied the tourists as they shuttled between central London and Wembley stadium, where Hungary went on to lose 4-1 against England. But Mr Bartos managed to slip the net and headed straight for the Home Office to seek asylum.

"All I wanted was to become a British citizen," he recalled. "I promised myself that if they gave me sanctuary I would be a model citizen, a true Brit."

Yesterday the 59-year-old could confidently claim to have more than fulfilled that promise as he toasted being made mayor of Poynton, a village in Cheshire where he has lived with his wife Jessica for the past three decades.

"It's an incredible honour and I feel very humble," he said, in an accent flecked with both central European and Cheshire tones. "I may be from Hungary but I am British first and have been a Brit ever since I came here."

Mr Bartos' story could be deemed a perfect blueprint for successful integration and he is keen to encourage all new arrivals to celebrate and embrace British culture, not shy away from it.

"If you invite me into your home I would be expected to play by your rules," he said. "It's only right that outsiders should respect the cultures and follow the cultures of the countries they want to live in. Some of the people coming to this great country won't integrate, and it really makes me angry."

As soon as he arrived in London he set about learning English and adopting British customs. After meeting Jessica he moved to her native village of Poynton, eventually becoming a Tory councillor. But not before spending a spell as Shirley Bassey's personal piano tutor.

In fact it was music that forced him to flee Hungary in the first place. A picture taken of Mr Bartos just before he fled his homeland for Britain shows a young man in his mid-20s with long brown hair and a hippyish beard. Western Europe had long got used to the look but in Soviet-controlled Hungary listening to pop music on a foreign radio station was enough to land you in jail.

Mr Bartos was obsessed with Western music. He and his friends would travel to circuses specifically to learn how to play Beatles tracks. For some reason the secret police never bothered to crack down on what circus performers listened to.

To start up his first band the young Hungarian and his friends made their own instruments and built themselves an amplifier by rewiring a stolen PA system from a local train station. But it wasn't long before he fell foul of the authorities and was branded a dangerous dissident.

"Socialism and Communism are part of our history now but for us at the time it dominated our lives," he said. "The state monitored everything you did and it controlled every aspect of your life."

Freedom came in the form of a permission slip allowing him to travel to Britain and watch the England vs Hungary game. Mr Bartos knew it might be the only chance he would get cross the Iron Curtain and vowed to escape. It was only when the Soviet empire crumbled following the fall of the Berlin Wall that Mr Bartos, by now a fluent English-speaking British national, was able to pay a return visit to his hometown Erd, on the south-western outskirts of Budapest.

Ironically it was in Hungary that he was finally able to realise his dream of becoming a rock star. In 2002 he had joined a small group of ageing rockers called The Purple Gang. Back in the late 1960s, the band's founding members, who hailed from Cheshire, counted groups like The Who and The Rolling Stones as friends and contemporaries. Up-and-coming pirate radio DJ John Peel was also a fervent fan.

But the band's future was dashed when their first single "Granny Takes a Trip" fell foul of the BBC censors and became the first song to be banned by Radio One. One by one the band members returned to Cheshire, only reforming again to play in the odd pub in the early 2000s. Mr Bartos, by then a local councillor, was brought in as their drummer.

As a local politician, Mr Bartos has been instrumental in the twinning of Poynton with his hometown of Erd and as Hungarian entry into the EU loomed in 2004, he suggested the band play a gig there. Before they left the band sent a few tracks to some of the local radio stations.

Within weeks The Purple Gang's track "Sunset over the Mersey" had climbed to number one in the Hungarian charts, leapfrogging over both Britney Spears and George Michael.

"It was hilarious," Mr Barton recalled. "The band had finally made it after all these years."