Cats at meetings and ‘60s Škoda with diplomatic plates all part of UK ambassador Jan Thompson’s informal approach

Jan Thompson, photo: Ian Willoughby

The UK’s ambassador to the Czech Republic since the summer, Jan Thompson adopts a relatively informal approach that includes driving what must be the country’s only 1969 Škoda with diplomatic plates. Prague is Thompson’s first posting as ambassador and follows stints in conflict zones around the world as well as post-tsunami Thailand. When she visited our studios, I first asked if there had been any particular standout moments in her career to date.

Jan Thompson,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I’ve certainly had a few hairy experiences. For example, I can remember being in Sarajevo when we had to make sure we went out of the back entrance of the hotel we were staying in at one point, because there were snipers targeting the front entrance of the hotel. So that was a bit scary.

“When I was in Mostar I was shelled. So there were some slightly scary experiences along the way.

“In Afghanistan I certainly saw a different kind of diplomatic life. I think the popular image will be of diplomats living in beautiful buildings, travelling around in grand cars and drinking champagne.

“But in Afghanistan we lived in a compound with a lot of security around us. We lived in containers, so I would have a little bedroom with a little shower in the corner of the room.

“When we travelled outside the compound we would need to put on flak jackets and helmets and have a lot of people protecting us. So that was definitely the less glamorous side of diplomatic life.

“But that was very interesting work as well. The Afghans are wonderful people.

“It was interesting being in Afghanistan as a woman. Because some the attitudes towards women in Afghanistan presented some problems for us.

“In some of my encounters with senior Afghans, for example the president… he was very used to dealing with women who held positions of authority in international life, so he was very happy to engage with me.

“But there were some Afghan men with whom I had to deal, in positions of some authority there, who did not find it so sympathetic to have to work with a woman from a foreign country in that kind of context. So that presented a different kind of challenge.”

Prague must be a huge change from your previous postings, in that respect?

British Embassy in Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“Prague is wonderful, yes. It’s certainly the most beautiful posting I’ve had. It’s a fantastic city packed full of culture and history – and wonderful restaurants as well.

“I’ve been really pleased by the cuisine that I’ve found in the Czech Republic. I had somehow had the idea before I came here that all the food would be very heavy: a lot of dumplings and a lot of very heavy meats and thick sauces.

“Certainly that food is also available here and is part of the tradition. But I’ve found a lot of very good Czech food, very interesting Czech restaurants. And all kinds of cuisines, of course, from around the world are certainly available in Prague.

“So it’s been a wonderful start to my posting here. The British Embassy has a wonderful building. It’s a little medieval palace in the centre of Prague which we’ve owned for getting on for a century. That’s a fantastic location to live and to work and to do our jobs.”

What do you regard as your main task, or main tasks, as UK ambassador to the Czech Republic?

“I guess the sort of priorities would probably fall into three categories. One is working to promote British business, and commercial links between the UK and the Czech Republic.

“The British government has an objective to double exports worldwide by the year 2020 and in the Czech Republic here I need to do my part in helping to deliver that goal.

“So we work very closely with British companies, British businesses, put them in touch with Czech companies and Czech industry and work hard to improve the volume of exports and also inward investment. So that’s a big priority.

“A second big priority is working with the Czech government, to cooperate and find mutual opportunities within the framework of the European Union.

“It’s really important that our two countries work together as closely as possible and support one another where they are able to.

Prague,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“The third priority is probably looking after British citizens. It’s the work that an embassy will do everywhere around the world.

“We need to help British citizens who get into trouble here in Prague or who have issues on which they would like our assistance. That can be issuing them with passports or helping them if they are ill, or all kinds of other things like that.”

What’s your impression of how Czechs perceive Great Britain?

“On the whole I have found that Czechs have a very positive appreciation of Great Britain. They seem to feel quite friendly towards the British people. I think they feel they have a lot of historical connections with them.

“Of course there were a lot of Czech airmen who fought with the British, with the Royal Air Force, during the war, the second world war.

“That is a very strong link that still exists between our two countries. We have a huge debt of gratitude to the Czech Republic for the support they gave us in that respect. I think that has formed a bond between us.

“I think also we feel, and the Czechs feel, that our two peoples have quite a common sense of humour.

“We seem to appreciate things in the same way, have the same kind of appreciation of jokes. That helps us to get along quite well. So, on the whole, I would say that the bilateral relationship is in really good shape.”

I was reading that you arrived here in an unusual style, on a budget airline, and that caused some confusion at the airport.

“It did, yes. Austerity is prevailing all around the world and we need to make savings where we can. And it seemed a good idea to me to arrive here on easyJet. The prices were good and it seemed sensible.

Jan Thompson,  photo: CTK
“I was a little bit late for the plane when I arrived in London, so I was right at the back of the plane.

“Now what happens is when a new ambassador arrives to take up their posting, the Protocol from the Foreign Ministry of the country to which they are to be ambassador greets them at the door of the plane and welcomes them with flowers and so on, and it’s a wonderful ceremony.

“And I think the greeting officers from the Czech Protocol were a little bit surprised to find I was on an easyJet plane – and moreover at the back of the plane.

“They are accustomed to foreign ambassadors arriving in Prague and coming off the plane first, because they have sat in the business seats or the first class seats.

“So normally they will wait for the first person to come off or the second person to come off and present them with flowers and will take that particular ambassador off.

“But they had to wait for the very last person to come off the plane, and that was me. They sort of looked a bit confused and thought, have we got the right person?

“And I had to say, yes, it’s me, I’m the new British ambassador. So I think that was something which confused them a little bit.”

Also you drive an old Czech car – and old school Czech car. Could you tell us more about that, please?

“Yes, I have a Škoda Embéčko [1000 MB]. It dates from 1969 and has been in one family in all that time, so I am the second owner.

“I think for the last 20 years or so it’s sat in the garage, so it’s actually in really good condition.

“I now have diplomatic license plates on my Škoda car and it’s wonderful to drive around Prague and see the reaction from people who think, gosh, what’s that? That looks as if it’s an ambassador driving around in a Škoda Embéčko, in a classic car.

“But it’s a great car. I’m really pleased to have it. Of course I do have another car for my official duties. But when I’m just driving myself I like to use that car.”

Škoda 1000 MB,  photo: Ludek,  CC BY-SA 3.0
Would it be fair to say that you take a rather informal approach to your job?

“I think I definitely do. I like to think of myself as a kind of new generation of ambassadors who try to break the mould a bit.

“Perhaps the perception can be that ambassadors can be a bit stuffy and old school.

“And I want to show that’s not necessary and it’s perfectly possible for ambassadors to be very approachable and do their job very effectively by being more informal and more approachable.

“Another way that manifests itself is that in the embassy I have a lot of people coming to lunches and dinners and so on, and I have two cats.

“I’m very keen for my cats to participate in all the social events, so often I will be hosting a lunch with ministers or senior officials and suddenly one of my cats will jump onto the table. And I think this does help to break the ice and that people like it and feel it’s a very informal approach.

“My two cats are actually Czech, by the way. When I arrived in Prague I discovered I was going to be living in the British Embassy in a very large building.

“I came here all on my own and I thought, gosh, I have a lot of space. And I very much like cats. So I went to the state shelter and rescued two beautiful cats who now live with me.

“You would think they had been born to live in a palace. They sit around on this old furniture and run around in a huge garden and they are very much lords of the manor.”

My final question is, your name Jan [as in “January”] reads the same as Jan [“Yan”], the most common Czech men’s name. Has that been a cause of confusion at all?

“It’s definitely a cause of confusion, yes. I hadn’t really realised until I came here that it was a very common Czech name.

Jan Thompson,  photo: CTK
“But I do find that very frequently people will ring the embassy and they will say, we’d like to talk to the new ambassador – is he there?

“My secretary will have to explain, ah, I’m terribly sorry, it’s actually a lady. This happens all the time. Invitations arrive saying we would like his Excellency to come to such and such an event.

“I’ve also discovered that a common short form of the name Jan in Czech is Honza. But so far no one has addressed me as Honza.”