Communist damage includes idea heritage preserve of state only, says Irena Edwards of Czech National Trust

Irena Edwards, photo: archive of International National Trusts Organisation

Dr. Irena Edwards is the head of the Czech National Trust, a UK-based organisation that supports conservation in the Czech Republic. Dr. Edwards left Prague at a young age and continued her law career in Britain, where she became a high flier in the corporate world. Her dual qualification meant she was much in demand when the Iron Curtain came down and she spent much of the 1990s helping UK firms get a foothold in her now democratic native country.

Irena Edwards, photo: archive of International National Trusts Organisation
When we spoke at the tea room of London's Royal Academy of Arts, of which she is a member, I asked Dr. Irena Edwards what had sparked the formation of the Czech National Trust. But I was first curious as to what led her to leave her native country to begin with.

“Well, I didn’t like living in a Communist country. It somehow infringed my basic ideas about how I should be living.

“I was sort of working with people who were involved with Charter 77. I was a bit too young and didn’t sign it, but I was working with them and my boyfriend signed it.

“I was basically politicised very early on and I really, really thought, This is not my life. So I just emigrated in 1979, 1980.”

Had you studied law in Prague?

“I studied law in Prague. I have a doctorate from Charles University and then I requalified in Britain as a solicitor.”

Was it at hard thing to adjust to a whole other law system?

“It was incredibly hard. I have absolutely hilarious stories told by the tutors of the law school in London, because I was permanently not understanding basic principles.

“It wasn’t unknown for me to go to a tutor and ask, What is this mortgage? It’s a ridiculous concept – we don’t have that!

“I never learned English at school but learned from listening to people in England, so I often couldn’t write it down at the law school.

“I was borrowing notes from this very nice Cambridge graduate next door and was copying them and learning from them.

“But needless to say I passed. And at that time the pass rate was 48 percent for English graduates to do that course which I was trying to do.”

Apart from the concept of mortgages, what was the single hardest thing to get your head around here?

“Oh my God! Definitely trusts! That was a totally, totally unintelligible concept.

Kost, photo: archive of Radio Prague
“And of course the unwritten British constitution. That was taught to me in a fish and chip shop the night before the exam.

“I had given up on ever understanding it but my husband just talked about it over fish and chips and I went and passed the exams the next day.”

If I understand it right, you went back in the 1990s to do business in Prague. How did you find that?

“It was amazing. I found myself the only dual Czech and English lawyer in town and found myself acting for most of the British PLCs trying to come and buy the Czech silver.

“I was permanently stuck in the steel mills of Northern Moravia doing deals.

“It was an interesting period. I remember that nothing worked properly. It took us hours to get to the factories and then I’d be sitting there with 25 men, all of them smoking 75 cigarettes a day.

“I’ve got tender memories of it [laughs].”

From your perspective, how long did it take the Czechs to appreciate the idea of the rule of law?

“Well, it did take a little bit. But I have to say that the Czechs are a pretty nippy nation. They actually take to professional concepts pretty well.

“I did have to deploy various interesting sets of behaviour to start with.

“One of the most hilarious things was that you would have the whole management of the factory coming to a meeting, you would negotiate a concept for 18 hours which they would understand and agree to – then they come back the next day and it would be all gone and we could start again.

“So in the end I deployed a system that I had yellow stickers where I wrote everything that we had said and both sides signed every page. Every night we signed all the pages which we had agreed and all the yellow stickers [laughs].”

When did your interest in preservation begin?

“I was always interested in preservation and in art and heritage.

“My granny was probably the first person who sort of brought it across. She was a very formidable woman and as a kastelán, a [castle] manager, she ran one of the largest Gothic castles in the Czech Republic, Castle Kost.

Illustrative photo: Ben Skála, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
“She ran it for almost 30 years after the Communists took it over. I understand that the family of my granny and grandfather were there in servitude to the Dal Borgo Netolitzky [noble family] well before that.

“As soon as my granny found out that I could speak languages she would use me mercilessly in the summer as a volunteer, and pay me really measly money, like 10 crowns a week.”

As a tour guide?

“As a tour guide. I spoke Russian and German and she didn’t speak any of those languages, so she used me for that.

“I saw my granny running around the village, trying to persuade people that she had water running across some valuable painting in the castle and needed some money to do something about it. That was very exciting.

“And I always appreciated art. Actually, my study of law was a real mistake. At the same time I was accepted to the Academy of Arts, but I chose law.

“So really I’m just coming back to what I was meant to do. I’m sort of connecting the circle together, I would say.”

When you were spending time in the Czech Republic in the 1990s or the 2000s, would you have often gone to chateaus or decrepit mansions?

“Not at all, because I was working 24/7. I was heavily exploited by a City law firm. No, I didn’t.

“I only remembered how wonderful it was and how I used to do it as a small child, when I was going to see my granny.”

So what sparked the establishment of the Czech National Trust?

“My working with a small, English-based charity called Friends of Czech Heritage, which I then chaired for two years.

Illustrative photo: Miloš Turek
“As I was running around the Czech Republic speaking about English heritage to kasteláns and other people they all said, This is all alright, that you collect 500 or 1,000 quid and you go and restore bits and bobs of our heritage, but actually it’s about something else – we need more.

“So I started delving in and I started discovering more and more that there was a real… I had never really thought about it much because I was working really hard in the City and I travelled really extensively in my job, because I was head of Central and Eastern Europe and was always in some obscure place like Almaty or somewhere.

“I discovered that the communist era was very damaging. It left properties uncared for, changed their use, often to their detriment, and mainly instilled in people a feeling that heritage had nothing to do with them – it was for the state to care.

“That was the message that I was getting from the stakeholders of the idea.

“That’s what got me to try and establish it, though it took some time because the idea is not mine and is not new, and there were several groups of people who tried to do it in the 1990s.

“Actually I met at some point Prince Charles and he told me that he had tried that in the 1990s and failed.

“He was actually quite funny about it and said, Keep me informed. Then he turned back to me and said, Czechs are tricky [laughs].”

Given that there are Czech state institutions looking after old buildings, castles and so on, how do they view private organisations also seeking to help?

“Well, I have spent almost two years running around the Czech Republic, talking to all the potential and varied stakeholders of the idea of heritage and care thereof.

“So I have formed some good relationships, and I can say we are sort of well-tolerated by all the groups which I’ve met.

“I’ve spoken many times to the general director of the state heritage institute and to the ministry people in charge of heritage, to the association of private owners, and to many of the numerous people from various villages who have started associations to take care of some disused property nearby.

“I must say that has made me even more determined to establish something that could work in a similar way to the British National Trust, but in the Czech Republic would take into account the different historical, legal and other circumstances which are leading to its establishment.”

How do you think the Czechs have done in looking after their material heritage?

Illustrative photo: Martina Schneibergová
“I think a lot of the properties were saved and look wonderful again. One has to look at it in terms of it’s not that long [since the process began] – it actually takes a long time to sort out a heritage which has been neglected to the degree that it was. I’m hopeful.”

Also there’s a lot of it.

“There’s lots of it! That’s actually something I wanted to say: The Czech Republic boasts over 40,000 sites classified as national heritage. And there are 12 UNESCO sites, which in terms of per metre ratio is more than France or Italy.

“Restituents and private owners do their best and so does the state. But it’s not for the state to care – you really have to establish a community which will look after these properties in the place where they are and start treating them as their own, like in Britain.

“I’m hopeful. That’s what I think will at some point happen.”