Matt Field: Prague is an incredibly liveable city
Since taking over as UK ambassador to Prague in January, Matt Field has, with skilful use of social media and visible eagerness to learn, quickly established himself as one of the best-known diplomats in the country. But how has he actually been finding life in the Czech capital? And what are his priorities as London’s man in Prague? They are just a couple of the things I discussed with Mr. Field in this wide-ranging interview.
Reading your CV, one thing jumped out at me and that is that in 2002 you worked for the World Cup Organising Committee in Japan. How did that come about?
“Yes, it was an amazing experience.
“I was very lucky in that I was in the right place at the right time.
“After I graduated from university, I went and worked in Japan for a couple of years.
“I taught, and coached rugby as well, and then 2002 came around they were looking for people who spoke Japanese and were going to be available for a few months.
“So I got picked up and went to run one of their ticket offices, in a place called Sendai.
“Of course I got to see some games and got to see this amazing experience, actually, of the country hosting and kind of opening up to the outside world for the first time.
“It was great.”
Did you go to the notorious, I guess from the English fans’ point of view, game in which Ronaldinho [of Brazil] embarrassed [English goalkeeper] Seaman?
“No, I didn’t go to that one.
“And yes [laughs], it was quite a traumatic experience for all of us that were watching.
“I did get to go to the final, which was amazing.
“So I got to see Brazil and peak Ronaldo, the original Ronaldo, at his best, which was fantastic as well.”
You became British ambassador to Prague in January. What’s the process of preparing to take the post? What kind of homework do you have to do before arriving at a posting?
“The first thing is, obviously, I was incredibly pleased to get the job.
“We have sort of an internal competition process, and my wife and I were really keen in particular on Prague and this job and this opportunity.
“So when we got that, we were just incredibly excited.
“I instantly ran out and bought every book on Prague and the Czech Republic that I could get my hands on.
“It’s the best thing and the worst thing about my job – trying to learn a language at my age.”
“We also sat down early and had a chat with my predecessor Nick [Archer] and his partner Erica, to try to understand a bit more about the practical side of what it was going to be like.
“Then when I finished [as UK ambassador] in Sarajevo I had a few months to get started on learning Czech.
“It’s the best thing and the worst thing about my job – trying to learn a language at my age, from scratch.
“It’s really hard work, but it’s an amazing opportunity.
“So I had the chance to get started at least on Czech, and I’m still having Czech lessons.
“Even this morning I was having another Czech lesson.”
You’ve impressed many people with your Czech skills so far, and arrived with very decent Czech. Did the fact that you already spoke, I’m presuming, Serbo-Croat help you? Or even also hinder you in some ways?
“On some days it helps. The grammar is very similar, the structures underneath. Some of the words are the same.
“But it can also really confuse.
“The pronunciation is very different. I think Czech is pretty tough actually, the pronunciation.
“And sometimes the words mean exactly the opposite of what you think they’re going to mean; so there are a lot of false friends in there.
“But by and large I think it probably helps more than it hinders.
“And now as I spend more time here, as I find more opportunities to practice Czech, I’m beginning to make some progress.
“But yes, it’s not an easy language, as you know.”
Very well. You were keen to come to Prague, as you say. What has been the reality so far, compared to your expectations or hopes?
“With some things, we can genuinely say, the experience is even better than we’d expected.
“People have been fantastically welcoming.
“It’s an incredibly liveable city. I love the public transport system; as a family we use it to get around everywhere.
“People have been very generous with their tips and suggestions on what we should be doing here.
“It’s a great family-friendly city as well; we’re here with two boys, 10 and 12, so that side has been really positive.
“I love the public transport system; as a family we use it to get around everywhere.”
“I think one of the things that maybe has changed since I applied for the job, compared to the job today, is Ukraine.
“What started on February 24 has completely transformed I think, in the last 12 months, the relationship between our two countries, and a lot of the work that I do.
“It’s made it more interesting. It’s made the relationship stronger.
“But I think it increases the starting point, as I began this job and the process of stepping into those big shoes that Nick had left.”
But also the Czechs and the British are both relatively strong supporters of Ukraine in the European context. Does that make your job easier?
“Yes, I think that’s very true on both sides.
“The UK and the Czech Republic have had very similar responses.
“I think both countries understood very quickly what was at stake, that this wasn’t about some isolated problem for one European country, but actually there’s a lot more at play, in particular that this was an attack on a democratic, sovereign, independent country – and we all stood to lose if they were allowed to do that.
“I think we’d also had domestic experiences which influenced us, so we had Salisbury. Here in the Czech Republic it was Vrbětice. I think it’s kind of an awakening moment for both of us.
“We had Salisbury. Here in the Czech Republic it was Vrbětice.”
“And then we have just been working very closely together, throughout that.
“So in some ways it makes it easier, but it also means that there’s even more to do.
“And the kind of level of interest in the UK now is much higher than it’s ever been.”
President Zelensky says that peace can only be agreed if Ukraine regains all of its territory, but also that the Ukrainians want reparations and a war-crimes tribunal. Surely that kind of victory is virtually impossible. What would be an acceptable outcome from the British perspective?
“Yes, I think that’s the really big question right now. But it’s fundamentally a question for the Ukrainian people.
“So they are the ones who will have to decide exactly what success looks like.
“They are the ones who will have to judge the point at which they are ready to sit down and discuss all of those issues.
“Our job, as friends of the Ukrainian people, is to help them get to that point – so make sure they have what they need to be successful, now.
“That’s military support, humanitarian, other areas of assistance.
“It’s also helping on things like war crimes, as you mentioned there.
“I have a history of work in the Western Balkans, a large amount of which was sort of dating back to the conflicts of the ‘90s.
“And war crimes investigations – making sure that justice is reached – is incredibly important for a country to be able to move on.
“So that balance: giving them what they need now, and then also letting them take the decision as to what success looks like.”
Your predecessor, Nick Archer, was sitting here in that same seat a few months ago and he said that his term as ambassador was all about Brexit. Are you still having to explain Brexit? Or do you feel like we’ve already got past that point?
“As Nick was sat here, I was down the road in Sarajevo covering many of the same issues actually, explaining and making sure that my hosts in Bosnia understood that this didn’t mean less of the UK.
“If anything, actually, it probably meant more.
“And we followed up on that; we delivered, I think, more over those four years.
“It’s going to be less a part of my job than it was for Nick, because I think more of those issues have been tackled.
“The framework that was reached in Windsor, the agreement about how to handle issues on the island of Ireland, is good reason to be optimistic, I think, about where we go next in the relationship between the UK and the EU.
“I think also that Ukraine, again, has changed it.
“Such a direct threat to European security has cleared away any doubts that the UK and the EU need to work together. We have to. We have to.
“So I’m hoping it’s going to be less of a contentious part of the job here.
“But it still will be – it’ll still be an important part of it.”
What does an ambassador in a situation where your country has three prime ministers in, what was it, two months, and you have to explain that and you’re probably getting a lot of attention from local media, wherever you are. What do you do in that kind of situation?
“It’s important to remember that ambassadors in our system, diplomats, are civil servants. So we’re there to serve the government of the day.
“Yes, last year was pretty turbulent. I don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like it.
“One of the, I suppose, challenges, and in some ways an advantage actually, is that people know what’s going on in the UK very well.
“Media follow it very closely, there are great correspondents based in London. There’s an awful lot of coverage.
“So I don’t generally have to explain what’s happening in the UK, in terms of the basic facts and details.
“People generally are much more interested in what it means for them: What do those changes in different senior positions mean for the relationship here, let’s say?
“And actually we saw Prime Minister Truss came here for the European Political Community meeting; we saw her come here as foreign secretary as well.
“We have seen a level of increased engagement.
“Yesterday [March 13] I was in London with Minister Rakušan to take forward some of the next levels of cooperation around law enforcement.
“So we’re doing more together.
“I think that’s the key question that people ask: OK, what does it mean for us? What does it mean for the relationship? Are you too distracted at home to do the work here?
“And I think we’ve shown that we’re not.
“But you’ll continue to get those questions, and that’s fine – that’s part of the job.”
What is London most interested in when it comes to Czechia? What aspects of politics or society here are you kind of tracking most?
“The kind of areas now that the UK cares about here is: What we can do together, and Ukraine is still top of the list; what we can do together on security issues.
“Also law enforcement, so work against the new and emerging threats. Things like cybercrime, how do we together tackle child exploitation online, what can we do about increased organised crime threats around the region.
“So that’s the kind of safer bit.
“Then there are activities around what I think of as the ‘more prosperous’ – so what are we going to do to make our two countries more prosperous, how do we increase trade even further.
“Trade was up 13 percent last year to GBP 9 billion a year – I think we can do better.
“Also investments in both directions, scientific cooperation and things like that.
“Then there’s the sort of more resilient piece, as I think about it.
“This is where I keep coming back to the idea of values, the fact that we’re both democratic, open countries with free media.
“We want to protect those democratic processes, and frankly those are under attack.
“We see that at home in the UK: disinformation and direct attacks against the democratic process.
“And between those three pillars I think we cover an awful lot of what is already a good relationship.”
Given his pro-Western stance and his NATO background, I presume the UK government welcomed the election of Petr Pavel as new Czech president?
“I was really pleased to bring a personal message from King Charles III to President Pavel on his inauguration.”
“Yes, we literally welcomed it, in that we said ‘congratulations’ to him.
“I was really pleased to bring a personal message from King Charles III to President Pavel on his inauguration, and to attend the inauguration as well.
“We know him well. We know him from his time chairing the NATO Military Committee and the handover he had with the UK representative, Lord Peach.
“He studied at our Royal College of Defence Studies.
“But I think what’s really resonated for the UK, and for many others as well, is a very clear message from the new president about the democratic institutions, and I think in particular his being clear that he doesn’t see the country as a bridge between East and West – it’s rooted in the institutions of NATO and the EU.
“I think that’s a very clear and useful message, particularly when we see the challenges that we’ve got at the moment.”
Since your arrival you’ve made a big impression on social media, with tweets racking up huge numbers of likes, including for a video that had over 1.5 million views. Is that kind of thing expected of all British ambassadors now?
“It’s been a really positive response since I started, which I appreciate a great deal.
“I think it is part of the job these days. Every British ambassador is expected to be active, on traditional and social media.
“It’s a tool. It’s still no more than 10 percent of my job, but it’s a fun 10 percent, and it’s often the bit that people see most clearly.
“We have a great team in the embassy that gives me advice.
“It’s still no more than 10 percent of my job, but it’s a fun 10 percent, and it’s often the bit that people see most clearly.”
“You know, the advantage of social media is that you can have a conversation, you can interact much more than with traditional media.
“It’s an opportunity to ask questions, solicit inputs, get people’s recommendations, but also get feedback.”
One question you put out was asking for film tips. Are there are any particular Czech movies that you’ve seen since then that have made a big impression on you?
“Again it was a question, and I really didn’t know whether people would respond.
“It was a huge number of recommendations. I think we had over 3,000 responses, and many of those were long lists of films – including actually from some directors of films, incredibly.
“And so I picked some of those to start with, some of the most popular ones.
“I started with Pelíšky [Cosy Dens], and I’m really glad that I did, because I think it’s a way to help someone understand what that period in the ‘60s looked like from different perspectives.
“I watched The Cremator, the first weekend, which I think is one of the strangest and most disturbing films I’ve seen in a long time [laughs].
“What I’m trying to do now is to make sure I’m sampling some of the more contemporary films as well, because there’s a lot being made.”
You’ve also been tweeting photos from your runs in Prague. Have you found a regular route, or are you actually using running to discover the city more?
“Yes, still using it to discover the city, to be honest.
“You’ve got some fantastic spaces here: Stromovka and Letná – it’s great.
“I love going up to Petřín, although it’s hard work to get up the hill. Running alongside the river. It’s a way of kind of exploring a bit.
“I don’t want to give people the impression I’m a super serious runner, because I’m not, but it’s a nice way of staying active and also exploring the city.
“And again, people have been giving me recommendations.
“Some recommendations I won’t take up: marathons, Vltava runs. I think people are a bit too ambitious for me.
“But I really exploring, and that goes for the rest of the city as well.”
Do you also get people recognising you when you’re out and about like that?
“I do sometimes, yes.
“I’ve had a few comments of ‘Jste tu novej’ [‘You’re new here’, a play on a ‘Jsem tu novej’, ‘I’m new here’, a phrase MF has used on social media], or something like that.
“I think I probably don’t blend in that well.
“My Irish heritage is very evident in my red beard, so I don’t think I get mistaken for other people very easily.”