Interview | James Thomson

Could you introduce yourself in a few words, for people who don’t know much about you?

I’m from the UK, I grew up mostly near Oxford. I teach at BISLA, but I’m not a full-time teacher. I’ve worked as a journalist, as an editor and as various other things as well over the years. I’ve lived in Slovakia for about 10 years.

When was the first time you visited Slovakia and what brought you here? 

I first came here almost 25 years ago. It was because I had a job here. I was working for the British post office at the time. And there was a job advertised here working for a UN agency, which is connected to the Postal Service. It’s rather complicated, but I won’t go into details. But anyway, they advertised this job and it was based in Bratislava. And I thought, well, that sounds interesting. I’ve never been here before. I applied for it and two weeks later, I was in Bratislava. I mean, I think it was mainly because there weren’t many other applicants perhaps, or not many people even knew where Bratislava was. At the time, there was a lot of confusion about central and Eastern Europe in Britain, because the job was advertised in Britain.

What was different than you expected when you first arrived?

Well, I’m not sure that I had any very clear expectations, but I mean, in Britain, I suppose there’s this image of Eastern Europe. I’m going back to those days, I’m not sure this is the case now, but back in the 80s and 90s it was kind of Eastern Europe and people associated it mentally with Russia or the Soviet Union. I think I’ve written about it once when I wrote an article about Western images of Eastern Europe, like eternally snowbound and everyone living in paneláks. And so when I tell people in Britain, -you know, actually, the weather‘s pretty good here, no one really believes me somehow. But actually, when I first came to Slovakia, it was in January, and it was incredibly cold and huge amounts of snow everywhere. It was a really hard winter. And also back in the 1990s Bratislava was quite a grey place. It changed quite a lot since 89, but Petržalka was mostly grey tower blocks, they weren’t painted or reclad or anything. So in a way, it was kind of like the dreary image of Eastern Europe. But I actually enjoyed it. I thought this is actually kind of interesting, and I met some interesting people. And so it was a lot more different than what I expected.

How long did you work here for the UN agency?

That was just for one year, and I wasn’t in Slovakia for most of that time. Well, I was based here, but I was travelling to a lot of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

So back to your studies. You finished your bachelor’s degree in Modern History at Oxford. Were you always interested in journalism or the media? What was your way into journalism?

Well, I was more interested in, I suppose current affairs, what was going on, I didn’t have some lifelong dream to go to journalism. But a couple of years after I worked in Slovakia, I applied for a job at the BBC. And much to my surprise, I got it. And then from there, I started working in news programs as a producer, and then an editor for BBC World Service radio. So I that’s where I got my kind of journalistic training.

Before working at the BBC, did you have some other journalistic experience?

Not really, no, I didn’t. Actually, I can’t imagine why they hired me, even now, I don’t know why. But the job I was doing wasn’t strictly journalistic, it was a kind of semi-journalistic job. It was editing, sound and writing sort of brief reports and transcripts of things that people had said. I mean, people in the news, like politicians or people involved in newsworthy events. So there was some journalistic kind of processes involved. I was selecting and editing material, but I wasn’t working as a journalist exactly. But it was based on that experience that I had then later ended up working on news programs. I mean, I should say that back then, and to some degree, even now, in Britain, journalism isn’t something that you have to have a degree in journalism to do. You don’t have to study journalism. Places like large newspapers or the BBC or other broadcasters often train their staff in house rather than expect them to have a journalism qualification. They’re more interested in whether you know stuff and whether you can apply knowledge rather than whether you have kind of vocational training.

So you started by that, and then you also got to reporting and working on the radio and things like that?

Yeah, I did some reporting for when I was working at BBC World Service radio. But most of my work there was a sort of producing and editing. So that’s to say, when you work on a news program, there’s a whole process that goes into preparing what is broadcast, and that might be an interview, report or an interview with a correspondent or various other different things that you can play in sound effects, what have you. So the producers are preparing that material. And the editor is basically managing the producers and, and coming up with ideas for how the program is going to look. So that was kind of my job. But occasionally, I would go normally to Europe for the BBC and I would prepare reports, or I would be the producer for a correspondent on a big event. So for instance, I would get to Brussels and I would be producing for an EU summit or if we had an outside broadcast, I would go with the presenter of the program somewhere to prepare interviews and an outside broadcast version of the program.

What other job experiences, you’d say, shaped your life significantly?

The job working here was a great experience. My first time here, that’s to say.

Well, you did end up here.

Yeah, exactly. I came back so it must have been good. Yeah. And I got to meet a lot of interesting people through that and see how international organizations work or don’t work sometimes.

But also, after I left the BBC, I worked in Australia for a year and that was a complete contrast to my previous work. I was mainly working on farms and in restaurants and vineyards and other places, and then travelling around in between. And that was a fascinating experience. Because, when you work in an office mostly, or in a studio, or in a kind of modern environment, you don’t really understand what it means to get up and go and work in a field every day. And it’s hard work, but sometimes it’s surprisingly enjoyable, even for someone like me, who’s pretty lazy.

What led you to go to work on farms in Australia? As you said, it’s something totally different than you did before.

Well, I went probably because I could, I mean, I knew Australia a little bit, I’d been there once or twice. And I was able to get a working holiday visa, which allows you to go to Australia for a year, you don’t need to have a job, you can work wherever you like, but you can only do it until up to a certain age. And I was about to hit this sort of cutoff where I couldn’t do it. So I decided, well, I‘d quite like to do it, I’d like to go and spend a year in Australia. So I got one of these visas and I went there and I didn’t have a job, so it was just a question of finding work wherever I could. And also short term work so I could travel around and see different places. I wasn’t working the whole time, but I was making enough money to pay for my travel basically.

But you were working also for Radio New Zealand, right? 

Yeah. So I actually did it twice. I did it once in Australia. And then I did it in New Zealand. So there was a similar scheme in both countries, I did a year in Australia and then I went to New Zealand. Australia is a big country part of it is kind of semi-tropical, so you can work outdoors the whole year if you keep moving. But New Zealand is more like Europe. So in New Zealand, you actually need to have a regular job and it’s also not big enough, you can’t travel around New Zealand for the whole year, you’ve run out of New Zealand. So I knew a friend from London who worked for the national broadcaster in New Zealand, so I went to see him and he said they sometimes need people to produce their radio program. So I got a job, based in Wellington in New Zealand. And then I spent the summers kind of having a look around New Zealand because I was actually there for three years.

So after working for the BBC, you went to Australia, then to New Zealand. How did Slovakia come into the picture again?

Then I was back in Britain for a short while. And when Slovakia joined the European Union, it was possible to go work in Slovakia in the same way that Slovaks would come work to Britain. And I thought, well, there’s maybe 100,000 Slovak people who have come to Britain to work. So you know, somebody should go the other way.

But Brexit complicated things. Were you thinking about moving back to Britain when it happened?

No, I didn’t. And in fact, for people like me who’s been resident in Slovakia for a few years at least, it hasn’t immediately changed our situation. I have many criticisms of the way that kind of bureaucracy works in Slovakia. But in fact that part of it has actually worked quite well. The Slovak government passed a law that said, if you’re British, you can change your registration, but you’ll have the same conditions as before. And that seems to be the case so far. So it’s actually been quite smooth.

When you came to Slovakia, you started working in Slovak Spectator and you went to write the travel guide Spectacular Slovakia, so you travelled a lot and visited a lot of places. What was the place you liked the most in Slovakia, place that surprised you or left some strong feelings? 

That’s a good question. Because people say, you know, what’s your favourite place? And you can say the High Tatras or something like that. Places that make an impression? Let’s see. I’ve written a whole story about Hnúšťa. That place left an impression. I mean, I wouldn’t advise going there on holiday, but it was an interesting experience. I suppose the reason is that because I kind of enjoy going to small places.

I didn’t go to Hnúšťa deliberately, it’s one of those places that I ended up stopping one afternoon when I was travelling around Slovakia. And I like small towns in Slovakia because they all have their own sort of character. I mean, often a bit strange, but they’re kind of normally nice, there’s normally somewhere to get a cup of coffee or something to eat or there’s a hotel and the kind of places that are just always ignored by travel guides. But that’s maybe because I have a kind of particular affection for Slovakia. I don’t think if the average tourist went there, they’d think “why go there?”. But there are lots of other places like that -Partizánske, Vranov nad Topľou or all those kind of towns, which often have a little bit of history. I mean, as far as I know, Hnúsťa has none at all, but I couldn’t discern anything unique about each other and it’s just like the slow back every town. I suppose what I mean is that I just enjoy being in some of these places that are a bit off the beaten track, but that have their own character. Medzilaborce is kind of an interesting place because it has the Andy Warhol museum and people that speak ruthenian as well so that you’ll see a lot of signs in ruthenian. And it feels different to small towns in western Slovakia, even though they’re also interesting, I like the area around Myjava in western Slovakia as well.

But in terms of more conventional places that I like to visit? I like Eastern Slovakia, the centres of Prešov and Košice, streets in those towns. And Banská Štiavnica. 20 years ago, it was still a beautiful place, but there was very little there to visit and spent time there, other than just the night there, the natural environment, and it’s quite incredible that over the last 10 or 15 years suddenly it has become this popular holiday destination. And you can’t throw a brick in landscape directly without going through the window of a hipster café now. So the character of that place has changed quite a lot. It’s still not crazy, most of the time it’s still pretty quiet, but it’s interesting how in a relatively short period of time, it’s become a kind of tourist destination, especially for Slovaks. And I actually tried to go there in September, and it was basically full, it was not possible to book a room… I mean, that was partly because of the coronavirus, that everyone was taking holidays inside Slovakia. But it was interesting.

What do you miss the most about the world before pandemic? Probably except travelling, because I suppose that would be your answer. 

Yeah, there is that, sort of limited opportunity to travel. But I also quite like the café culture in Slovakia, that there are quite a lot of nice places in Bratislava or most Slovak towns even, even the smaller ones where you can get a decent cup of coffee and sit for a while and read or do whatever you want to do. And obviously, with the restrictions on being able to either sit down inside or even go out, that’s limited. And it also means that and this isn’t true for everybody, I suppose, but there’s less just general social interaction. You don’t have so much sort of physical contact with people, and that can be quite isolating. I mean, I’m not saying that affects me so much, but I can see how it might affect other people. And I’d sort of miss it. I miss being able to go out and just hang out places.

Let me jump back to events of February 2018, the death of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. Were you in Slovakia when it happened and do remember how did you feel about that? 

No, I wasn’t actually, I was working in Vienna for about a year during that time as editor-in-chief for Eurozine. It is a network of European cultural journals, some of which report on current affairs. And yeah, I mean, it affected me kind of deeply as something I was aware of. And, in fact, I either wrote or translated or commissioned a number of articles about this for the website, because the website covered all of Europe. And then I was back Slovakia, obviously, it’s not super fast and I was actually in Bratislava for some of the big demonstrations. In a way, it was kind of fascinating as a journalist to see how Slovaks responded to that. And how in a way encouraging it was, that there was a kind of people who decided collectively, that this was something that was not acceptable. And I don’t mean that murdering people is ever acceptable because obviously, it’s not, but reactions to crime and misbehaviour by the state, which, although the Kuciak murders don’t appear to have been directly involving the state, there were allegations that people’s associated with the government were either complicit or neglected to prevent this from happening. And if you compare what happens in countries like for instance Russia or places further east, when people demonstrate, it often either has no effect, or there’s the oppression. And in Slovakia, the reaction was so overwhelming that as we know, the prime minister was forced to step down. And even when he made allegations about, I don’t know, that somehow Soroš was behind the demonstrations, people mostly just treated that as the ridiculous claim that it was, and sort of laughed at it. And that was encouraging. I mean, I realize there are divisions in Slovak society, and there are lots of people who are kind of prone to believe in conspiracy theories or don’t like European Union or NATO. But there were enough people that said, basically, this is not acceptable, something has to change as a result of this. And it did.

Speaking about journalism, is there someone in this field who greatly inspired you, someone, you looked up to or who influenced your career and life?

Yes, there are certain journalists that I admire. There are people who I grew up watching or reading in the British media, there’s a journalist, who is now sort of semi-retired, but he was a TV news presenter in Britain, called Jeremy Paxman. He had quite an aggressive interviewing style, but he’s a very interesting and fair-minded person. I worked with a number of journalists in the BBC World Service, some of them are still working there or in other news organizations, and I have a lot of admiration for them. I don’t know if the names mean much to you, but for example Lyce Doucet, she’s one of the two corresponds to the BBC and Owen Bennett Jones, who was a presenter on BBC World Service radio, who was also a foreign correspondent.

What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist?

I suppose my advice, not just to journalists, but other people, to professions in general is, if you’re interested in something, then try it and see how good you are at it and whether you enjoy it. And providing you have enough self-awareness, you’ll quickly learn if you’ve got it in you if you enjoy it and then just take the opportunities that come.

My approach is not to have a lifelong objective, although there’s nothing wrong with having that, if you know what you want to do, then pursue that goal, that’s absolutely fine. But if you don’t, try to make the most of the opportunities that come your way, and that just means being open-minded and flexible. And that might mean working in another country or doing something that isn’t necessarily what you planned to do or envisaged doing. I don’t think I would make a very good farmer, but I enjoyed working on farms, simply because you get to see a completely different way of life and the perspectives of people who you might not otherwise come across in your everyday life.

Going back to your travels, what is your favourite country you visited and do you have some fun memory from your travels? 

When I was living was in Kalgoorlie, which is a gold mining town in Western Australia, I was at the backpackers and I was doing the sort of odd jobs around town. And some guys came to the backpacks and said -we need some people to work at a sale we’re holding. So I said, okay, fine, I can do that. And so I ended up selling Persian carpets to gold miners in Western Australia for a couple of days, which was a kind of bizarre experience. I was also hopeless at selling Persian carpets. I’m not sure I even sold a single one. But we were unloading them from trucks and laying them out in the school hall or something. And it was one of those moments where you think-How on earth did I end up doing this? But it was still kind of interesting. In terms of favourite countries, I don’t know whether I have a favourite country exactly. I mean, I like Australia, New Zealand a lot, but I like Slovakia a lot, which is why I’m here.

Where would you go next, when the pandemic ends?

I would probably go back to Britain first, I haven’t seen my family for a while. But after that, I don’t know. Probably somewhere warm.

Do you have some plans for the future, dreams or something that you would like to experience?

No, not especially. Just take things as they come and enjoy it, basically.