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BURKE'S BLACKPOOL: THE JOHN BURKE INTERVIEW
Interview by Gary Radice
Article: January 2013
Almost anyone who has trawled the Internet looking for information or photos of Blackpool must have come across the name John Burke at some point. For years his 'John Burke's Blackpool' website was a landmark site, pages grouped from topic indexes such as the Pleasure Beach or Golden Mile. Now comes the news that he has written a book on Blackpool. Gary Radice caught up with him to talk about it.
themagiceye: John, before we get onto the book, let's talk about your web sites. When did you first start the Blackpool pages?
Oh, 1994. That seems like ages ago and in terms of web pages I suppose it was! I had a connection via Demon and they decided to give their members 5Mb of online space. I remember all the web magazines at the time were quoting how many books of text that would hold, but photos soon started to make a dent in it.
So how big was the first version of John Burke's Blackpool?
It was quite tiny at first. The 5Mb coped with a number of topics. There were several pages on Blackpool - the Pleasure Beach, Trams, Golden Mile, Attractions, Piers etc. Then there were pages on pinball machines and jukeboxes, stone circles and iron age hillforts, and other pages based on fads or collections I've had.
You collect pinball machines?
Not any more. We bought six from a firm in Preston and managed to get them going and it sort of grew until I had 11 of the things. They take up a huge amount of space and are really fiddly to keep working and they have all gone now apart from one that lives in a garage and hasn't worked in years. But I still have a jukebox in the front room that we play records on.
So what happened to the website? It disappeared a few years ago didn't it?
Yes, not much more than a year ago I think, but I'd been unable to update it for quite a while. I'd moved ISP to Freeserve, who were taken over by first one firm and then another, ending up with Orange. I moved the Blackpool site onto more Orange space my parents had, but then I moved away from Orange and that was the end of my access to update the site. By then web logs - blogs had come along and I was starting to see how they might be used instead of static web pages.
John Burke's a-Musings?
Yes, I've never been the shy sort... Most of the web pages were John Burke's something or other, so when I started the blog early in 2007 I followed suit. I started out with the intention of recreating all the Blackpool web pages as entries on the blog, but it hasn't really worked like that.
What stopped you?
A few things I suppose. The web site was still available at that time and other things were happening that I wanted to talk about. By the end of 2007 there were around 40 articles out of 357 that mentioned or were specifically about Blackpool. So it wasn't that I was ignoring the place, it was just that it was all new content.
Also the photographs on the old web site were sized at a very small 187x140 pixels. To put them on the blog they all needed rescanning. Now, I have a massive collection of photos. Probably in excess of 40,000 images and the majority of those are on a mixture of black and white or colour negative film or colour slides. Scanning them takes time. I've been doing it since 1994 and I haven't finished yet. Every time I get close there's a step change in quality and screen resolution and I start again...
How did the book come about?
Like all good things, it came out of the blue. I got a call from the History Press saying they had seen my work on the blog and Flickr and would I be interested in writing a book? This was in November 2011 and their deadline was May 2012 and the brief would entail taking all brand new photographs. I was like "But the season has ended, Blackpool's shut...!"
But you did it anyway?
Yes, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss really. The brief was to find 45 old photos from the turn of the 20th century and then take a present day view from the same viewpoint. I knew that the majority of the present day photos would have to be taken from Easter 2012 onwards so I just accepted that in April/May I would be seriously challenged if the weather was bad.
And it wasn't brilliant!
It wasn't! And I travel a lot for work, so on many sunny days I was at the other end of the country anyway. By the time the photos needed to be taken I had actually already written most of the book. The first thing I did was to start collecting, buying, borrowing old postcards and working out what was going to go into the book. I settled on a trip up the Promenade from south to north and then on reaching the North Pier I divert to follow the route of the old round-town circular tour trams. Then a look at the town centre and finally continuing north along the seafront up to Bispham.
Any particular challenges?
Yes! A lot of the old Edwardian postcard photos were taken from very low flying biplanes. They don't allow you to do that sort of thing now! I grew adept at putting the camera on delayed shutter and holding it above my head on a fully extended tripod. I got some funny looks but it worked! I also had lots of help and support from hoteliers and pub landlords who let me take photos from their upper storey windows. The book is nicely timed because it coincides with the new Promenade work and Blackpool looks extremely good in the photos.
When does it come out?
It's called Blackpool Then and Now and comes out on 1 January 2013. It's not the first book with this title, but I became aware that the History Press have a huge series of books with the 'Then and Now' strapline. They are trying to cover every town in the country and have already released a large number of books in the series.
And is this the first of many?
I hope so. The publishers seem very pleased with it and have asked me to consider what comes next. A friend unearthed a full set of photos covering the streets and shops that disappeared when the Houndshill area was developed. They were taken around 1968 and a book about the town centre and the sort of shops that existed then is a possibility I think.
John Burke's now defunct website of Blackpool history, launched in 1994 and closed in 2011.