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The History Man – Ken Brooks

Local author Ken Brooks.

Local author Ken Brooks.

2 of 4

Ex-St Paul’s teacher and passionate local historian Ken Brooks is interviewed by John Humphries for ‘Bohemia Village Voice’. Part 2 of Ken’s story: serious childhood illness and bullying at work failed to prevent his eventual acceptance into the world of teaching … and history. 

Last week, we learned of Ken’s passion for local history, and about his Then & Now books, for which he went to endless trouble to get just the right shots. We hear now, how he literally risked his life for one shot … of the America Ground.
  “One of the photos I needed,” explains Ken, “as a Now shot,  was for a sketch of a view looking over the America Ground. I’ve got an old print of it, and there didn’t seem to be any way of taking a photo from the same viewpoint.   The original was probably an artist’s impression, I don’t know how the artist had got this view, whether there was building on which he could have climbed up, I don’t know. But there was a building which stands up behind Courts Furnishers, a very tall building, now flats. I thought if I could get into that building and get up to the top, I’d get the view I wanted.” Ken spotted a chap coming out and  explained what he was trying to do, and the fellow said ‘Oh yes, you can come in’. “The best view meant going through his bedroom, climbing through his bedroom window, onto a narrow ledge, with a drop of about 100ft! I edged my way along this ledge, until I got to the corner of the building, and that was the view, the one I wanted.” When told he was mad, Ken just laughed.
How did Ken’s books come to be published? “The course I taught at Ore Community Centre, Hastings Then and Now has been running since the 1980s and each year I add more material to it. I got to a point about 6 years ago when I’d got so much material that I thought perhaps I ought to produce a book. That was when I started on the book Hastings Then & Now.
  It covered the Old Town, the town centre and the seafront. But it meant doing all the ‘now’ photographs again, to update them. All the ‘Now’ photographs in that first book were taken in about 2000.” The first volume finally came out a couple of years later, in 2002. And the second volume? “I found I still had a lot of photographs left over, covering Silverhill, St Leonards, Ore Village and other places, so I thought ‘Right, we’ll start on another one’, which came to be called Around Hastings, Then & Now, which was published in 2004.” Both books follow the same format: on the left is the ‘then’ picture or print, and on the right, the ‘now’ photograph for comparison.
  Ken explained that the second book took twice as long to prepare as the first. “The ‘then’ photographs in the second book were not of the same high quality as the first book, and needed a lot more re-touching to bring them up to standard.” Ken published both books himself, and that included getting them into bookshops. How did he manage that? “Every bookshop I went to except Smiths, said, ‘Oh yes, we’ll have them’, but Smiths, apparently, have a budget which is very strictly controlled by head office, which means that they can only take a certain number of local books.    But Olio and Sussex Stationers, the Information Centre, Ottakers, the Fishermen’s Museum, the Shipmate Heritage Museum all sell them. They just phone me if they want more copies and I drop them off the same, or next, day.” Why did Ken decide to publish the books himself, rather than use a publisher? “Actually, I did use a local publisher for the first of the Hastings Then & Now books, but I was extremely disappointed by the quality of reproduction of the photographs. I decided to take over the publishing myself so that I could ensure the pictures were printed just the way I wanted. I even went to the printers on the day of printing to check that they were being printed properly.” (To be continued. In part III, read how Ken’s inquisitive schoolchildren aroused his own interest in geology, leading to a book and a course of lectures.

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