Open Eye: Opening Up: Education's in the bag as postman John rises to the Challenge

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The Independent Online
John Burke, 39, is captain of the OU's current University Challenge team which achieved a runaway victory in the first round of the competition with 350 points. A part-time postman, John was invited to join Mensa at the age of six (but never did) and was a semi-finalist on TV's Mastermind six years ago. He' has recently completed a Diploma in European Humanities with the Open University and is now studying for a BA.

What was your family background?

I was born in London. My father worked for my grandfather's construction business, then took over running the St George's Tavern, in Camberwell, So from age 11 to 20 I grew up in a pub. It's a good education in real life - the world comes to you.

What was your earliest ambition?

From the age of seven or eight, I wanted to be an architect. It began with an interest in Egyptology and the pyramids. I've studied architecture as a hobby ever since.

How were your school years?

I went to a Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers. Academically I was fine, but I thought I knew more than anyone else, and didn't need anyone telling me things. I was studying for four A levels but left before taking them. It was to do with what the school said was my taking up an `extreme position' on religion.

What was your first job - and how much did you earn?

I've had so many different jobs. I used to help in the pub, and got lots of summer jobs through my aunt who worked in an employment agency. I've worked for a merchant banker's, as a printer, and I ran a pub for three years, until last September.

What made you start studying with the OU?

I've got quite a lot of specialist knowledge in various fields, and there are quite a lot of jobs I could do, but employers wouldn't look at me because I don't have a degree. Also, I feel I owe it to myself to get the degree I missed out on, basically because of arrogance.

What difference has the OU made?

I study all the time anyway, but doing the OU does broaden your studies. I thought the arts foundation course was absolutely terrific.

I would say to anyone, if you are going to do anything at all, do a foundation course. It can point you in directions you never thought of. And it gives you the basic vocabulary in your field.

What does your current job involve?

I'm a part-time postman. I'm also making architectural models for the local museum and writing a book on the history of churches in the City of London. I have a lot of other interests including taking photos, drawing, doing quizzes, classical music, British cinema...

What do you enjoy most about it?

Being a part time postman means I finish at 10 a.m. and I have all day to do my other stuff. It also fits in with family life. My wife drops our son off at school in the mornings, and I pick him up.

...and least?

I suppose it's a bit of a waste of what I know. I don't seem to be able to manage to turn my knowledge into cash, for some reason. But money isn't my prime motivation.

How did you get onto University Challenge?

I applied and they send you lists of questions. If you do well enough at these you go to a TV studio and answer questions in a team. The 28 best-scoring teams are the ones that actually appear on University Challenge. If you're going to appear on TV answering questions you have to be fairly confident. I don't get nervous. I think older competitors have an advantage over 18 or 19 year olds. They're intelligent, but I have 20 years more knowledge.

Would you do more OU study? If so, what?

I'm looking at doing the MA in Humanities, when I finish my BA.

To what do you attribute your success?

Whatever I've achieved, I owe to my parents. They always encouraged me. At an early age I was taken to museums and art galleries. They got me books, took me on trips abroad, got me a bus pass so I could travel around London looking at things, instead of just hanging around shopping centres like a lot of kids do today.

What are your goals for the future?

I want my book on London churches to be the definitive one. There are a lot of books on the subject and every one would like to be that, but I've spent years researching. Eventually, I'd like to be an architectural historian.

How would you like to be remembered?

It's not something I've thought about... I suppose if people think you're not a bad chap, if you have friends who remember you as being interesting and good fun, then that's OK.