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Letter from the Editor

August 2003 Issue

SEE: Whitlock Essays

English writer Ralph Whitlock with pet badger.

When I first met Short North Gazette publisher Tom Thomson, I was delighted to discover that he held an active interest in nature and animals. And after checking out his naturalist Web site and receiving a copy of his book, Birding in Ohio, I decided that I had something mutually interesting to share, a treasure-trove of columns written by Ralph Whitlock for the Manchester Guardian Weekly that I had been collecting over the years.

Ralph Whitlock first began contributing his country columns to the Guardian Weekly in 1981 (after an already extensive literary career) and continued until his death in 1995 at the age of 81. He was considered one of the most popular writers the Guardian had ever had.

His examinations of the English rural countryside, nature, and animals never ceased to delight his readers. He was a master storyteller who could draw his audience along like companion friends, engaging them in thoughtful accounts of nature and history with an inviting mixture of authority and childlike wonder.

Ralph published over a hundred books in his lifetime. His knowledge of rural history was authoritative and extensive. He was born in 1914, the youngest of three children growing up on a farm in the village of Pitton, six miles from Salisbury, England. The oral tradition, including his father’s experiences before the Great War which were regularly recounted to Ralph as a child, became the foundation of his writing.

He began his career by contributing to a local village paper around 1930, syndicated his contributions, adding notes on the countryside and natural history in addition to village news, and eventually developed a weekly countryside column for the Western Gazette that was published for more than 50 years.

Ralph also contributed to a series of children’s books, gave broadcast charity concerts in aid of the National Children’s Homes (accompanied by his pet badger or a pair of baby lambs), and for 16 years, starred as Farmer Whitlock in a monthly Children’s Hour radio program he wrote.

A letter published in the Guardian in 1995 after his death attests to how deeply his work in both radio and print touched the lives of those who followed him. Stephanie Wenk of Salem, New York, wrote the following:

“When I opened my Guardian Weekly last Friday and read that Ralph Whitlock had died, I wept. The smiling young man holding the badger was one of the earliest personalities I got to know through radio, or ‘on the wireless,’ as I was growing up. Now I’m nearly 60, and I live far from the English countryside that Ralph Whitlock taught us all so much about. So when I read of his death, it was as though some tie uniting me with my own childhood had been snapped.

How much I looked forward each week to his column, which carried all the flavor of rural England. He taught me not only to value my native countryside, but to interest myself in the details of nature wherever I happen to be, so this morning I went about feeding my sheep, goats and donkeys, and watching the nuthatches and purple finches flutter round the feeder in the cold November wind with a sharper eye and a deeper pleasure because of Ralph.”

What a beautiful statement of love and respect for a man who never failed in his endeavor to enrich the lives of his readers and listeners by sharing simple stories of simple life in a simple wonderful way.

It has been almost six years since I began working for the Gazette, and only now have I gotten around to obtaining permission to print Ralph Whitlock’s endearing columns (see page 6), and I hope to continue to include them in future issues. His articles will be accompanied by the talented drawings of Roger Pearce whose rendering of animals and rustic scenes faithfully accompanied the Guardian columns over the years.

It appears that we are mostly living in a man-made world of our own creation, “far from the English countryside,” but with the help of writers like Ralph Whitlock (and Tom Thomson), we may find ourselves momentarily stepping back to observe and enjoy the larger scheme of things – the splendor of nature, the charm of creatures large and small – all the gifts of beauty and wonder this world has to offer.

– Margaret Read Marten, Editor

SEE: Whitlock Essays

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