I have just had an interesting e-mail from my informant Graham Read. In it he gives details of a character fondly remembered by many Durban schoolboys and who has appeared in these pages a couple of times before [in the entry for 27 December 2007 and the second paragraph on this page]. Graham wrote:
There have been a couple of mentions in FAD of Ralph Whittle, who was in his time a “famous” character of the Berea Park whom I met while I lived opposite the park and was one of the park kids around 1950. I very much doubt there was a boy on the Berea in those days who had not met or at least heard of Ralph. In later years I was interested to hear he had become an almost legendary figure.
Readers of FAD may be interested in the following tribute written by Robert Kirby (1936-2007), a Durban born broadcaster, television columnist, playwright, novelist and satirist, who was also a former Berea Park kid.
I understand from a published obituary that apart from Kirby’s literary interests he was a fly-fishing enthusiast who authored an acclaimed history of the sport in the 1980s. He also held a commercial pilot’s licence and wrote specialist essays on aviation, especially analysing major air accidents, and accumulated many hours of voluntary flying for the Red Cross Air Mercy Service. He was twice awarded the English Academy of Southern Africa’s Thomas Pringle Award for journalism, in 1996 and 2002, for his reviews and for an educational article respectively.
The following are excepts from an article by Kirby published in the The Century in Review, Mail and Guardian, 23 December 1999 to 6 January 2000:
My first clear memories of the Durban where I was born and grew up were of the war years, the early Forties. A domestic world of absent fathers and uncles, mothers’ heads bent to static-filled wartime radio broadcasts from the BBC, white bread outlawed, hoarded eggs painted with lacquer to keep them from going bad, strange tin blackout tubes fitted to car headlamps.
We lived opposite Durban’s Berea Park, where Ralph Whittle was king and where many small boys played. A gaunt man in his forties, his brain bashed into simplicity by a car accident when he was a child, Ralph Whittle taught us how to play cricket and touch rugby. He launched our kites, he ran messages for us. On behalf of one or two of the older boys he bought what were then illicit cigarettes. In all these activities he was an infinite enthusiast.
The happiest part of Ralph’s day began at three in the afternoon when after school we all poured into the park. There he waited with bat and tennis ball, wickets planted at a corner of the vast playing field. His outfit never changed: khaki-drill shorts and shirt, long green socks and sandals. His hair shaved to well above his ears, his face deeply tanned. While he waited for us there were frequent inspections of his stainless steel watch.
He bowled with his tennis ball and in his spinning deliveries was the only guile I ever saw in him. We flayed at the ball, rushed our runs and Ralph Whittle stood in the sun and shouted advice. In the blue of his gaze giants of happiness ran.
He was considered by parents to be someone safe for the children. When he wasn’t organising our afternoons, he spent much time attending to his bicycle, an acquisition permitted at this fairly late stage because it was felt he had matured – in the opinion of a sister who cared for him – to a stage where he could be safe with that too. It was an ordinary high-handlebar bicycle, with fat balloon tyres, possibly the best cared-for cycle in the world. It received meticulous greasing and polishing every day. Mounted on it, Ralph Whittle would spend his mornings touring the homes of the boys, calling in for tea and a conversation in which he was always the dominant contributor. Mothers at their irons grew used to having Ralph drop by in the long mornings. Perched on the edge of a chair with his cup of tea, he would hold forth at rattling pace on local sports news. He knew the name of every member of every school rugby and cricket team. He knew the provincial and Springbok sides, and their fortunes, by heart. And on every team and its members he had opinions which were never critical.
The mothers listened. It would go on for 20 minutes or so, like a radio serial. Then, at some hidden command, Ralph would stop his recital, put down the tea-cup and with scarcely a goodbye, pedal off to the next mother.
He was, if not a central influence, a very strong one in the lives of hundreds of Durban boys. Many years later when I was presenting the old English Service early morning radio programme, I heard of Ralph Whittle’s death. In Essenwood Road, alongside his green suzerainty, Berea Park, he was knocked off his shiny bicycle by a car. He must have been in his sixties by then. On a Saturday morning I broadcast a short tribute to him, in which I hoped that he had found a heaven filled with small boys playing cricket with a tennis ball. I received a few dozen letters from his previous charges.