John Wilkins was editor of The Tablet for 21 years until 2003. He had previously been assistant editor of the paper in 1967 but left to join the BBC, rejoining it as editor in 1982. During his time as editor, circulation of The Tablet almost tripled. He was born in 1936, he went to Clare College Cambridge, and did his national service with the Gloucestershire Regiment.
Those are some of the bare facts about John Wilkins. But bare facts cannot do justice to one of the most lovable men I have known. I wrote for a number of years for him as an editor – he was especially hospitable to my pieces about the war in the former Yugoslavia – but he was also a great friend. He was a bachelor – I gathered the woman whom he would have married, died – and much of the time and energy that might have been expended on a family was devoted to the paper he edited and to his friends.
To both he was utterly generous. He took enormous trouble in editing The Tablet, expending huge effort in commissioning and editing, and getting every detail of the tone and balance of the leaders right. He would go to endless trouble to search out the right people to write and to interview; his range of acquaintance was enormous and he was endlessly helpful in sharing his insights and his contacts. On one occasion he made the long and difficult journey to Tubingen University to interview the dissident theologian, Hans Kung (and remarked wonderingly that the great man did not offer him a cup of tea when he got there). He would agonise over every aspect of the paper, and would quite often stretch deadlines right to the brink of edition times, to the exasperation of his colleagues. When he retired, after the Christmas edition in 2003, the valedictory address at his leaving party was made by Shirley Williams, his friend, who paid tribute to the breadth of his sympathies, social and political.
He was an enthusiast for the Second Vatican Council, and was intensely sympathetic to its spirit. He himself was a convert to Catholicism, starting first as a Methodist, like his mother, who was a devoted member of that church, then joining the Church of England. Finally, he became a Catholic, quite simply because he realised that he felt at home in the company of Catholics, and had become a Catholic almost unconsciously. As a convert, he was less troubled by the liturgical changes that followed the Council than many others. He was equally at home with all forms of Catholic worship, traditional and modern; these things, he felt, did not matter very much in the end. The Tablet, under his editorship, and especially with Clifford Longley as leaderwriter, was liberal in its politics, but he never sought to be uncharitable to those of other views; his own language was always temperate and considered. His voice was gentle and mellifluous; he looked and sounded like a benign don.
He was an extraordinarily good listener, simply because he was interested in what absolutely everyone had to say. At any dinner, people would unburden themselves to him because he focused intently on them; it was almost a pastoral gift. And he would engage wholeheartedly in conversation. Once when we had begun a discussion of a subject that interested him at a dinner in my flat, he came to see me the following morning, having walked through the pouring rain, to take up the discussion where we had left it. In retirement he was as sociable as ever. He was often sought for a disinterested take on church affairs by broadcasters and other journalists.
His one passion in life was birdwatching, though he denied he belonged to that specialist breed of obsessives known as Twitchers. The pursuit came about from his extended illness as a boy, when he would watch birds endlessly from his bedroom window. He was extraordinarily knowledgeable, easily able to identify birds by their song as well as appearance and habits.
In a tribute to John Wilkins, his friend Hugo Young quoted his first editorial in the paper, which was republished in a book of essays edited by Austen Ivereigh. It says much about his feeling for the Church:
“Our concern is with the world as much as with the Church: with everything that is human. We shall seek to inform and interpret as well as to comment. We shall seek to entertain. Above all, we shall hope that in the future, as in the past, readers may find in our pages that message without which the world perishes.”
Many readers of The Catholic Herald will have differed with John Wilkins on matters of Church teaching and governance, but with the spirit of that leader, none of us can disagree. He loved the Church and his work was a kind of vocation within it. He was a good man. Requiescat in pace.
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