Catling was born and schooled in London and was educated there and at Oberlin College in the United States. Catling served in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator and as a journalist at The Baltimore Sun and the Manchester Guardian. He has traveled extensively. His present home is in the Republic of Ireland. He continues writing books, and writes reviews for The Spectator, The Telegraph, and other publications.
His first publication of The Chocolate Touch in 1952 received enthusiastic responses from several reviewers. The New York Herald Tribune remarked, "it has already proved a hilarious success with children," and The Saturday Review said, "it is told with an engaging humor that boys and girls will instantly discover and approve." Catling has since written dozens of books, and has developed the popular The Chocolate Touch character John Midas into the children's book series: John Midas in the Dreamtime (1986), John Midas and the Vampires (1994), John Midas and the Radio Touch (1994), and John Midas and the Rock Star (1995). Of John Midas in the Dreamtime, School Library Journal wrote, "...children who have been dragged around tourist sights will relate to John's boredom".