It’s 1982 and I’m at the bus terminus waiting for the bus to go home after school. The bus has not showed up, so I have to wait another hour for the next one. I have nothing to fear though, I have just checked out “If Only They Could Talk” by James Herriot from the library and I happily perch myself on the railing at the bus stop and start reading the book.
It’s 1990, I’m home from engineering school after a grueling set of exams, looking forward to a break and more importantly, my mother’s cooking. I pick up a copy of “All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot and happily immerse myself in the book while delicious aromas waft in from the kitchen.
It’s 2018, I’m on the flight heading home to Bangalore. I can’t sleep and so I pull out my Kindle and navigate to “All Things Bright and Beautiful” by James Herriot and I’m transported to the Dales in Yorkshire.
James Herriot is perhaps the best-known veterinarian in the world. I was introduced to his books by my brother who had brought a copy home from the British Council library and recommended that I read it. Herriot’s books chronicle his days as a veterinary surgeon in the town of Darrowby in the Yorkshire Dales (in Northern England) spanning a career of almost fifty years. The stories center around animals but also farmers and pet owners. Central to his books are his partners in the practice, the brothers – Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, the housekeeper – Mrs Hall and his wife, Helen Alderson. Herriot’s writing is soothing with a gentle sense of humor complemented by a keen sense of observation of human nature.
The animals that show up in his stories include recalcitrant cows, gentle lambs, majestic horses, intelligent pigs, and an assortment of dogs and cats. While many of the farm animals are anonymous, they are still dear to the farmers, especially the ones with small farms. Herriot is a dog lover and in fact, has compiled his stories into a “James Herriot’s Dog Stories” collection. He usually has a couple of his faithful companions, Dan and Hector, riding with him on his visits to the farms. The dogs in his stories range from Jock, the hardy sheepdog to the spoilt Tricki Woo, a Pekingese who lives a life of luxury and is pampered by his rich owner. Herriot imbues his animals with unique personalities and manages to find humor even when he is kicked or bruised while treating them. It is not all fun and games though; there is the heartbreak of informing an impoverished farmer that his cow cannot be saved or breaking the news to an old man that his dog, a faithful companion of many years and now suffering from terminal cancer, has to be put to sleep.
His description of the wild country around Yorkshire is beautiful. He contrasts his upbringing in the bustling city of Glasgow with the open countryside of Yorkshire. His books are liberally sprinkled with descriptions of the fells, moors, and raging rivers, of stonewalls that march up and down the landscape, of country roads and meadows, of curlews wheeling in the sky, blackbirds in gardens and rooks in the elms. Oaks, elms, and sycamores. Marigolds, peonies, and nasturtiums. Winters that coat the warm familiar landscape with a blanket of snow and impart a bleak forbidding harshness. Even as he bustles around the countryside treating difficult cases, he writes about slowing down, stopping his car and lying in the grass and looking up at the sky, and being grateful for living in such a beautiful place. Indeed, there is an underlying sense of gratitude in his books, no matter the difficulty of the situation he finds himself in.
His clients range from the elderly widower Mr Dean with who lives by himself to Jeff Mallock, the knacker man (handler of animal carcasses) whose family includes eight children. From the attractive Miss Grantley who dotes on her goats and shows her appreciation to Herriot by presenting a tin of goat droppings, to the elderly rich Mrs Pumphrey who adores her Pekingese Tricki Woo and sends hampers of caviar and oak-smoked kippers to Herriot’s practice. From the prosperous but parsimonious butcher who can’t bring himself around to gift a couple of links of sausages, to impoverished farmers who always invite him in for a warm meal or send him away with a few eggs or butter. Indeed, to me, the clients are the most interesting characters in his stories.
Skeldale House is where James Herriot lives in his early books and it is also where he runs the practice. Keeping him company is his generous, mercurial, and somewhat absent-minded boss – Siegried Farnon and his brother Tristan who has a boyish charm and a carefree attitude. Mrs Hall keeps the house going, putting up with the idiosyncrasies of the three bachelors. His early books include his wooing of Helen Alderson whom he marries and the later books include his son Jimmy and daughter Rosie. There is old Mr Boardman who tends to the livestock and lives behind the house. The circle then extends to friends such as the vet Granville Bennet and his wife Zoe, and Angus Grier, the cranky vet in the neighboring town for whom Herriot sometimes serves as a locum.
It’s not all about veterinary practice though. His later books include his experiences in the RAF Flying School during WW2 and his subsequent discharge due to a medical condition. Herriot also writes of his voyage to Russia and his experiences there when he accepted the position of a veterinarian on a ship bound to Russia carrying a cargo of pedigree sheep.
When I first read the books, I assumed that the stories and anecdotes were factual. Indeed in the days prior to the internet, access to information was limited to the books and magazines that were available to me. It was much later, that I found out that James Herriot was a pseudonym for Alf Wight. Siegfried was actually Donald Sinclair and Tristan was Brian Sinclair. Darrowby was a composite of multiple towns and Alf Wight lived in Thirsk at 23 Kirkgate which was referred to as Skeldale House in his books. Some of the events in the books that were set in the late 1930s and 1940s actually transpired in the 1950s and 1960s. It is likely that some of these characters and stories were fictional.
When Alf Wight was ready to publish his first book, he could not use his original name as it would be considered to be advertising for his veterinary practice, something that was considered unethical in those days. He went through several names but always found a veterinarian with that name in the registry. An avid football fan, he happened to notice that a goalkeeper called James Herriot was playing well in one of the games that he watched, and on finding that there was no vet with that name, he settled on it. I will continue to refer to Alf Wight as James Herriot in this blog.
Herriot was born in Glasgow and in an interview, mentioned that he was a voracious reader, devouring the classics as a young boy. After some 25 years of practice, he was encouraged by his wife Helen (Joan Danbury in real life) to pen down his experiences in a book. It took him three years and multiple rejections to finally get his first book published. His early drafts were in the form of a fictional novel but he was advised by one of his publishers to make it autobiographical in the mold of Gerald Durrell’s books (another of my favorite authors). That led to his conversational style that has proved to be immensely popular. The initial publication of “If Only They Could Talk” was modestly successful but it was the publication of “All Creatures Great And Small” (a compilation of his first two books) in the US that propelled him to fame. Several books, a television series, and a movie followed, cementing his fame as a celebrated and much-loved author. By his children’s estimate, his books have sold over 100 million copies! In fact, his first six books all sold over a million copies, a feat previously accomplished by Ian Fleming.
Growing up in India, my access to Herriot’s books were fairly limited. I had to rely on borrowing them from my school library or the British Council. Sometime in 1986 or so, my team won a quiz competition and each of us received gift coupons to be redeemed at the Premier Book Shop on Church Street in Bangalore. My brother and I went to Premier on a Saturday evening and after browsing through the books, we settled on the Bantam editions of “All Creatures Great And Small” and “All Things Bright And Beautiful”. We were a few Rupees short and after emptying our pockets, we realized to our dismay that we were short by about Rs 10. Mr Shanbhag, the owner of the store (and a Bangalore institution in his own right), understood our predicament and generously packed the books for us, waiving off the balance. I spent many happy hours reading those books.
James Herriot was immensely popular in the US in the 1970s and 1980s and sold millions of copies. When I lived in South Florida in the mid-1990s, I would frequent a store that sold old books and records. Most of these were the possessions of seniors who had passed away and their children ended up donating them to the store when they settled their estates. It was there that I picked up a few copies of James Herriot for a pittance. I gradually built up my collection by picking other books by him (and on him) online as well as at sales of old books at my local library. They include a couple of richly illustrated children’s editions that I bought for my daughter when she was young and was interested in animals. All these books now occupy a pride of place in my bookshelves. Kindle copies stand me in good stead when I travel.
A few years ago, I read a couple of biographies on James Herriot. It was good to get an insight into his life as well as that of his family and acquaintances. However, I sometimes wonder if it is a good idea to read biographies of some of my favorite authors like James Herriot, Gerald Durrell, and Rudyard Kipling. While I want to know more about them, there are also aspects of their respective lives that do not comport with their books. In Graham Lord’s “James Herriot The Life of a Country Vet”, Herriot comes across as a thorough gentleman but it is sad to note that after the release of the TV series and the movie, the real-life Siegfried, Donald Sinclair was displeased with his portrayal and threatened to sue Alf Wight. There was a monetary settlement and the friendship apparently never fully recovered. It lurks at the back of my mind as I read Herriot’s glowing description of their friendship in his books.
Herriot’s son, Jim Wight, a veterinarian himself who joined Herriot in the practice has written “The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of my Father”. It’s a warm and intimate portrait and provides insight into their family life. He writes of his experiences growing up with his father and also provides background into the characters and locales that feature in Herriot’s stories. He does not shirk from writing about his father’s insecurities and writes that Herriot was clinically depressed in the early sixties after the death of his father. It is a testament to James Herriot’s fortitude that he pulled through to embark on a successful writing career while continuing to practice at the same time.
Speaking of TV series, I have some misgivings about them. PBS (Public Broadcasting Service, a publicly funded television channel in the US) is currently airing episodes of the remade “All Creatures Great and Small”. I’m a purist and it rankles me when the original stories are rearranged or worse altered for dramatic effect or to introduce artificial tension amongst the cast. The scenery is gorgeous though and I’m watching the TV series solely for that.
I’ve wondered what attracted me to the books by James Herriot. A young boy, growing up in a city in India in the 1980s could not be further removed from a veterinarian in rural England in the 1940s. Initially, I was drawn to the stories about the animals. But later, I began to appreciate Herriot’s writing style, self-deprecating with a gentle sense of humor and an easy conversational manner. As I grew older and had a family of my own, I could relate to his insecurities while starting out in his profession, his appreciation of what his wife meant for him, his love for his children, and his dedication to his profession. I admired the way he brought animals to life in his books. I marveled at his description of the scenery. In fact, after moving to New England, I can in some way relate to that. My first view of stonewalls here reminded me of Herriot’s books. I’m reminded of his books as I drive by meadows and farms with horses feeding on grass. Names of houses suffixed with “Grange” that also find mention in his books. But most of all, I think it is the combination of his excellent writing and the nostalgia it evokes in me that still draws me to his books.
Reading Herriot today brings up memories of evening tea at home as my mother made piping hot aloo parathas for me as I read one of his books at the dining table. Of leisurely walks on a Saturday evening in Bangalore with my brother, discussing some of Herriot’s stories. Cloudy cool days in December as I lay curled in bed reading of Herriot delivering a calf on a snowy winter night. The joy of finding a hitherto unread copy at the British Council. It’s been four decades now and I still enjoy reading his books, much like the young boy who could have been upset at having to wait another hour for his bus but instead chose to dive happily into the life of a country vet in a faraway place. They were great company then and they are excellent company now. They’ve still not lost their charm. Like old familiar friends, they’ve aged well and always welcome me when I seek their company.
The featured photograph of James Herriot is from the book “James Herriot The Life of a Country Vet” by Graham Lord