Having been a fan of the James Herriot books since I was a little girl, I recently did myself a huge favor: I ordered the biography of him that his son wrote, “The Real James Herriot,” as well as the photo book with his essays on “James Herriot’s Yorkshire.” (Herriot was the pen name adopted by veterinarian Alf Wight, who died in 1995.)
If you love his funny tales of curing animals in 1930s and ’40s Yorkshire, you will be delighted to know that there are a few more such anecdotes sprinkled in these books. Also, it’s wonderful to hear how much of the books is based in literal truth; I wholeheartedly agree with his son’s sentiment that knowing the stories are real makes them better.
A little digging on the Internet will show you ivy-covered “Skeldale House,” where Wight lived and worked, and give you the true names of his colleagues, the “Farnon” brothers, in real life named Donald and Brian Sinclair. The biography is even more satisfying; Wight’s son, who grew up to join his father’s veterinary practice, knew many of the people alluded to in the books very well, and he describes a number of the incidents that got written up.
Fans of the books will be tickled to learn that though the eccentric and charming “Siegfried” was a little affronted by his portrayal, the real “Tristan” was highly entertained by his fictional counterpart and adopted a habit of going into bookstores and moving the Herriot books into the bestseller racks, to help the enterprise along. “Siegfried” remained a staunch friend, though.
“Granville Bennett,” the skilled small-animal practitioner who entertained so lavishly, is real as well; when Wight’s own pet fell ill, he rushed the little dog around to “Granville’s” surgery just as Herriot did with other pets in the books, and when the second movie was made based on the books, “Granville” was among the friends who came to watch the filming — with the trunk of his MG converted into a well-stocked mini bar.
One of the more unbelievable characters is “Calum Buchanan,” portrayed as not only a veterinary assistant with a strong love for animals but as the keeper of weird pets including a badger he carried slung over his shoulder. This is no less than the stocking-top truth, it seems, and there’s a photo to prove it.
I won’t spoil any more anecdotes; I was so happy to learn there was more to be told that I want other fans to have the same experience. So definitely go buy these two books, if you yearn for more of James Herriot. The books are not all funny-story narrative, far from it, but there are nuggets amid the biography and the photo essay.
As for the original James Herriot books themselves — “All Creatures Great and Small,” “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “All Things Wise and Wonderful,” “The Lord God Made Them All” and “Every Living Thing,” plus smaller story collections — even when they were being written, primarily in the 1970s and ’80s, he was describing a time that had already vanished, and so I think the books are going to be truly timeless. His style is very clear and free of jargon — he uses the correct veterinary and medical terms for everything but explains so plainly that you understand the tricky bits completely from context.
You even get a nice feeling that you are learning a little about veterinary medicine while you’re being entertained, and that’s one of my favorite setups always, to be doing two things at once.
Many aspects of his work have been praised: their warm-heartedness, of course; their humor; their loving descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside; and, as I was glad to read in the biography, their service to the veterinary profession in portraying vets as caring, hardworking, highly competent and very human. I often wish journalism had a similar ambassador. He was honored explicitly for this by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
That last aspect gets close to, but doesn’t quite get at the main thing I personally drew from his works. When I was very young and reading them for the first time, what I absorbed was his incredible empathy, for the animals of course but overwhelmingly for the people. Clients rich and poor, rude and friendly, complaining and stoic, book-smart and street-smart, quiet and chatty. His work took him onto their farms and into their homes, directly affecting their livelihood and also their deepest emotions. Some hurled abuse and resentment, both direct and subtle, at the vet who hauled himself from bed at any hour of the night and patiently treated their animals with loving care. Each of their characters gets loving treatment, as well.
He finds much to admire and dozens of ways to forgive. He shares his fascination with quirks of behavior. Meanwhile, he is unfailingly self-effacing, and you get the sense that this is just the way he deals with the world. It’s a joyful way to go about things.
Also, he gave me the ability to see the human side of the vet or doctor or salesperson or waiter who is helping you — drawing an indelible picture of the difficulties they put up with in working with the public. This affected me immediately as a child. Youth is a self-centered time of life, but “James Herriot” taught me to have a care for the feelings of people who were trying to help me. I’m grateful.
Anyway, if you are looking for something fun to read, and you like animals, and you enjoy well-written books that leave you feeling positive and happy, I strongly suggest you check these books out and see if they suit you. Should it turn out that you do enjoy them, you’ve got several thick books ahead of you to enjoy. And I am envious that they are still in front of you.
(Amazon images used by permission; purchases made by clicking through these links support this blog.)