By Jonathan Margolis, Thirsk
© Time December 14, 1992
With the hushed solemnity of Pilgrims before a holy relic, four American tourists gaze at an unoccupied bar table in an English pub. “Will you just look at that” one exclaims. The two men in the group begin to take photographs, not of their wives with the table, but of the table itself.
For the millions around the world who are devotees of James Herriot, the British veterinarian and author, this incident, recalled by Liz Hopwood, the pub landlady, will make sense. For those who have not been touched by Herriot’s folksy writings about life as a vet in rural northern England, it may take some explanation.
The table, you see, in the saloon of the Kings Arms in the village of Askrigg, North Yorkshire, was once briefly glimpsed in the BBC-TV adaption of Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. James Herriot has never supped a pint of bitter while sitting at it, nor has he ever frequented the Kings Arms. Indeed, strictly speaking, James Herriot does not even exist–it is a pen name for one James Alfred Wight, a real, though now retired, vet who lives and writes outside a town called Thirsk in a quite different part of Yorkshire, about 50km to the east of Askrigg.
Yet such is the adulation for what Wight calls his “little cat-and-dog stories” that even a piece of furniture distantly, and with some effort of imagination, connected with him can elicit acts of homage from admirers. In literary terms, Herriot’s writing may be as homely and bucolic as an English village tea shop, but make no mistake, he is a major author. His latest book, Every Living Thing, which takes the story of Herriot/Wight’s family and practice into the ’50s, came out in Britain in October and went straight into the Top 10 of the British best-seller list. In the U.S. it has been high on the New York Times best-seller list for three months, and the publisher has rushed 865,000 hard-cover volumes into the marketplace with all the anticipatory fervor of a cow in clover.
The figure is more remarkable given that Herriot is 76, has long since retired as a vet and has not published in a decade. But the pent-up demand by readers for an unchallenging, uplifting breath of fresh–if occasionally farmyard-scented–air from Yorkshire seems greater than ever. If all 865,000 copies of the new book are sold in the run-up to Christmas, Herriot will be on the way to dwarfing even his previous massive sales. Twenty years ago, his first U.S. book, All Creatures Great and Small, sold 206,000 in hard-cover and 4.1 million in paperback. Later books all managed around half a million in hard-cover and several million in mass-market editions. All Creatures still holds the record as the most popular Reader’s Digest condensed book in that series’ 42-year history.
If unpretentiousness could be measured like book sales, Alf Wight, possibly the least likely popular idol of the late 20th century, would also break records. Meet him for lunch in his hometown, and you are made to feel you have done him a kindness by traveling to Yorkshire, when it is he who has granted a rare interview. Publicity he can take or leave, and for 10 years has chosen to leave it: “I’m one of those lucky people who don’t need anything,” he says in the soft accent of his native Scotland. Wight, whose mother was a singer and whose father played the piano in a movie theater, came to Yorkshire fresh from Glasgow’s veterinary college in the ’30s in response to a small ad for an assistant vet.
He never left the county–or the country–despite urgings in recent years by tax accountants to depart for an offshore tax haven. Once he and his wife Joan were taken bodily to the island of Jersey by a financial adviser determined to prove his point, but even with marginal income tax rates in mainland Britain at the time running as high as 83%, Wight calculated that he could live comfortably in Yorkshire on the small percentage of his books-boosted earnings the taxman allowed him to keep. He stayed in practice in the North Country, combining a winning barnside manner–only two dog bites in a 50-year career–with writing in front of the television set in the evenings. Wight is a dapper man, courteous, a little frail but by no means in his anecdotage. He has a still unexhausted mental filing system of sentimental animal stories and homespun philosophy.
“There was no last animal I treated,” he says of his retirement. “When young farm lads started to help me over the gate into a field or a pigpen, to make sure the old fellow wouldn’t fall, I started to consider retiring. The great momnet was one day when I was stitching up a cow’s teats–they often get cut, you know–and my glasses were sliding down my nose. Suddenly I thought, Wight, you’re too old for this. But it was a gradual transition. I just did less and less. It must be terrible to have a job you very much love chopped off.”
As he eats in a hotel restaurant just renamed Herriot’s–an honor this local hero modestly fails to notice–he greets a succession of old friends with a smile and a nod. Even the odd sign of commercial exploitation of his name fails to rouse his ire. A cafe called Darrowby Fayre–after the name he gave his town in his books–has opened in Thirsk’s cobbled marketplace. Wight explains that he doesn’t mind, but “the copyright is protected by some very fearsome American film-industry lawyers. They’d better watch out.”
The fact that James Herriot of the imaginary Darrowby is really Alf Wight of Thirsk is no longer a secret. A quaint journalistic convention of not identifying him or his location grew up early in his writing career, when he was still practicing as a vet and would tell reporters who tracked him down, “If a farmer calls me to a sick animal, he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw.” Tourists nevertheless found him, and now routinely visit both his real hometown and the TV setting over in the Yorkshire Dales. In the ’70s, at the height of the first wave of Herriot mania, 40,000 fans, the majority American but some from as far afield as Japan and New Zealand, were reputedly coming to Thirsk each summer, as thrilled at finding the real Herriot as they might be by running into Sherlock Holmes outside 221B Baker Street. With books under their arm for signature, they lined up at Wight’s surgery until, after years of book signing, the vet’s hand became almost unusable because of arthritis. “They can’t find my house now because I keep it very quiet where I live,” he says with relief, having moved to a quiet spot outside Thirsk.
Paradoxically, Herriot made the sumptous Yorkshire countryside better known in New York City and Yokohama than it was in the south of England, where until All Creatures Great and Small was shown on TV, some Londoners were still convinced that Yorkshire was a collage of dark statanic mills and bleak Bronte moorland. “I’ve been a godsend for little farmers, you know, doing bed-and-breakfasts for visitors,” Wight says, understating as ever. Herriot has brought an entire tourist industry to the Pennine uplands and valleys.
“I love writing about my job because I loved it, and it was a particularly interesting one when I was a young man. It was like holidays with pay to me. I think it was the fact that I liked it so much that made the writing just come out of me automatically. I was helped by having a verbatim memory of what happened years ago, even if I can’t remember what happened a couple of days ago. Years ago, farmers were uneducated and eccentric and said funny things, and we ourselves were comparatively uneducated. We had no antibiotics, few drugs. A lot of time was spent pouring things down cows’ throats. The whole thing added up to a lot of laughs. There’s more science now, but not so many laughs.”
Wight in retirement is having the time of his life. He walks his Border Terrier, Bodie; goes out for dinner with friends; spends time with his daughter, a physician, and his son, a vet. He drives around the district in a scarlet Audi sports mode, incongrous perhaps for an elderly retired vet, but Herriot readers will recall that he always enjoyed charging through the dramatic Yorkshire countryside in red-blooded cars. He also still sees one of his old partners, the colorful “Siegfried.”
“He dropped in this morning,” says Wight. “Typical Siegfried, he’s 81 and was carrying a bottle of champagne he wanted me to test. Tristan, sadly, to whom I was very close, died three years ago.” Wight refers to his friends by their fictional names, the result of years of trying to oblige fans caught up in the Darrowby theme-park version of Yorkshire. “There were times,” Wight recalls, “when Siegfried was a bit taken aback by the way he was portrayed. He once said that the first book was a test of our friendship. Tristan, on the other hand, didn’t give a damn.”
The story of Herriot, author (as opposed to the perfectly satisfactory story of Wight, country vet), is a stirring one for anyone in middle age who believes he might write a book one day. “For years I used to bore my wife over lunch with stories about funny incidents. The words ‘My book,’ as in ‘I’ll put that in it one day,’ became a sort of running joke. Eventually she said, ‘Look, I don’t want to offend you, but you’ve been saying that for 25 years. If you were going to write a book, you’d have done it. You’re never going to do it now. Old vets of 50 don’t write books.’ So I purchased a lot of paper right then and started to write.”
Along with the paper, he bought several books of the “Teach Yourself to Write” variety but did not get very far with his early efforts–adventure stories and pieces about soccer, his passion. “I became a connoisseur of that nasty thud a manuscript makes when it comes through the letter box.” Even the first animal book, If Only They Could Talk, which inspired the London publisher Michael Joseph, was limping along in Britain with sales of around 1,500 before a copy made its way to Tom McCormack, then president of St. Martin’s Press in New York City.
“The title was awful for America,” McCormack recalls. He left it on a table, where his wife, then an editor at St. Martin’s, started reading it. But even though ‘she got me by the lapels and said, ‘You have got to read this book,'” McCormack remained unconvinced. “I told Mr. Herriot with a metaphorical cigar in my mouth to give me three chapters in which the hero gets the girl. He did, and they clanged like The Sound of Music. Believe it. Alf is an artist. He is immensely skillful.”
St. Martin’s combined If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet in one volume. Wight’s daughter came up with the witty title Ill Creatures Great and Small, adapted from a line in the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, and McCormack adapted it back again by reverting from Ill to All. Soon McCormack was lunching Wight at the Connaught, one of the most expensive hotels in London. “I was crazed about this thing,” McCormack recalls. “I’ve never known anything as sharply, as unquestionably, as religiously as I knew this book was going to be a champ. Now he’s a global star, and I maintain he’ll be in print a hundred years from now.”
But whether the James Herriot story will ever be taken beyond this latest installment remains entirely within Wight’s gift. “I will write another book if I feel like it,” he says after some thought. One thing he has to think about is waiting–in the nicest possible way–for people to die. Dead people are notoriously less litigious than the living.
There is another proble, however. If the Herriot saga continues to mirror reality, the kindly sage of Darrowby will soon be taking on a literary agent and a phalanx of tough American lawyers, having lunch at the Connaught and tea at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills, California, and having more tourists than sick animals lining up outside his vet’s surgery. Wight knows better than anyone that if the Herriot series becomes a literary matrioshka doll, with a wordly success story and global fame nesting inside a simple tale of country people, it will lose the kernel of its charm.
And anyway, what would he call a new volume? It Shouldn’t Happen to a Multimillionaire?
Welcome to JamesHerriot.org, a wonderful site for fans of James Herriot. Although this site has been around for years, a little more interactive action was needed. So look around, read some stuff and leave a comment!
WRITER WARMLY DETAILED BOND BETWEEN PEOPLE, ANIMALS
By: Mary Ann Grossmann, Knight-Ridder/Tribune
© Chicago Tribune, Wednesday, March 8, 1995
There were extra hugs for the cats in our household last weekend, and the dogs got unusually long sniffing time on our walks. These were the best ways, I thought, to honor the memory of James Herriot.
Our dainty gray cat was lying in my lap like a humming meatloaf when I read of Herriot’s recent death. It was as though a little light went out in my life, and I instinctively stroked Lady Jane’s soft ears while I absorbed the idea that James Alfred Wight (Herriot’s real name) would never write again of his life and work in the Yorkshire dells of northern England.
I knew, of course, that this modest and beloved vet was a successful author whose gentle books sold more than 50 million copies in 20 countries, that he rarely gave interviews, and that he certainly wasn’t going to leave his ivy-covered home in the market town of Thirsk to travel to America. Still, I cherished the illogical hope that by some miracle, we would be in the same room so I could, well-so I could give him a hug.
People often ask me about my favorite author, probably expecting me to wax eloquent about Proust or Shakespeare, so I used to be a little embarrassed to honestly reply, “James Herriot.” But not anymore. After spending a wonderful weekend rereading Herriot’s books, I realized that his writing has everything: finely drawn and colorful characters, empathy for humans and animals, a good story set in a gentler time, humor, respect for uneducated but hard-working people and an appreciation of the land.
But there’s something else in Herriot’s writing that I can’t quite articulate, a glow of decency that makes people want to be better humans. I guess we’d call it spirituality these days, this profound belief of Herriot’s that humans are linked to all animals, whether they be the calves he helped birth or pampered pets like Tricki Woo, Mrs. Pumphrey’s lovable but overfed Pekinese.
The outlines of Herriot’s life were detailed in the news stories about his death: his youth in Scotland, finding a job with Donald Sinclair (Siegfried Farnon in the books), his adventures with the drinking-and-carousing Tristan (Sinclair’s brother, Brian) and Herriot’s love for the moors and valleys of Yorkshire, where he drove for miles in the worst weather to help animals on outlying farms.
In the introduction to “James Herriot’s Dog Stories,” he goes into more detail about how he always loved dogs and supposed that he’d someday have an up-to-date, small-animal practice, even though veterinary medicine was in trouble in the 1930s because draft horses were being phased out and keeping small pets was seen as “slightly cissy” by the hard-working farm folk.
Even as a boy, he was intrigued by dogs: “I could never quite take dogs for granted. Why were they so devoted to the human race? Why should they delight in our company and welcome us home in transports of joy? There were so many different shapes, sizes and colours, yet they all had the same fundamental characteristics. Why, Why?”
Herriot never got his small-animal practice, but he didn’t care. He was content to lave cow’s stomachs, lie on cold stone floors to examine downed horses and muck around in pigpens so he could spend part of each day caring for dogs and cats at Skeldale House.
His helpmate in all his endeavors was his wife, Helen, about whom he wrote so lovingly. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1992, the same year Herriot turned his practice over to his son (although that didn’t stop the invasion of fans who tracked him down at his home).
Because Herriot was a partner in a busy practice, spread over many miles, he didn’t have time to begin writing until he was older than 50. He couldn’t have taken any writing classes, since most of his life is accounted for in his books, and he never mentions formal training. But there was probably nothing for him to learn; he did it instinctively.
His first two books were published in Britain, where he was discovered by Thomas McCormack, chairman of St. Martin’s Press. When St. Martin’s published “All Creatures Great and Small” in 1972, a perceptive reviewer named Alfred C. Ames wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “If there is any justice, this book will become a classic of its kind. With seemingly effortless art, this man tells his stories with perfect timing. Many more famous authors could work for a lifetime and not achieve more flawless literary control.”
Now, death has stilled James Herriot’s lovely voice. But he left us his books, and we can take comfort in the fact that he believed he would be reunited with all the dogs he loved: the beautiful Irish setter with whom he walked the Scottish hills during his boyhood; Hector, the Jack Russell terrier; and Dan, the black Lab who rode with him for many years as he made his calls.
In his story “The Card Over the Bed,” Herriot writes of an old woman whose only fear is that she may never be reunited with her animals after death because some people say animals have no soul. Holding the old woman’s hand, Herriot replies:
“If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You’ve nothing to worry about there.”
On days when I miss the members of our animal family who have died, I comfort myself with a childish vision of a heaven where there are endless fields and woods in which to run, and St. Francis sits beneath a tree surrounded by every animal who ever lived. Who could doubt that James Herriot is sitting with them?