Why this non-lover of animals is a great James Herriot fan

Today’s the birthday of James “Alf” Wight, better known by his pen name, James Herriot, author of the deservedly popular series that begins with All Creatures Great and Small. Last year on this day would have been his one hundredth birthday, and although I’m not especially interested in animals, I’ll never get tired of trying to get people to read his books.

He didn’t start writing until he was fifty years old, after much urging from his wife Joan (“Helen” in his books); and he continued working as a vet long after his books became bestsellers.

Most of his semi-autobiographical books tell stories from his career as a country vet and surgeon in rural England, beginning just before the advent of modern drugs, and continuing past the era of subsistence farms and into the day when he was called upon mainly to work with pets, rather than working animals. His stories betray a great tenderness toward animals, but even more so toward people, even as he delicately exposes their ridiculous and occasionally cruel sides.

I’m fascinated by his ability to write cozy, nostalgic, charming stories that somehow rarely even approach sentimentality. It was more evident in some chapters than in others that he was fictionalizing his experience (a more-fictional one that springs to mind is the chapter where he describes a wealthy man whose indolent wife and daughter despise him, and then contrasts it to a visit to an impoverished farm, where the father works his fingers to the bone and his bonny, smiling daughter cheerfully bikes down the mountain with a few precious coins to buy her beloved Da a bottle of beer); but you will forgive his blurring of fact when as you meet his enormous cast of brilliantly-drawn characters, some startlingly universal, some fascinatingly unique.

Although many of his anecdotes end in self-deprecating lessons learned (“Dinna meddle wi’ thing ye ken nuthin’ aboot!” shouts an angry coalman after he gets his comeuppance after taking liberties with a strange horse), not all of his stories have pat, tidy morals. He describes with real sorrow and helplessness the sensation of leaving a lonely pensioner alone with the body of a beloved dog he was forced to euthanize, and his awe is sincere when he remembers the time he met a farmer who worked so hard, his only luxury in life is waking up in the night and realizing he can go back to sleep.

A good many of his stories are of him trying to impress someone, and being utterly crushed with humiliation — a theme for which, I confess, I have an endless appetite.  I almost swallowed my own tongue laughing over the chapter where he and his boss Siegfried had high hopes of breaking into the upper crust by judging some purebred horses at a fair. They happen to meet an old school friend from years ago, and they happened to head over to the beer tent, and one thing lead to another until his high toned guests are tired of being ignored, and decide to leave. The pickled Siegfried tries to salvage the situation with gallantry, offering:

“The windscreen is very dirty. I’ll give it a rub for you.” The ladies watched him silently as he weaved round to the back of the car and began to rummage in the boot. The love light had died from their eyes. I don’t know why he took the trouble; possibly it was because, through the whisky mists, he felt he must re-establish himself as a competent and helpful member of the party. But the effort fell flat; the effect was entirely spoiled. He was polishing the glass with a dead hen.

Maybe the thing that defines Herriot’s writing and makes his stories so appealing is that, just as in his veterinary practice, he never gets bored. He describes the fascination of watching, perhaps for the hundredth time, a mother cow instinctively licking her newborn calf. He and the hard-bitten farmer stop for a moment, amazed once again at how she knows what to do. There’s a freshness and sincerity there that keep me coming back to these stories over and over.

He’s likewise endlessly fascinated by people, their folly, their resilience, and their unpredictability. Reading Herriot’s books is a restorative exercise. He has a rare gift for describing the world in a way that makes it look familiar, but also better than you remembered.


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11 thoughts on “Why this non-lover of animals is a great James Herriot fan”

  1. As soon as the last one is out of diapers, you will find yourself loving animals more and more! When the last one goes to kindergarten, you will not just love your dog, you will *adore* her. She will follow you everywhere because she worships the ground you walk on (especially if she’s a standard poodle).

  2. Thanks for praising a favorite author of mine! I am also not a huge animal lover, but I love James Herriot’s books for all the reasons you describe. The man is a brilliant storyteller. There are too many good stories and good “bits” to recall, as other people have shown by their comments, but I have to chime in with mine: the story about the old woman whose dog he tried and tried to cure but ultimately could not, and he felt so sad about how he had failed her, only to find upon her death that she considered him one of her three favorite men–right up there with John Wayne. Unforgettable.

  3. How appropriate that you wrote about this on the feast day of my good St. Francis, Simcha!

    I keep wishing PBS would rerun the “All Creatures Great and Small” series from the 70s. From what I could see, it was faithful to the books and superbly cast. I can remember watching it as a teenager with great pleasure. It is one of those excellent television series that everyone in the family can enjoy because it does not talk down to anyone. Just what we need in these dark, difficult days.

    God bless all here!

    1. Hey, Susan! You can find the BBC series on YouTube. I just finished re-watching the first three seasons (I couldn’t take the later episodes with a different Helen). Every time I see the opening credits with James and Siegfried guffawing as they cruise through the Yorkshire Dales, I have to laugh along with them.

  4. I love these books too I started reading them at about 11 or 12 I think I found them at a house we were staying at. The way he sets scenes of the farmers and the animal situation and him doing his vet thing makes me laugh so hard. The bit where he first gets his job with Sigfreid and meets Tristan Or the bit at the dentist during the war. They are just so funny but he is never cruel about the people he writes about. How unimpressed his farmers are with him when he wants it the most. I also love the domestic scenes and how he meets Helen – you get a strong sense of his love for her.

  5. I have read his books over and over- in middle and high school. I need to read again and aloud to my kids!
    I don’t have pets and don’t love animals that much, but I do love his books. And the cows and horses birthing- fascinating!!

  6. When I was in about 6th grade (back in the pre-caller-ID days), a friend and I modeled our prank calls on those of Tristan’s phone-answering oddities.

  7. I saw the tv programmes and never realised the books were so good until I spent a month one summer minding my Uncles cottage in the Irish countryside. There was no company, very little TV and a huge number of full bookcases. One contained all the JH books and I read them all in a fantastic few days, my favourite was the story about taking animals to Eastern Europe and delivering to the communists.
    He also gave me the phrase “big steps and little ones”.

  8. I also appreciate the fact he isn’t afraid to get a little gross. He never gets gory or revels in it, but he isn’t afraid to talk about the fact that being a vet is often very messy work. There’s poop, blood, and pus involved in several of his stories. Makes them more real.

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