PHOTO: James Herriot with his dogs CREDIT: JULIAN CALDER
By: Pete Wedderburn 26 SEPTEMBER 2016 • 11:00AM
It’s rare for one individual to affect an entire generation of a profession, but that’s exactly what Alf Wight managed to do. Despite his significance, Alf’s name never became widely known by the public, and there’s a simple reason for that: he wrote under the pseudynom of “James Herriot”.
James Herriot would have been a hundred years old on 3rd October, so this is a time when many people are remembering him. He qualified as a vet from Glasgow in 1939, and spent his working life in the Yorkshire Dales. It wasn’t until he was 53, in 1969, when recovering from clinical depression, that he began to write books about his life as a veterinary surgeon. Sales were slow at first when these were published in the UK. It wasn’t until 1972, when his American publisher merged the first two books into a single volume titled “All Creatures Great and Small” that his writing began to receive widespread acclaim.
“All Creatures Great and Small” made household names of the actors
To use current parlance, his books went viral, becoming global best sellers. James went on to write eight volumes of semi-fictionalised autobiography about his life as a vet in mixed practice, alongside colleagues Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, and his wife Helen. The BBC television series “All Creatures Great and Small”, based on his books, crowned his success. The ninety episodes , between 1978 and 1990, made household names of Robert Hardy (Siegfried), Peter Davison (Tristan), Christopher Timothy (James), Carol Drinkwater and Lynda Bellingham (who played Helen at different times).
Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy in All Creatures Great and Small CREDIT: MOVIESTORE/REX SHUTTERSTOCK
The books – and television series – had a widespread appeal across all ages, presenting a charming, nostalgic view of life as a vet in mixed practice. He wrote about people, animals, landscapes and science, with adept use of language and self deprecating humour. I was in my early teens when his books were published, and I remember eagerly waiting for each one to reach the shops. I am one of those “born to be a vet” people: I knew that it’s what I wanted to do from the age of five. But James Herriot’s books confirmed my choice: I wanted to live the life that he wrote about.
The “Herriot effect” has changed the profile of the veterinary profession
I wasn’t alone: there’s a phenomenon known as “the Herriot effect” that’s blamed for the huge increase in popularity of the career as a vet which started in the mid-Seventies. Back in the sixties, a typical vet student was son of a vet or a farmer, and there was no need for academic prowess to get a place at vet school. By the time I was a student in the early eighties, most of us had no rural background and straight “A”s were needed in school exams. The gender balance changed too, with females now making up 80 per cent of new veterinary graduates. The glamorisation of the job by Herriot has played a role in these changes. Budding vet students soon learned that it didn’t help their chances of success to mention the books in selection interviews.
Most vets still recognise the many truths in his writing
When I took up my first job as a mixed practice vet, in the Scottish borders, I experienced many parallels with his books: I even gleaned useful practical tips from them (such as pouring sugar onto a cow’s prolapsed uterus to shrink it down before stuffing it back in). I had the same types of experiences with farmers, both good (hearty breakfasts in the farmhouse after a successful calving) and bad (I used Herriot’s trick of reversing the car into the farmyard to allow for a rapid exit in an uncomfortable situation).
Christopher Timothy has narrated an audio version of the Herriot books CREDIT: REX FEATURES
I ended up leaving farm practice, disheartened by the trend away from smallholdings towards large scale production, ending up attending to pets as my full time job. Herriot’s tales ring equally true in this line of veterinary work: every small animal vet has clients reminiscent of “Mrs Pumphrey” and her beloved Pekes, and we’ve all had occasions when we have difficulty understanding what a client is saying because of a local brogue (in Herriot’s case it was a strong Yorkshire dialect, but there are variations on this theme across the world).
A hundred years on, Herriot is still entertaining and informing
Alf Wight didn’t make his hundredth birthday: he died at the age of 78 from prostatic cancer. I’m currently listening to the audio version of his books, narrated by Christopher Timothy. If you are one of the few who aren’t familiar with his work, do have a listen. James Herriot lives on in his books: his writing made such a big impact that he’ll be remembered for many more years.
Source: The James Herriot centenary: a vet who changed his profession