James Herriot

Fact into fiction: The double image of James Herriot

Mirrors are tricky things.  They can reflect an image truthfully, show a world where we long to be, or in the case of the deranged, warp reality so frightfully that madness becomes reason.  Mirrors, too, have performed a vital function in literature. Where would Lewis Carroll’s Alice have been, after all, if there hadn’t been a delightfully enormous mirror for her to step through? 

It’s the looking-glass world that reveals fiction within fact and its flipside, blurring the lines so seamlessly at times that trickery becomes truth.  For Alf Wight, a veterinary surgeon roughing it up on the moors of Yorkshire, England, the virtual mirror that was his pen and paper created a mythology so strong that he himself became the reflection.  And that was as he preferred it.

Roaming the pastures, the verdant greens and snowy roads around the acreage of his practice, Wight reveled in his own Nirvana. Put the man in front of a mirror, however, and reflected back to the greater world was not Alf Wight, unassuming practitioner of animal husbandry, but rather James Herriot, super-vet.

Herriot’s fictional existence began in England in April, 1970, with the publication of Wight’s If Only They Could Talk, a slim yet charming volume which gave the layman his first glimpse into vetting.

Exit Wight, then, and enter our beloved James Herriot, a character who would become a touchstone for simple living, for discarding hardcore reality and reveling in the often brutal, but so appealing country life that played out across books, then television and finally feature film.  It was Wight’s affability that allowed Herriot to draw his first breath, creating a fiction that became universally accepted as fact.

Herriot, the character, was in many ways the culmination of every life experience Alf Wight ever had.  Born in the working class city of Sunderland in Northeast England in the fall of 1916, before relocating to Glasgow with his parents a mere three weeks later, Wight was a child of the Great War.  From the Zeppelin raids that shattered the town, to the shipbuilding boom which gave work to all men, his youth would be as shaped by that conflict as his early adulthood would be by the Second World War.

His childhood was moulded by poverty which few in the country were able to escape as his parents scrapped through the post war slump that gripped Britain, giving Wight a strong, valued upbringing with an emphasis on education that would find him admitted to Glasgow Veterinary College.

Although Wight would, later in life, keep private the painful parts of his youth, he always waxed poetic about his mother’s sweet voice, his father’s piano playing, and his love of his birthplace’s football team.  So through childhood, adolescence, and the tough years at school, Wight pushed, played and persevered.

In 1940, a certified vet dreaming of a small animal practice, he found himself on Donald Sinclair’s steps in Thirsk, Yorkshire.  And somewhere, deep in shadow, James Herriot straightened his tie as the door swung open.

Hiring on as Sinclair’s assistant, Wight was thrust head and often hands first into the hectic, idiosyncratic and, at that time, extraordinarily primitive life of a rural vet.  Sinclair, himself only seven years out of school, introduced Wight to the horrors and triumphs of the practice, the beauty of the land and the warmth of the village.  Although he would remain an adoptive Scot to the core, Wight knew he had come home.

Days and nights spent in drafty barns with recalcitrant pigs and grumbly farmers gave way to caring for furry patients in the house surgery, assimilating himself into the village and the life of a Yorkshireman and finally on to long romps on the moors with his dog. It wasn’t long before Wight began to build the library of anecdotes that would become Herriot’s pedigree.

But he wasn’t writing, not yet.  Years would pass before that happened as Wight married Joan Danbury and became father to James and Rosemary, and continued to build his practice around the rhythms of family life and military service during the War.

During the mid 1950s Wight became ill. Plagued for months by recurrent fevers and pain he was finally diagnosed with brucellosis, contracted years before.  Illness spawned depression and, as his spirit waned and his fevers raged, his wife was left to keep body and soul together.   Wight had reached bottom, but  that moment would prove to be a crucial turning point in his life when the vet’s colleague and close friend, Eddie Straiton, stepped in to help.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Straiton had been like a brother to Wight since college, and  he now took control, overseeing both the practice and children for a month while the weary couple recuperated in Majorca.

Straiton again pushed his friend closer to recovery as he encouraged the convalescent to write down his take on veterinary life.  Wight always liked a good tale, and contrary to statements he’d make as an older man, he’d been scribbling in journals and writing stories since childhood, and was well aware that somewhere he had a good book in him.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties and everyone grew a little older and a little wiser Wight, having fended off the worst of the brucellosis, learned how to be a writer.  What began as a line here or a story there, all hammered out on a battered typewriter at the end of a long day then stuffed into a drawer, became a workable manuscript.

It took a nearly a decade, but Wight finally placed the book with the small British press Michael Joseph, who saw in his roughly polished text the spark that would garner him worldwide devotion.  Wight’s inherent gentleness and reflective humor were about to change his life irrevocably.

What began with that first book in 1970 continued with his second, It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet, the following year.  Wight published with a speed rarely seen, churning out books one after another despite his early apprehension about writing more than one installment of his Yorkshire life.

His manuscripts needed very little revision.  Wight’s simple style spoke from the heart and,as it turned out, that was just what people wanted to read.  It was only when the American house St. Martin’s decided to combine the first two volumes as one with a new ending, retitling it All Creatures Great And Small, in 1972 that Wight was forced to embark on his most hated task, rewriting.

As books were published under one title and format in Britain, they were often tweaked and renamed for Stateside publication.  But no matter the title, or the length, or the country of issue, all Wight’s books were loved equally and became bestsellers.

And so on both continents, and soon worldwide, Thirsk became Darrowby; Donald Sinclair became Siegfried Farnon; and Joan became Helen.  In creating the fictional veterinarian, Wight also created a mythos that was so realistic that he was even known to his  American publishers and publicists as James Herriot.

Some twenty Herriot books would eventually be published, from the beloved series of four that began with All Creatures Great And Small to the English Vets Might Fly, detailing Wight’s RAF years, and James Herriot’s Yorkshire, where Wight penned text for a lavish photo essay about his beloved home.

By the end of the 1970s James Herriot was a veritable industry.  And with the transference of author from page to screen, it seemed in some circles that this inconspicuous man was bigger than the Beatles, as fans swarmed to northern England in search of their beloved gentleman and the byways he travelled so frequently.

Herriot was first immortalized on screen with the Reader’s Digest sponsored feature films All Creatures Great And Small and It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet in 1974 and 1976 respectively. Far more enduring, though, was the screening of the BBC television series, as actor Christopher Timothy brought a deeply satisfying dimension to a character just barely stepping out of the the mind’s eye.

But real life wasn’t like that, or was it?  What grew up around James Herriot was  a beautiful myth, some truths peppered with much fiction.  Fans either needed or wanted to believe in every word on every page of Herriot’s books.  The idyllic Darrowby so superseded the realities of the living Thirsk that more than one biographer took the All Creatures series at face value, regurgitating fallacies within the texts to the grossest misrepresentation of all, treating Herriot himself as living flesh and blood.

Although inexcusable for scholarly biography, Herriot was flesh and blood for those who dog-eared the books.  In the dead of winter, when it seemed that the tender fields of Spring were forever away, it was far cozier to enjoy Herriot as reality.

There is no need to destroy the looking glass world that Wight so lovingly crafted.  What is reflected back at us through the years is a little slice of heaven, where animals and men live mightily and with humorous mishap, tangled up in the hills and peaks of a wild countryside.  It’s a place where the phone can ring at any time, and there’s always a cup of tea ready at the surgery.  We know these places, these people as surely as we know our own families.

It’s an enduring legacy Wight left, the ability to make us feel that everything has its place and, no matter what happens, we will all come through it in the end.  Not bad for a simple country vet, is it? (AH 1999 Biblio)

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