"Cats are connoisseurs of comfort." -- James Herriot
James Herriot is the pen name of James Alfred Wight, OBE, also known as Alf Wight (3 October 1916 – 23 February 1995), an English veterinary surgeon and writer. Wight is best known for his semi-autobiographical stories, often referred to collectively as All Creatures Great and Small, a title used in some editions and in film and television adaptations. In July 2010 it was announced that Koco Drama, a subsidiary of Shed Media would be producing a three part drama called Young James for the BBC inspired by the true story of James Herriot and how he learnt his trade in Scotland. This series will drawing on an amazing archive and exclusive access to the diaries and case notes he kept during his student days in Glasgow, as well as the biography written by his son.
"For years I used to bore my wife over lunch with stories about funny incidents.""I am never at my best in the early morning, especially a cold morning in the Yorkshire spring with a piercing March wind sweeping down from the fells, finding its way inside my clothing, nipping at my nose and ears.""I became a connoisseur of that nasty thud a manuscript makes when it comes through the letter box.""I could do terrible things to people who dump unwanted animals by the roadside.""I have felt cats rubbing their faces against mine and touching my cheek with claws carefully sheathed. These things, to me, are expressions of love.""I hope to make people realize how totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and take care of their needs.""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.""I will write another book if I feel like it.""I wish people would realize that animals are totally dependent on us, helpless, like children, a trust that is put upon us.""If a farmer calls me to a sick animal, he couldn't care less if I were George Bernard Shaw.""If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.""There was no last animal I treated. 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.""They can't find my house now because I keep it very quiet where I live."
James Alfred Wight was born on 3 October 1916, in Sunderland, County Durham, England to James (1890–1960) and Hannah (1890–1980) Wight. Shortly after their wedding, the Wights moved from Brandling Street, Sunderland to Glasgow in Scotland, where James took work as both a ship plater and pianist for a local cinema, while Hannah was a singer as well as a dressmaker. For Alf's birth, his mother returned to Sunderland, bringing him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School.
In 1939, at the age of 23, he qualified as a veterinary surgeon with Glasgow Veterinary College. In January 1940, he took a brief job at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, but moved in July to work in a rural practice based in the town of Thirsk, Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury. The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a physician in general practice.
Wight served in the Royal Air Force in 1942. His wife moved to her parents' house during this time, and upon being discharged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftman, Wight joined her. They lived there until 1946, at which point they moved back to 23 Kirkgate, staying until 1953. Later, he moved with his wife to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now a museum, "The World of James Herriot", while the Topcliffe Road house is in private ownership and not open to the public. He later moved with his family to the village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk, where he lived until his death.
Wight intended for years to write a book, but with most of his time consumed by veterinary practice and family, his writing ambition went nowhere. Challenged by his wife, in 1966 (at the age of 50), he began writing. After several rejected stories on other subjects like football, he turned to what he knew best. In 1969 Wight wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the now-famous series based on his life working as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. Owing in part to professional etiquette which at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals from advertising their services, he took a pen name, choosing "James Herriot" after seeing the Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot play for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United. If Only They Could Talk was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd, but sales were slow until Thomas McCormack, of St. Martin's Press in New York City, received a copy and arranged to have the first two books published as a single volume in the United States. The resulting book, titled All Creatures Great and Small, was an overnight success, spawning numerous sequels, movies, and a successful television adaptation.
Wight was found to have prostate cancer in 1991, and underwent treatment in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died on 23 February 1995, aged 78, at home in Thirlby.
On 29 July 2009, UK-based open access rail operator Grand Central Railway, who operate train services from Wight's birthplace of Sunderland to London King's Cross (calling at Thirsk), named a Class 180 DEMU No. 180112 James Herriot in his honour. The ceremony was carried out jointly by Alf Wight's daughter Rosie, and son, Jim.
In his books, Wight calls the town where he lives and works Darrowby, which he based largely on the towns of Thirsk and Sowerby. He also renamed Donald Sinclair and his brother Brian Sinclair as Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, respectively.
Wight's books are only partially autobiographical. Many of the stories are only loosely based on real events or people, and thus can be considered primarily fiction.
From a historical standpoint, the stories help document a transitional period in the veterinary industry: agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (in Britain, primarily the draught horse) to reliance upon the mechanical tractor, and medical science was just on the cusp of discovering the antibiotics and other drugs that eliminated many of the ancient remedies still in use. These and other sociological factors, like increased affluence, prompted a large-scale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century: at its start, virtually all of a vet's time was spent working with large animals: horses (motive power in both town and country), cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. By the year 2000, the majority of vets practised mostly on dogs, cats, and other companion animals belonging to a population having a larger disposable income, people who could afford, and had the leisure time, to keep animals merely for pleasure. Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of his narrative to comment, with the benefit of hindsight, on the primitive state of veterinary medicine at the time of the story he is telling, for example, describing his first hysterectomy on a cat, and his first (almost disastrous) Caesarean section on a cow.
The Herriot books are often described as "animal stories" (Wight himself was known to refer to them as his "little cat-and-dog stories"), and given that they are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of the stories. Yet animals play a lesser, sometimes even a negligible role in many of Wight's tales: the overall theme of his stories is Yorkshire country life, with its people and their animals primary elements that provide its distinct character. Further, it is Wight's shrewd observations of persons, animals, and their close inter-relationship, which give his writing much of its savour. Wight was just as interested in their owners as he was in his patients, and his writing is, at root, an amiable but keen comment on the human condition. The Yorkshire animals provide the element of pain and drama; the role of their owners is to feel and express joy, sadness, sometimes triumph. The animal characters also prevent Wight's stories from becoming twee or melodramatic - animals, unlike some humans, do not pretend to be ailing, nor have they imaginary complaints and needless fears. Their ill-health is real, not the result of flaws in their character which they avoid mending. In an age of social uncertainties, when there seem to be no remedies for anything, Wight's stories of resolute grappling with mysterious bacterial foes or severe injuries have an almost heroic quality, giving the reader a sense of assurance, even hope. Best of all, James Herriot has an abundant humour about himself and his difficulties. He never feels superior to any living thing, and is ever eager to learn - about animal doctoring, and about his fellow human creature.
The books have been adapted for film and television, including a 1975 film titled All Creatures Great and Small and a long-running BBC television programme of the same title.
At the time of his death, the Reader's Digest Condensed Book volume containing All Creatures Great And Small (Volume 96, 1973 #5) was the most popular book in that series' history. His last book, Every Living Thing, immediately went into the top 10 bestseller list in Britain, and had an 865,000 copy first edition printing in the United States.
Herriot's fame has generated a thriving tourist economy in Thirsk. Local businesses include the "World of James Herriot" museum (located in 23 Kirkgate, the original practice surgery), and a pub called the "Darrowby Inn". Many of the original contents of his surgery can be found at the Yorkshire Museum of Farming in Murton, York. Parts of the BBC TV series set including the living room and the dispensary (see picture, right) are on display at the James Herriot museum in Thirsk, which is also open to the public.
In September 2010, the Gala Theatre in Durham will present the world premiere professional stage adaptation of All Creatures Great & Small on its stage.
It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet (1972) ISBN 0330237829
All Creatures Great and Small (1972)
Let Sleeping Vets Lie (1974) ISBN 0330241567
Vet in Harness (1974) ISBN 0330246631
All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974)
Vets Might Fly (1976) ISBN 0330252216
Vet in a Spin (1977) ISBN 0330255320
All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977)
James Herriot's Yorkshire (1979)
The Lord God Made Them All (1981)
Every Living Thing (1992)
James Herriot's Cat Stories (1994)
James Herriot's Favourite Dog Stories (1995)
Only One Woof 1974,1985 ISBN 0-312-58583-7
In the United States, Herriot's novels were considered too short to publish independently, and so several pairs of novels were collected into omnibus volumes. The title All Creatures Great and Small was taken from the second line of the hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful, and inspired by a punning suggestion from Herriot's daughter, who thought the book should be called Ill Creatures Great and Small.
All Creatures Great and Small (1972) (incorporating If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet)
All Things Bright and Beautiful (1974) (incorporating Let Sleeping Vets Lie and Vet in Harness)
All Things Wise and Wonderful (1977) (incorporating Vets Might Fly and Vet in a Spin)
Dog Stories: fly leaf lists publishing dates of 1970, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1977, 1981 and 1986.
Lord, Graham. James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet (1997)
Wight, Jim. The Real James Herriot: The Authorized Biography (1999)