On a hot summer morning not long before World War II broke out, a 23-year-old man, freshly graduated from veterinary school, boarded a bus in northeastern England and traveled to a small town on the edge of the North York moors—the wild, rugged, daunting country that had inspired Coleridge, Shelley, and Wordsworth. He wore a heavy wool suit that caused him much suffering: “It was a foolish outfit for this weather,” he wrote, “but a few miles ahead, my prospective employer was waiting for me and I had to make a good impression.” He did, despite a couple of stumbles, and James Alfred Wight had a job as a vet.
There was not much glamour to the work, he later wrote. An early call to a neighboring farm found him charged with delivering a breeched calf. He recalled, “I could have delivered the calf by embryotomy—by passing a wire over the neck and sawing off the head. So many of these occasions ended with the floor strewn with heads, legs, heaps of intestines. There were thick textbooks devoted to the countless ways you could cut up a calf.” Icky stuff, that, but not really suitable for the occasion, because, as he noted almost by way of afterthought, “this calf was alive.”
Thankfully, it remained that way, even as Dr. Wight struggled to get the poor thing out of its mother for hours. “By gaw, it’s alive,” said the farmer, unimpressed by the proceedings. “I’d have thowt it’d sure to be dead after you’d messed about all that time.”
Dr. Wight practiced in the farm country around Thirsk for years. On his 50th birthday, Oct. 3, 1966, he took up writing, challenged to do so by his wife. At first, he wrote about an obsession, soccer, but in time found that he didn’t have much to say that the sportswriters hadn’t already said. Still, he did get a pen name out of it: he borrowed “Herriot” from a Scottish goalkeeper and under the name James Herriot began to publish sketches of his life as a veterinarian.
Four years later, his first book appeared: If They Could Only Talk. It did not sell well, perhaps because early readers were unused to his forthright and unpretty depictions of the hard lives of animals: “The horse rested happily, his fifteen hundredweight cradled by this thoughtful human. I was wondering how it would look when I finally fell flat on my face when, under the knife blade, I saw a thin spurt of pus followed by a steady trickle.”
An American editor who happened on the book liked it, though, and in 1972 St. Martin’s Press brought out an edition that combined two of Herriot’s memoirs, now called All Creatures Great and Small, a title taken from an Anglican hymn. The book proved an immediate success among American readers, who enjoyed not just Herriot’s depictions of animals, but also his portraits—lightly fictionalized, he later admitted—of the country people of Yorkshire. Reimported to the U.K., the book launched a franchise: other books, a BBC dramatic series, a couple of films, and now a minor tourist industry in Thirsk, the center of what is billed as “The World of James Herriot.”
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.