The Real James Herriot: The Authorised Biography
Jim Wight Michael Joseph, 371pp, £20
International recognition and popularity are elusive qualities for any writer. That the stories of Alf Wight, aka James Herriot, a veterinary surgeon in Yorkshire, should have been so widely translated and read - he once topped the bestseller list in the US for 15 consecutive weeks - must seem extraordinary to anyone unacquainted with them. His readers, however, will testify to their charm, humour, occasional pathos, dynamic characterisation and, above all, the ease and fluency of the storytelling. It was not surprising to find out that Alf Wight was an enthusiast of Dickens and P G Wodehouse. Consider this description, from an early novel, of a professor in pathology at the Glasgow vet school: "Muldoon. The name was like a knell, like the tolling of a great bell in an empty tower." Wodehouse would have enjoyed that.
The stories are clearly autobiographical, recounting events in the day-to-day routine of postwar veterinary practice. The writer's eye for the picaresque is strongly reminiscent of Dickens, seeing the very peculiarity and roguishness of the individuals around him. Delight in the animals is one thing; but where Wight was so striking was in his delight in the Yorkshire community, the bigoted farmer, the self-righteous horse-owner, the obsessive dog lover, the newt fancier. These are wonderful sketches of Yorkshire life.
No other profession presently enjoys such glamour and esteem as veterinary medicine: its profile, first raised by these stories, has never been higher. Media coverage has gone beyond saturation, the charm and delight now replaced by cheap melodrama and sentimentality. A greater sadness, though, is the inevitable passing of the characters and the way of life depicted in the books: the family farms, the smallholdings, even substantial sheep and suckler herd enterprises are going under. And what replaces them? A uniform suburban culture of detachment from the seasonal pattern of degeneration and regeneration; instead of lambing ewes and cows going out to grass, there are golf courses, leisure complexes and theme parks. What sort of preposterous new world is this?
Given the global impact of James Herriot and the autobiographical quality of the stories, it was predictable that there should have been such interest in the author, with throngs of American tourists storming the veterinary practice in Thirsk every morning. This latest biography is authorised and written by his son, Jim Wight, himself a vet in the same practice and described in one story hanging upside down outside a window while his father consulted. There is, however, not a great deal to be learnt: the stories already tell us of Alf Wight's life from Glasgow vet school to practice in Yorkshire, his wife, his children, his brief RAF career in the war (veterinary medicine was a reserved occupation), his colleagues, his clients, many of whom - unsurprisingly - failed to recognise themselves in the stories. That said, Wight seems to have inherited the gift of fluency and readability from his father: he has done the job as well as it could be done.
Some new matters come up: Alf's nom de plume was taken from the Birmingham City goalkeeper; when the money did start to come in, he paid his tax (83 per cent) without a squeak, received a salary of £1,000 for a full year's work in practice in the late 1970s, and gave liberally to local events and charities; in short, he remained completely uncorrupted by his success. The person his son describes is entirely consistent with the voice that speaks to us in the stories, with the modest, quiet and humoured vet who is pitched into the quirks and foibles of rural life in the Yorkshire dales. Yet it took some gift as a writer to transform a daily life of rectal exams, washouts, calvings, dehornings, castrations and purulent skin conditions into a profession that so many children hope to pursue, that so many adults regard with such envy. He often described himself as 99 per cent vet, 1 per cent writer. What a pity then, that many who consider themselves 100 per cent writer cannot write half as well.
Henry Sheen, a practising vet, is a writer and essayist