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James Herriot: “If Only They Could Talk”

James Herriot: “If Only They Could Talk”

"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." —James Herriot

James Herriot was the pen name of James Alfred (“Alf”) Wight, a Scottish vet who practiced in England’s Yorkshire countryside, beginning in the days just before World War II. He wrote with humor and warmth,  and, once he finally started writing, he soon found himself on the bestseller lists for stories about his work with animals and their people, beginning with If Only They Could Talk (known in the U.S. as All Creatures Great and Small). Additional volumes followed, each one filled with wise and wry observations.

His love for animals (and people) shone brightly, and he wrote about a farming community that was undergoing great changes due to mechanization and the world wars. He wrote from the point of view of a veterinary surgeon—a young man, just starting out when jobs were few but exciting discoveries were happening in the field of medicine.

Over the course of his books—which he called “little dog and cat stories”—he falls in love, marries, and starts a family, often while living with the James Herriot and his wife eccentric, mercurial, and brilliant Dr. Siegfried Farnon and his wayward—but equally brilliant—brother Tristan. While the names of people were changed in the books, their characters remained much the same as the originals. Also, the events he tells of may have taken place later than they seem to or have been crafted from true stories. He also reworked aspects of several towns, including Thirsk, into what his readers knew as Darrowby, all in the service of making better stories.

Some of those stories were especially suited to children, and they were made over into individual picture books, as well as a collection, James Herriot’s Treasury for Children, which is available from CRRL both on audio and in print.

Fast Facts on James Herriot (“Alf” Wight)

Born: October 3, 1916, in Sunderland County, Durham, England, as James Alfred Wight

Childhood: Glasgow, Scotland

Education: Glasgow College (1939)

Occupation: Veterinary surgeon

Military Service: Royal Air Force (1942), being discharged as Leading Aircraftman

Family: Parents—James & Hannah Bell Wight; Wife—Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury; Children—James Alexander (“Jim”) & Rosemary (“Rosie”)

Selected Awards: Order of the British Empire (OBE); the Pan Book Award, after his It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet sold its 1,000,000th copy; Honorary Doctorate from Herriot Watt University Edinburgh; Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons; honorary membership of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners. The James Herriot Library at Glasgow Veterinary School opened the day after his death.

Film Productions: All Creatures Great and Small (movie, 1975); It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (movie, 1976); All Creatures Great and Small (TV series, BBC, 1978-1990); Young James Herriot (TV series, BBC, 2011)

Died: February 23, 1995

This writer did not start his book career until he was 50, being too busy beforehand with his veterinary work and his family. He began writing in response to a challenge from his wife, and readers would rejoice at the resulting kind, clever, and funny observations he had on his work in the Yorkshire Dales. His first book, If Only They Could Talk, was followed by a second, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. A half a dozen others followed. His books didn’t become hugely successful until an American publisher decided to put the first two together and republish them as All Creatures Great and Small. His American publisher followed the same pattern of combining his short, differently named books into larger volumes.

Why did he choose a pen name?

Since Alf was still working as a vet, there was a feeling among people in his profession that it wouldn’t be right to even inadvertently advertise his services through his writings.  So, a very famous pen name was created. He named himself for a well-known Scottish goalkeeper in football (soccer in the U.S), as Alf was a big football fan.All Things Wise and Wonderful

Warmly remembered

Aside from his books and the movies and TV series based on them, there are other ways to enjoy a bit of James Herriot’s world. If you find yourself in Yorkshire, you can visit the World of James Herriot Museum, at the same home office where he first lived and practiced, and The Yorkshire Museum of Farming, which has some of his original instruments.  His lasting influence has crossed the Atlantic. Since 1987, the Humane Society of the United States has given the James Herriot Award to “an outstanding agency or individual who, through communication with the public, has helped promote and inspire an appreciation of and concern for animals.” Meanwhile, back in North East England, The James Herriot Foundation Award in Veterinary Nursing is given to a promising student at East Durham College, and there is a Legacy Fund to give “support for young people who wish to become vets or to join other animal care professions.”

Reading More about Alf Wight

There have been three well-known biographies, including Graham Lord’s James Herriot: The Life of a Country Vet and The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father, by Jim Wight.

Click here for all of the materials in our collection that feature the adventures of the beloved country vet. There are also specialty volumes for cat fanciers and dog lovers.

Additional Online Information

New York Times’ Obituary: “James Herriot, 78, Writer, Dies; Animal Stories Charmed People”

Visit Thirsk: James Herriot (a timeline)