My late grandfather spent many years as a farmer, the proud manager of a prizewinning herd of cows. Having spent most of his life outdoors, he wasn’t a great one for reading, but he did have one entire series of books: James Herriot’s (aka James Alfred Wight’s) fictionalised memoirs of his work as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales. These were the 1970s paperback editions, with covers by Norman Thelwell (a childhood favourite of mine, thanks to his pony cartoons). I don’t remember whether I read Granddad’s James Herriot books piecemeal during visits, or whether I borrowed them, but I definitely got through several of the series. Twenty years have passed and I didn’t remember the finer details of the stories, only a general sense that Herriot spent most of his time with his arm up the rear end of a cow. Now I’ve come back to these warm, cosy stories in an omnibus edition, reading them alongside the 2020 TV adaptation (which is wonderful). While cows’ rear ends do feature in abundance, All Creatures Great & Small is also full of wonderful characters, from Siegfried Farnon to Tricki Woo; and yet they aren’t its main appeal. That lies in Herriot’s evocation of the Yorkshire landscape, and his loving record of a world that was, even then, beginning to disappear. Magical, comforting fare.
As I said, this particular edition is an omnibus, containing the stories originally published in the first two Herriot books, If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet. We first encounter young James Herriot in 1937, as he arrives in the Yorkshire village of Darrowby for an interview as assistant to the vet Siegfried Farnon. Times are hard and there are few openings for young vets, so Herriot is desperate to impress. Fortunately, Siegfried (whose name derives from his father’s immoderate love of Wagner) is taken with the young Scot, and soon Herriot finds himself installed at Skeldale House, run by the genial housekeeper Mrs Hall. Under Siegfried’s gimlet eye, he begins to find his way around the winding lanes of the Dales, heading out to isolated farmsteads on the windswept fells, and marvelling at the magnificent sweep of the countryside that Fate has placed him in. Even in snowbound winter, at its most inhospitable, it provokes some of Herriot’s most evocative and exquisite writing:
I looked with wonder at the shapes the wind had sculpted in the night; flowing forts of the most perfect smoothness tapering to the finest of points, deep hollows with knife-edge rims, soaring cliffs with overhanging margins almost transparent in their delicacy.
No matter that Herriot often has to tackle the vertiginous roads in a car where one can see the road flashing past between the floorboards, and where the brakes tend to give out at the most inconvenient moments. He’s young and full of passion for his work, and he loves his animals. He writes tenderly and lovingly about all his patients, from the cattle, pigs and sheep of the fell farms, to the small-animal work at the practice with dogs and cats. Whether he’s lying flat on his face on wet barn cobbles on a freezing night, with his hand stuck halfway up a cow’s backside, or sipping sherry in the elegant rooms of a client’s mansion, Herriot always puts the animal first, willingly slogging out at night and in all weathers to try to alleviate pain. On those rare occasions when he can’t help, the animal’s death affects him as deeply as it does its owner, and that compassion makes his books hugely rewarding to read.
Funnily enough, though, the animals aren’t the ones who cause most of the problems. The most colourful characters in Herriot’s stories are the people he has to deal with. Take his colleagues, for a start. On the one hand there’s Siegfried – irascible, unpredictable and, sometimes, startlingly supportive – and the younger Farnon brother Tristan – irrepressible, playful, guaranteed to know the exact way to provoke Siegfried into spitting incoherence in any situation. And there are the clients, the whole glorious gamut of them, from Dick Rudd and his generous wife, who save carefully for years to buy the shorthorn cow Strawberry to improve their herd, to the fabulously wealthy Mrs Pumphrey. She is the obsessive owner of the Pekinese Tricki Woo, to whom Herriot is appointed ‘uncle’ (a role which earns Herriot unending ribbing from Siegfried and Tristan, but which comes with benefits: gifts of kippers, hampers and excellent wine). Herriot appreciates Mrs Pumphrey, of course, but you see that his heart belongs to his farmer clients: the men and women who spend their lives, as their ancestors did before them, scratching a living from the thin hill-soil and never complaining. He speaks lovingly of ‘the best qualities of the Dalesman: the indestructibility, the tough philosophy, the unthinking generosity and hospitality‘: all characteristics that come through in spades here, as Herriot starts to earn the trust of these uncompromising but fiercely loyal people.
As I said earlier, Herriot’s books have a warm nostalgic charm that’s also very poignant, even more so now than when the books were first published. Take, for example, his story about the Bramleys: a group of unmarried siblings who farm and live together in an ancient cycle, in sync with the land and the daylight, in a way that was already archaic. Herriot’s account of their idiosyncratic life comes with a hint of humour, but underlying it is a bittersweet grief for a dying world:
You don’t find people like the Bramleys now; radio, television and the motor car have carried the outside world into the most isolated places so that the simple people you used to meet on the lonely farms are rapidly becoming like people anywhere else.
And it isn’t just the people who were changing. Even in the 1930s, Herriot experiences a world in flux. The surgery at Skeldale House is full of old equipment and tonics that belonged to the previous owner, which are now little more than museum pieces, but which Herriot (and Siegfried) regard with respect: they had virtue in their day and, on rare occasions, still do. The same goes for the complex medicines that Herriot and Tristan find themselves mixing up, which by the time of publication had been superseded by modern antibiotics and more straightforward treatments. Modern life, it’s true, is easier. But Herriot still mourns for the passing of this old world where, if the battle was harder, the reward was sweeter for it, and the character of an entire way of life hangs in the balance.
I can well understand why Herriot’s books spoke to my Granddad in a way that few others did. Herriot shared his love of the countryside and the outdoors, and his deep affection for animals, and I’m sure my Granddad remembered many a time that he had difficult calvings to deal with, or was chased by cows, or almost squashed up against walls. Even for those of us who have no direct experience of animals any bigger than a dog, Herriot evokes the hard grift and satisfaction of this kind of life – all rounded off with a drink at the Drover’s Arms. And, as the sun goes down over Darrowby, there’s still splendour to be found nearby: ‘the vast, swelling glory of the Dales … and of the Dales scent of clover and warm grass, more intoxicating than any wine.‘
Gorgeous, funny, poignant and fascinating: I have the second omnibus, All Things Bright and Beautiful, lined up and ready to go. Recommended for anyone who’s dreaming of getting away, post-Covid, to picturesque villages and sweeping hills.
P.S. And how to categorise a book like this? In the end I’ve listed it as fiction and memoir. I highly recommend reading a bit more about Herriot himself, and about Donald Sinclair, the real Siegfried Farnon. It’s illuminating to see what was true and what was elaborated: it may, for example, come as a shock to find out that, in some ways, Sinclair was even more eccentric than his fictional counterpart.