First American Trade Edition, 2001
does one measure the value of a life? There can be no pass or fail
test, no question that separates the successful from perpetual staffers
in the halls of Unrealized Potential. But one criterion must certainly
be the quantity and quality of an individuals compassion.
And that was a trial James Alfred "Alf" Wight, popularly
known as James Herriot, unquestionably passed.
The task of presenting
the remarkable life to an already positively biased audience fell
to Herriots son, Jim Wight. In the proud tradition of his
father, Mr. Wight offers amicable prose that serves well to illuminate
the most private of men. Unlike many would-be biographers, Mr. Wight
is not an apologist; he offers no faint praise or weak excuses.
The Real James Herriot
bears the unmistakable mark of authenticity.
Wights narrative is at its best when detailing a person he
never knewthe boy whose passion for fun did not fade under
the eye of a stern mother, the enthusiastic if unremarkable student,
the young man who worked as hard at play as at study at Glasgow
Veterinary College, the newly licensed vet relieved to find a job
but unimpressed by his circumstances. Perhaps this is not so much
a credit to Mr. Wights imagination as it is to his fathers
impeccable storytelling skills.
And the cultivation
of those skills is at the heart of this memoir. James Herriot often
professed that he was ninety-nine per cent vet and one per cent
writer, but his side-life was one that he treated with seriousness.
For him, writing was a hobby, much like his (ineffectual) turns
at the violin and his more impressive gardening. Yet, as writing
was an extension of his work as a Yorkshire veterinary, he could
not help but approach the task from a position of the utmost professionalism.
He respected his colleagues and charges and he venerated the Yorkshire
farmer whose fading way of life provided him with both a means of
making a living and the stories through which he demonstrated his
philosophy toward that life. Even when engaged in jest, James Herriots
stories and books are built on a foundation of courtesy and deference.
As Mr. Wight reveals, his fathers deepest fear, and one of
the reasons he wrote under a pseudonym, was that his well-intentioned
"hobby" would injure the feelings or reputation of any
of his acquaintances.
The author makes
clear the fact that his father understood that his seemingly ordinary
life would soon be regarded as anything but. Alfs days as
a large-animal practitioner occurred in a climate that had never
before and would never again be possible. Then, a vet was the man
with the "magic pill". Penicillin and antibiotics had
not yet met with strains of resistant bacterium. The elder Wight
spent his days whirring through the sedate Yorkshire landscape to
yet another prolapsed uterus or breeched calf. Certainly, animals
were commodities, but they were not numbers entered into a computer
database. And, as Mr. Wight iterates, the threat of litigation did
not hang over the head of the already nervous doctor. Then, there
was something genuine about the life, the people, and the feeling
of accomplishment. Life was simpler.
But it was not
easier. In 1966, after 25 years of marriage and working life, Alf
Wight had £20 to his name. All in all, the 1960s yielded some
of the darkest days of his life. The death of his father sent Alf
into a depression and a nervous collapse that turned his normally
quiet and accepting personality inside out. Though it was a confusing
time, Mr. Wight reveals that his fathers illness drew their
family and close circle of friends together for the purpose of accentuating
Alfs strengths. Within two years he was once more carrying
a full workloadand he would never again let his hidden emotions
take control of his life.
The story of James
Herriots commercial success is well known. His memoirs, beginning
(for the US market) with All Creatures Great and Small
combination of the UKs If Only They Could Talk
It Shouldnt Happen to a Vet,
sent the somewhat bewildered
Englishman to the heights of fame. The books spawned a series of
movies and television series and ensured that the surgery at 23
Kirkgate, Thirsk, which had been immortalized as the town of Darrowby,
would never again be without autograph seekers. Alf handled the
intrusionsas he handled most of his lifewith a remarkable
degree of patience. The attentive son who never stopped sending
money home to his parents was, in 1979, granted the ultimate honor:
the Order of the British Empire.
But it is not in
recollections of tragedy and accomplishment that The Real James
is at its most endearing. Rather, insights into the
lives of Wight and his family and companions give the memoir its
special sheen. He was a man who enjoyed a catnap after lunch; a
man whose most sincere pleasure was pleasing others; who liked nothing
better than to escort his dogs on long tramps through the farms
and fields for whose prosperity, first in the form of healthy stock
and later in the form of tourism, he was in no small part responsible.
Alf Wight was, delightfully, quite the person he appeared to be:
cheerful, dedicated, conscientious, and sincere. He was every bit
the man each of us would want for a brother, every bit the man each
of us would want for a friend. And when his son writes that he and
his father never shared an angry word, the reader does not doubt
the truthfulness of that assertion for a second.
The first generation
of veterinarians who grew up reading James Herriots adventures
is now in practice. No doubt, some aspects of their profession have
disappointed them. But they have also been vivified by the renewed
realization that mans affection for animals is born both of
necessity and of something deeper which decrees that unconditional
love from another living creature is among the most heartening events
from which we may benefit. But it is not a phenomenon that we may
harness or own. Animals, as James Alfred Wight knew, are not possessions.
They are companions whose marks upon our lives are left untouched
by the passage of time.
The Real James
is a friendly book punctuated by passages that reaffirm
our trust in the old axiom that a smile warms two hearts. Herriots
world was not dedicated "merely" to animals or to humans,
or to work or to his family, but to lifeall creatures, great
and small. Jim Wights tender memoir is an excellent companion
for the many fans of his fathers stories; it is also a useful
guide for how to live a full and fulfilling life. As the vets at
23 Kirkgate often remarked,
not what you do, its the way that you do it."