Ballantine Books
First American Trade Edition, 2001
ISBN: 0-345-43490-0
How 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 individual’s 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 Herriot’s 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.
         Surprisingly, Mr. Wight’s narrative is at its best when detailing a person he never knew–the 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. Wight’s imagination as it is to his father’s 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 Herriot’s stories and books are built on a foundation of courtesy and deference. As Mr. Wight reveals, his father’s 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. Alf’s 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 1960’s 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 father’s illness drew their family and close circle of friends together for the purpose of accentuating Alf’s strengths. Within two years he was once more carrying a full workload–and he would never again let his hidden emotions take control of his life.
         The story of James Herriot’s commercial success is well known. His memoirs, beginning (for the US market) with All Creatures Great and Small, a combination of the UK’s If Only They Could Talk and It Shouldn’t 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 intrusions–as he handled most of his life–with 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 Herriot 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 Herriot’s 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 man’s 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 Herriot is a friendly book punctuated by passages that reaffirm our trust in the old axiom that a smile warms two hearts. Herriot’s world was not dedicated "merely" to animals or to humans, or to work or to his family, but to life–all creatures, great and small. Jim Wight’s tender memoir is an excellent companion for the many fans of his father’s stories; it is also a useful guide for how to live a full and fulfilling life. As the vets at 23 Kirkgate often remarked,
         "It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it."