My meeting with James Herriot – the vet who inspired so many

Posted on October 03, 2016 by John Blackwell

When I was 11 my family moved out of the urban sprawl into a small village on the outskirts of Wrexham. Part-time jobs doing paper rounds and milk deliveries were not easy to come by - even if back in the day you didn’t need to be a minimum age of 14 to work. Instead casual work was obtained on the many small farms, meaning this ‘townie’ soon found himself mucking out pigs and collecting eggs.

However, it was a book released around this time that probably changed my direction in life and many other urban folk of my generation. All creatures great and small told the story of a kindly vet working in the Yorkshire Dales. It took us into the kitchens of gnarled farmers scraping a living with cows tied in the byre, and the parlours of eccentric old ladies, lavishing care on child substitutes. The author was James Herriot, and as I read his books from cover to cover, anticipating the next installment, a seed was being firmly planted.

James, whose actual name was Alf Wight, would have been 100 years old today (3 October). And I’m sure he would have remained astounded at the phenomenon he created in his front room all those years ago, bashing away at the keys of his typewriter and producing his manuscripts.

A few years later, I moved on to sixth form whilst All Creatures Great and Small moved to television. Commissioned by the BBC, the series was shown every Sunday evening for what seemed like a pleasurable eternity. Following the lives of a vet, his often contrary boss, and his boss’ hapless brother, provided entertainment for me and my family whilst almost subliminally reaffirming my ambition to become a vet.

My interview with Alf Wight

A few years later as a fourth year vet student at the University of Liverpool, I was actually given the opportunity to meet the man himself, Alf Wight. Alf had been awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the university and was attending the graduation ceremony. Liverpool students were charged with producing the magazine for the Association of Veterinary Students sports weekend in Dublin with me as a co-editor. So obviously, we seized this opportunity to try and have an audience with ‘James Herriot’.

After some correspondence, myself and a fellow student, Johnny Knowles, settled down on a sofa in the Adelphi Hotel, ordered a pot of tea, set the cassette recorder to record (remember them!) and chatted to Alf for an hour about his life and his writings.

He told us that he had never envisaged the phenomenon and thought his book would be a one-off. But of course, his character was taken into the heart of the American market, ever hungry for the next chapter. I remember asking him how he came about the name ‘James Herriot’, now immortalised by Christopher Timothy in the TV series. He said that during his search for a pseudonym, he cross-checked every name with the RCVS register only to find that name was already in use followed by the letters MRCVS. Then one night whilst writing, he heard James Herriot the goalkeeper being mentioned on Match of the Day. He thought it had a certain style, and more importantly it wasn’t on the register, and so the legend was born!

Veterinary practice has changed, but the values remain

Times of course have changed since those days, and truly mixed practices such as Alf’s are consigned to only the most rural of areas. Veterinary practices now provide a single species dedicated service, and even the ‘mixed’ practices that do exist, such as mine, are departmentalised, with little if any cross over.

However, many of the values that shone through the character of James Herriot still exist amongst vets, such as kindness, compassion, consideration and a genuine will to do what’s best for the animals under our care, and that’s what engenders the trust with which the profession is still held.

So as I conclude, I expect a few people will raise a glass tonight to a man who set out on a journey to share an insight into his life as a Yorkshire Vet, but never thought that he would spark the aspiration of so many.

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John Blackwell

Written by John Blackwell

BVA President from September 2014 to September 2015

John is a farm animal and equine practitioner, and a director at Brownlow Veterinary Centre in Shropshire. Follow John on Twitter