My Afternoon with James Herriot
Many of you will remember James Herriot, the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful and other splendid books about his vet practice after World War II in England’s Yorkshire dales. His real name was Alfred Wight – and it hurts me to say “was” because he died six years ago of prostate cancer.
So if he’s dead, you may be wondering, how did I get to spend an afternoon with him? Well, two weeks ago I went to his brick, ivy-covered home and veterinary surgery in the tiny town of Thirsk, just north of York. As soon as I stepped through the door, I felt his presence as surely as if he’d been smiling at me in the entry hall and asking if he could take my coat.
I could feel his spirit in his dining room that also served as the office, where clients sat around his table and waited to see him with their dogs and cats. His presence was in his sitting room with its upright piano and overstuffed 1950’s sofa, where he typed stories in the evenings as he and his wife watched television. Maybe most of all, he seemed to be in his cheerful yellow kitchen, where he often performed surgeries on small animals on the dark oak breakfast table. I admired how Herriot combined work, family, and writing under one roof, and I wondered if that helped make his stories so human and compelling.
From captions by photographs around the house and surgery, I also came to admire his humility. He said that the most horrible sound in the world was the thud of a rejected manuscript as it fell through the mail slot onto his entry’s floor. When Herriot finally got his first book published, he asked his son not to tell anyone because, he said, “It will probably only sell a few copies, and the whole thing will blow over in a month or two and be forgotten.” Though his books sold millions of copies and were translated into 20 languages, he also told his son, “I want to be remembered as a vet, not an author.”
As I roamed around Herriot’s house, I was thinking: Thank goodness he was an author. In every room I could sense the generosity of spirit that shines from his stories, and I felt I got to know him as surely as if we’d sat in front of his coal burning stove and had a cup of tea. I also felt grateful that he shared his life with millions of us — and I got to spend an afternoon with him. If you loved his books as much as I did, you might want to go to Thirsk and visit him, too.