My Afternoon with James Herriot

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.

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13 Responses to My Afternoon with James Herriot

  1. Mike Bogart says:

    You’ve added another place to my “bucket list”. Your description of Herriot’s (oops, I mean Alfred Wight’s) home and surgery makes me want to visit Thirsk as soon as we can possibly manage it. I didn’t know that one could tour his home. Hooray! We’ve enjoyed the PBS series based on his books and your post is such a welcome reminder that the author was indeed, a most kind and gentle soul.

  2. Indeed, he was the kindest and gentlest of people, and that’s why I admire him so greatly.

  3. Linda Brandenburg says:

    I love the thoughtful description and the sense expressed that you did indeed have a visit with such a wonderful veteranian. And in his actual home and working environment. I had always envisioned him in a country cottage. The photo shows otherwise correct? I love that he was a great vet but also a wonderful author.

  4. Elsa Watson says:

    How wonderful, Kristin! What a great personal insight you’ve given us. He’s one of my favorite authors of all time, and I still go back and read the Tricki Woo stories when I need a happy pick-me-up. When Kol was digging our well in Guinea-Bissau, I sat at the top and read through all of “All Creature Great and Small” aloud to him. Happy times!

  5. Imagine reading “All Creatures Great and Small” while someone digs a well! Remember Tricki Woo’s flop bot? And Mrs. Pumphrey? It turns out that “flop bot” has become an official veterinarian term. I found it on the web.

  6. Pat McNees says:

    I am delighted to see that you have started a blog. I look forward to more entries like this one, Kristin.

    So did he not live in the country?
    — Pat

  7. Thank you so much, Pat. And James Herriot lived in the little town of Thirsk on the main street. You can see a photo of the front of his house and surgery at the bottom of the blog. I had pictured him in the country, too, but there were the dales all around the town so it was a little island in a rural area. Maybe you should go there!

    I hope all is well.
    Kristin

  8. Anjali says:

    Kristin – this is wonderful, and how great to discover your blog!

  9. Lisa Di Nicola` says:

    I grew up reading James Herriot. He is perhaps the biggest influence on my life in terms of respect and love for “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

    What a loss that he is no longer with us. How lucky are are to have met his spirit.

    Lisa and Addy

    Until there are none, please rescue one.

  10. I, too, am a James Herriot fan. Thanks for this lovely profile.

  11. Thank you for your comment, Michele.

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