Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “James Herriott”

Author Spotlight: James Herriot


Eons ago I became smitten with the James Herriot series All Creatures Great and Small—both the books and BBC show.

The gentle humor, the insights into human nature, the animal stories, the quaint English countryside with all of its unique characters, the appreciation for life even in the hard circumstances of being a country became a tonic for this reader.

james herriot life work

It wasn’t until recently, while researching for a writing project, I came across James Herriot once again. This time I paid more attention to the writer. I came away more impressed than ever, and developed more respect for James Herriot or rather James Alfred Wight, the man behind the stories. Here are some facts I learned while reintroducing myself to his works:

  • He choose to write under the pseudonym of James Herriot due to strict veterinary association ethics of not writing under one’s own name to avoid self-promotion. He took the name from a professional football (soccer) player who played for Wight’s favorite Sunderland team.
  • Born in England, his family moved to Glasgow, Scotland when he was a baby. He spent 23 years in Glasgow and naturally developed an accent causing people to think he was Scottish.
  • He decided to become a vet due to the combination of loving animals, reading an article about choosing a vocation, and listening to a guest lecturer from the Glasgow Veterinary School.
  • Wight was an avid reader, one dedicated to classics and authors such as Sir Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells, H. Rider Haggard, O’Henry, P.G. Wodehouse, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare. These literary influences are evident in Wight’s writing with his ability to inject humor in unexpected moments with irony, imagery, and a turn of a phrase. His ear for natural dialogue added greatly to the rhythm of the story.
  • Being born in 1916 put Wight at a disadvantage since it placed him in the middle of an economic depression by the time he graduated from vet school, making it difficult to find a position.
  • He first worked with a veterinarian in Sunderland (where he was born) but due to the vet’s contract with the dog racing track having ended, Wight had to find another placement. This led him to Yorkshire where he would work with Donald Sinclair (Siegfried rom the books) for nearly fifty years.
  • After being hired by Sinclair, Wight had to run the practice single-handedly because Sinclair had joined the Royal Air Force.
  • Wight had tried publishing other stories before writing his country vet tales, yet only met rejections. He didn’t begin publishing his memoirs, his life as a country vet, until he was 50 years old and continued writing through his early 70s.
  • His initial book, If Only They Could Talk, was serialized in the newspaper, and a favorable literary review launched further reader interest. Soon after, his books sold constantly and his career as a writer began and to this day people are still fans of his writing.
  • Wight claimed 90% of his stories were true, having had the need to change names and situations, yet some dissenters, particularly Graham Lord, a biographer, say it’s closer to 50%, making his memoirs more fiction than fact. However, Wight’s son, Jim, maintains in his biography of his dad that 90% true is accurate [Does it really matter? The stories are marvelous—so what if there are embellishments?]
  • Wight continued his veterinary practice even while becoming a successful author, as he truly enjoyed being a country vet.
  • His books were bestsellers, sometimes remaining on the New York Times list for over six months.
  • To this day Wight’s books have sold over 60 million copies.
  • Thousands of fans, mostly Americans, would trek to Yorkshire to meet Wight and he would personally sign books and meet with people and he took the time to answer the cascade of letters sent to him. Today there is a World of James Herriot museum located at his original practice where devotees can learn more about the author.
  • James Alfred “Alf” Wight was always surprised at his success as a writer; he remained humble and in awe of his publishing achievement throughout his life. Though he became a millionaire author, he nevertheless lived a simple life, enjoying his marriage to Joan “Helen” for over 50 years and had a loving relationship with his two children, Jim and Rosie, who both became doctors (Jim carried on in his father’s practice, and Wight talked his daughter out of becoming a vet due to the strenuous work, so she became a general practitioner).
  • He received the OBE for his contribution to veterinary science, along with many other significant awards.

His original books published in Britain had titles such as It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet, The Flying Vet, and were short volumes, which were combined to create longer volumes and retitled from lines of a famous British hymn: All Creatures Great and Small. Although I have read most, if not all of Herriot’s books, including his biographies, I do have my favorites:

Picture Books

Oscar, Cat-About-Town

Moses, the Kitten

Collections

James Herriot’s Cat Stories

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The Best of James Herriot, Favorite Memories of a Country Vet

Biographies

The Real James Herriot, Memoir of My Father by James Wight

Television and Film

The entire BBC series with Robert Hardy

Image result for all creatures great and small bbc

The first film with Anthony Hopkins

Young James Herriot

Cat in Hats and in Books


I like dogs.  I like cats.  Right now I own a guinea pig.  When it comes to reading about animals, though, I will reach for a book with cat in it far more quickly than a dog.  Like I said, I like dogs; however, in terms of characterization, cats are far more interesting.  Why?  They are so unpredictable and independent that they are a free agent, and that is what makes them  so interesting as book characters.

I didn’t realize how much I preferred cats as my literary animal of choice until I looked over my Good Reads list and read the titles. Definitely cats, especially this last year.  Below are a few of the cat books I’ve encountered, relished, and experienced.

Image Detail I must admit I am not a Cat in the Hat fan.  He made me nervous and tense as a child with his edging towards the naughty side of spicing up a boring day, and as a grownup–he still makes me nervous. Nevertheless, how can I fault a cat that has championed the cause of reading?

Tom Kitten and his companions are adorable in their little suits.  What little girl doesn’t dream of having her kittens all dressed up and talking?

Who can resist kittens?   Image Detail

As I got older I turned to books like The Incredible Journey and It’s Like This, Cat.Image Detail  Both impacted me differently.  I think I cried when I read about the hardships of the animals as their love drove them on to find their owners.  Any book that makes me cry is going to be notable.  Truthfully, I don’t remember anything about Neville’s book except the title.  It seemed odd to me that a teenage guy would turn to a cat for solace.  Actually, that’s not too hard to believe since I dated a guy who owned four cats.  I figured a man who owned four cats possessed understanding and compassion. (“Reader, I married him.”)

Another unforgettable literary cat is the Cheshire found in Alice in Wonderland.

   Image Detail The Cheshire represents to me that cunning, sphinx-like knowing, but not telling aspect of cats.  They blink and stare at you with their little paws tucked under them.  They have secrets they aren’t sharing, that’s for sure.  I imagine if they started talking to us they would be a little bit maddening in their logic, and perhaps a bit condenscending in tone.  Last year I began a short story that’s growing into something larger, which is about a modern girl getting caught up into an Alice type world.  I know, it’s been done.  Remember, I love to write and now that I’m caught up into the story I have to keep going.  I’m at the part where Alyce (yes, different spelling) has caught up with Chessy, a Cockney-speaking cat.  We’ll see what happens.

I can’t leave out James Herriot.  I cried sometimes after reading his stories.  I read the entire series and became a devoted fan of the televsion series.  When the picture books came out spotlighting the various animal stories I read them as well.

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Last year I discovered two cat books that left me with that satisfied afterglow of a really good read.  These cats impacted many lives and though they have departed, their stories live on.  If you haven’t read them I encourage you to do so.  Be ye cat fancier or not–they are reads of longlasting impact.

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I think every public library should have a cat, especially if they could be as personable as Dewey.  Found in the library’s book drop as a nearly frozen lump of golden fur, he was nursed back to health by the staff. Head librarian Vicki Myron became his mother, and she writes lovingly of his impact on the library and on the town.  There is also a series of picture books featuring Dewey.

They say cats can sense sadness and will lend their furry compassion when needed. Oscar, one of the resident cats in a nursing home, had an uncanny sense of which patients were terminal and he would visit them in their last hours, giving comfor to both the patient and the family members.  His feline ESP caught the attention of staff doctor, Dr. David Dosa, and he learned how to add that Oscar touch to his rounds with his patients.

And then there is Homer.  Born blind, he learned to not only cope with life but through the devotion of his owner, Gwen Cooper, he embraced life, and became an inspiration to all who came in contact with him.  One aspect of the story is Gwen’s and Homer’s experience with being separated in 9/11.  A touching tribute to the bond between pet and owner.

I thought if I were going to read about cats I should delve into the famous The Cat Who… series.  I read the first one the other night: The Cat Who Read Backwards, which came out in 1966.

  There are thirty books in the series (actually the publisher cancelled the last one upon Braun’s death in 2011).  I have my work cut out for me if I intend to get caught up.  The last came out in 2007.  Koko, the star of the series, must have been well taken care of to make a sojourn of that length.

From cats in hats to cats who solve murders, there is something for everyone’s interest.

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