The Best of James Herriot

By Tom Brannon

Having thoroughly enjoyed the PBS Masterpiece series “All Creatures Great and Small,” which just completed on February 20th, I was inspired to read more of author James Alfred Wright’s, (1916-1995) pen name, James Herriot, stories. I searched through our bookshelves for the James Herriot book we received as a gift back in 1983, The Best of James Herriot.  This is a composite of Herriot’s five books: All Creatures Great and Small ©1972, All Things Bright and Beautiful ©1973, All Things Wise and Wonderful ©1977, James Herriot’s Yorkshire ©1979, andThe Lord God Made Them All ©1981. The titles of most of these books come from the lyrics of an old church hymn familiar to many of his readers. Finding the book, I delved into reading more stories from the veterinarian from the Yorkshire Dales – stories that had not been a part of the PBS shows.

This is not the first depiction on screen of Herriot’s fictionalized memoir. A movie (1975) and then a BBC Television series, which ran 90 episodes, were produced 1978-1990. Although this particular anthology is out of print, it can be easily found in used book stores and on the Internet. All of his books are still in print individually.

Herriot organized the book into four parts: Early Days in Darrowby; The Vet Finds a Wife; Memories of a Wartime Vet; and Back to Darrowby. The stories are short, often humorous and wholesome, with a little wit and wisdom thrown in. He doesn’t mind using a little self deprecation and many readers can relate to the “fish out of water” tales he tells. This is great reading for children and could be read to younger ones as well.  Like many fictional works based on true life, Herriot introduces the reader to some “characters” which are not just humans, but also horses, dogs, cats, sheep, cattle, etc. Each is probably a combination of several individuals’ characteristics rolled into one.  

One other bigger-than-life character is Yorkshire itself and the village of Darrowby, which Herriot combined from at least four different villages. Yorkshire is the most northern part of England, just south of the Scottish lowlands and, at the time of Herriot’s stories, was still largely rural, consisting of small farms, leased by the farmer’s family for several generations and farmed with practices used for over 1,000 years. His descriptions of the countryside paint a picture of a beautiful landscape of green hills, stone walls, barns and houses, peopled by robust farm families who live optimistically, just one failed crop away from disaster.

Farming from the 1930s to the 1950s was transitioning from older methods to more modern ones, which included mechanization, i.e., horses to tractors. In the story, “A change of horse power for Cliff,” Herriot begins, “Probably the most dramatic occurrence in the history of veterinary practice was the disappearance of the draught horse.” These horses were fed four times a day and worked in the fields five or six hours of the day.

In the margins of my copy are small drawings with descriptions of various farm and veterinary tools that are very clever, but no longer in common use. This is in order to clarify something described in the accompanying story, although some items, such as a folding hoof pick, I use every day. There are also drawings and descriptions of various dog, horse, and cattle breeds and a little history of each. There are some interesting traditions, such as braiding the manes and tails of draft horses if they were to be driven on a public road or into town.” Each small plait along the mane was tied with a horse hair.”

You may recognize some of the stories in parts one and two that were portrayed in the PBS shows, but the series ends at Christmas, December 1938 soon after the Munich Peace Agreement between Great Britain and Germany, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came home and declared, “Peace in our time.” Unbeknownst then to Herriot and family, World War II would begin the following September 1, 1939.

These stories are obviously written by and for animal lovers. If you are reading this, you know you are one of them.
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