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The real James Herriot

Bio doesn’t improve on Herriot’s books

By Leigh E. Rich

The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father
By Jim Wight
Ballantine Books
February 2000
371 pages

His family and friends called him Alf, though most know him as James Herriot, the affable country veterinarian who wrote memorable books about life in the “field.” But Herriot, the author of novels like All Creatures Great and Small and All Things Bright and Beautiful, was merely a pen name for veterinary surgeon James Alfred Wight.

Known for his abilities as both surgeon and writer, Alf’s following has crossed continents and his life story, written by son Jim Wight, is finally in print. The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father recounts Alf’s life from birth to death.

And herein lies the problem. Jim Wight bites off more than anyone can chew. With good intentions, the younger Wight tells his father’s tale with as much accuracy and fact he could dig up—from diaries, letters, childhood junk still stowed in the attic, and verifiable family stories. He did so because not only is Alf’s popularity sure to encourage other, less exact versions, but also as a tribute to a humble man’s inspirational life for many—a man who requested no special fuss from his family and neighbors. And Jim Wight realized, “How ironic that his own son should be one of them.”

The Real James Herriot focuses on Alf’s entire lifespan, not just his happiest days in the early part of this century as a vet with partner Don Sinclair (known as “Siegfried Farnon” in Wight’s books) in Thirsk, a farming community in North Yorkshire, England. Unfortunately, the only truly interesting parts of this authorized biography are those that young Wight quotes or paraphrases from his father’s undocumented and published stories, most of which take place at the Glasgow Veterinary College or in Sinclair and Wight’s practice.

Once, Alf and a fellow student were called to remove the afterbirth from a rather perturbed cow that had just had a calf. As the veterinary students approached this agitated bovine, tied up in a lean-to shanty and flinging fluids about the room, Alf ran to the cow’s aid, upsetting her even more in the process. “The remainder of the ‘building’ collapsed on top of the men as she catapulted away over a large field, her rate of progress seemingly unhampered by the splintered remnants of the shed still around her neck.”

In an odd sort of way, a picture of the real James Herriot shines through only in the recounted stories about being a vet, whether he was performing a Caesarean section—“delivery through the side door”—or reenacting the time his partner Don drank Universal Cow Medicine (a vile “fix all” fluid made with arsenic and ammonia) to relieve a headache.

But, at times, the remainder of the text reads like minutes of a meeting. In a matter of four pages, Jim Wight machine guns through paragraphs about Alf’s parents, birth, infancy, school days, friends, dating life and hobbies, simply telling us what happened step-by-step, rather than letting the story unfold for itself.

Alf’s six years of veterinary college, for example, were “years that were to provide him with unforgettable memories and life-long friendships.” We are simply told so and do not get a glimpse into this active and moving life. Jim Wight’s emphasis on fact prevents him from describing “college-day” tales told by his father’s friends, regardless of any recall bias they might have after so many years. In the process, young Wight keeps us at a distance by spotlighting facts instead of recapping memories.

The beginning of The Real James Herriot seems to set the stage for a retelling of Wight’s life, but readers readily realize that the action never begins and are left with a sense of emptiness and yearning.

The younger Wight, however, was simply trying to stay true to his father’s wishes. Alf once decreed before his son, “I am not in favour of anyone writing my biography. … Biographies, although I enjoy reading them myself, often do not tell a true story. Facts become distorted, with people close to the family being hurt in the process.”

Having also worked with Alf as a colleague, Jim Wight knew his father would have disdained any hubbub made over his life or death. And, true to Jim’s promise, this book does not.

But Alfred Wight left his own biography—all of the novels he wrote as the vet called Herriot. Even his son admits, “Ninety percent of my father’s stories are, as he always maintained, based on fact.” And though these are exaggerated accounts of Wight’s days as a surgeon, isn’t life, after all, what we make of it? The real James Herriot already gave us his biography—highlighting the parts he wanted remembered. 

Rich, L. E. (2000, April 16). Bio doesn’t improve on Herriot’s books. [Review of the book The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Father by Jim Wight.] Rocky Mountain News.

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