February 20, 2018

James Herriot, "Decent Feller"

On this day in 1995 James Alfred Wight, better-known as veterinarian-novelist James Herriot, died at the age of seventy-eight. Wight went to the Yorkshire Dales in 1940 as a twenty-three-year-old graduate of Glasgow Veterinary College, joining the practice of Donald Sinclair. Thirty years later, Wight would turn Sinclair into Siegfried Farnon, the tweedy, eccentric and ebullient character who would anchor the Herriot books. Wight's job interview with Sinclair found its way into the books, and set the tone: Sinclair forgot the appointment and was not home; Wight fell asleep under a tree while waiting, waking to find Sinclair sizing him up; Sinclair whisked him off for a tour of some local farms -- Wight's car seat on the passenger side moving freely back and forth, six dogs in the back yelping enthusiastically at the breakneck speed and erratic navigation, Sinclair driving with his elbows while he cupped his head in his hands and talked non-stop.

Wight said that his books were 90% fact and 10% fiction. Some of the biographers question the ratio, as well as Wight's claim that he had no ambitions to be a writer and was pushed into print by his wife, but there is no debate over the more important facts: that the books have sold over 60 million copies around the world; that they have brought unprecedented interest and respect to veterinarians and to Yorkshire; that Wight was as sincere, devoted, humble and loved in life as Herriot was in the books. Over 2300 attended Wight's memorial service in York Minster Cathedral to hear the community praise, to laugh at Christopher Timothy's (the television Herriot) read from Vet in Harness, to hear Robert Hardy (the television Siegfried) talk of Herriot's love of P. G. Wodehouse, to sing "All Things Bright and Beautiful." As one obituary put it, the popularity of the Herriot books is based on "finely drawn and colorful characters, empathy for humans and animals, a good story set in a gentler time, respect for uneducated but hard-working people... an appreciation for the land ...a glow of decency that makes people want to be better humans." Or, as one Yorkshire farmer who knew Wight put it: "Aye, he were a right decent feller."

Donald Sinclair took his own life four months after Wight's death; his family said that he could not get over the loss of his greatest friend, and then more recently the loss of his wife. Their veterinary practice in Thirsk, North Yorkshire has since 2000 been a museum. About 100,000 visitors a year come to see a mid-century vet's surgery-home, recreated in the 'have-to-run' spirit of Farnon and Herriot: the surgery as if just left for emergencies great or small -- a dog "womitin' bad" or Tricky Woo -- the dining room table still with half-gulped cups of Helen's tea.

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