A young man has just qualified as a vet and travels down from his home in Glasgow to Yorkshire where he has been offered an interview for a job.
‘There was a lot hanging on this interview; being a newly qualified veterinary surgeon in this year of 1937 was like taking out a ticket for the dole queue.
It hadn’t seemed true when the letter came from Darrowby, a small town in the Yorkshire Dales. Mr Siegfried Farnon MRCVS would like to see me on the Friday afternoon; I was to come to tea and if we were mutually suited, I could stay on as assistant. Friends who had qualified with me were unemployed or working in shops or as labourers in the shipyards that I had given up hope of any other future for myself.’
He arrives at Skeldale House and meets the housekeeper, Mrs Hall, who has not been told he was coming. However, she welcomes him and gives him a cup of tea.
Mr Farnon is not there. Apart from Mrs Hall no one else is at home. James finishes his tea and goes into the garden. Exhausted after his journey, he sits down and leans against the bark of a wisteria and falls asleep. The next thing he knows is someone saying “Hello. Sorry you’ve had to wait. I’m Siegfried Farnon.”
Siegfried shows James round the dispensary which “was an important place in the days before penicillin and sulphonamides. Rows of gleaming Winchester bottles lined the white walls from floor to ceiling,” They visit some farms and under Siegfried’s watchful eye James treats a lame horse, a calf with a cut leg and a cow with a blocked teat. They finish in a pub where Siegfried offers James the job.
This was the start of over 40 years of work together, and there followed seven books about their ups and downs. James stayed all his working life with Siegfried. Before retiring, he started to write his memoirs of life with Siegfried and Siegfried’s brother, Tristan. He tells of all the animals he meets and their owners, a very large cast, ranging from the well-off Mrs Pumphrey and her pride and joy, a spoilt Pekingese called Tricki Woo, to the farmers who could barely scratch a living with a few cows on the bare hills of the fells above Darrowby.
Good novelists create their own world. A painting of ladies in Empire line dresses in a ballroom means Jane Austen. Dickens’ world is the gloomy backstreets of the Borough next to the murky Thames with a creaking inn sign swinging in the wind. In the same way the hilly fields and farms of the Yorkshire Dales are Herriot country. You will come to know it well if you read the various novels that make up the Herriot saga. ‘If Only They Could Talk’ was first published in 1970. My copy is from 1975, and it was already the 13th printing. This and the six following books became best sellers in the UK and the United States.
I sometimes imagine someone picking up the book on the 20th floor of an enormous building, with skyscrapers on every side, in New York, the greatest of all cities, and reading about Herriot helping a cow give birth to her calf in a remote stone barn on the windswept hills of Yorkshire.
Being Tricki Woo’s ‘uncle’, James is invited to one of Mrs Pumphrey’s famous parties. He drives to her enormous house where she welcomes him effusively and leads him to the ballroom.
‘Along one wall was a five-piece orchestra; white-jacketed waiters hurried among the guests with trays of food and drinks. Mrs Pumphrey stopped one of the waiters. ‘Francois, some champagne for this gentleman.’
‘Yes, Madame.’ The waiter proffered his tray.
‘No, no, no, not those. One of the big glasses.’
Francois hurried away and returned with something like a soup plate with a stem. It was brimming with champagne.
‘This is Mr Herriot. I want you to take a good look at him.’
The waiter turned a pair of sad, spaniel eyes on me and drank me in for a few moments.
‘I want you to look after him. See that his glass is full and that he has plenty to eat.’
‘Certainly, Madame.’ He bowed and moved away.
I buried my face in the ice-cold champagne, and when I looked up, there was Francois holding out a tray of smoked salmon sandwiches.
It was like that all evening.’
Herriot finally gets home and to bed. At 2am the phone rings.
‘This is Atkinson of Beck Cottage. I ‘ave a sow ‘ere what can’t get pigged. She’s been on all night. Will you come?’
Herriot drags himself out of bed, dresses and makes his way to Beck Cottage.
‘It lay in a hollow and in winter the place was a sea of mud.’
He goes into an outbuilding.
‘Stumbling over the broken floor, I arrived at the end where I found a pen had been made. I could just make out the form of a pig, pale in the gloom, lying on her side.’
After a lot of hard work with his shirt off he finds the first piglet.
‘I greased my arm and got down again. Just inside the os uteri, almost at arm’s length, I found a piglet.’
It was alive, and eight piglets were born altogether.
‘I felt suddenly chilled; I couldn’t say how long I had been standing there looking at the wonder that never grew stale; the little pigs struggling on to their legs and making their way unguided to the long double row of teats; the mother with her first family easing herself over to expose as much as possible of her udder to the hungry mouths.
I swilled myself down with cold water from the bucket.
Have you a towel there?’ I gasped.
Mr Atkinson wordlessly handed me a sack. Its edges were stiff with old manure. As I took it, the last bubbles of champagne left me, drifted up through the gaps in the tiles and burst sadly in the darkness beyond.’
Here we must mention our previous writer on the shelf, George Bernard Shaw. When Herriot became famous as a novelist, the local farmers remained unimpressed. “If a farmer calls me with a sick animal, he couldn’t care less if I were George Bernard Shaw.” I am sure that James Herriot was prouder of being someone who could treat a sick animal than being a bestselling writer.
But we are lucky that in his busy life in Darrowby, he found time to get it all down on paper.