The Complete James Herriot

The Complete James Herriot: All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot (Various Years)*

If you’ll permit me to quote the overbearing mother figure from Miranda, reading through nigh on 5 inches of James Herriot has been “such fun”. The prose, romantic and lyrical, flows freely from page to page, and it is easy to get swept along in its endearing storylines. I’ve been reading the complete words, which is made up of 8 books, and takes us from Herriot getting his first job as a veterinary surgeon in the fictional town of Darrowby, through his war years, and take us up into the 1950s as he starts a family. Whilst compiling this review I keep coming up with pernicity little problems, but overall I really enjoyed this series of books. It flows well, and has that certain unputdownable factor that has the ability to burn both ends of the candle

The story (and it is worth making the definition between fact and fiction which can at times be hard to discern in Herriot’s romanticised work) is comprised of a number of  short chapters, each one based on a particular anecdote or tale. Sometimes these are interconnected,  with references to previous clients or animals. However, beyond the basic premise of his family and his work colleagues, the tales are somewhat disjointed. We are introduced to a series of characters (both human and not) whom we are led to believe have a deep, ongoing connection with Herriot. However, it is rare for these relationships to be explored to their full extent, and you often wonder what happened to a particular animal.

Speaking of animals… It’s a bit… Gory. As a trained veterinary surgeon, Herriot writes confidently about a range of procedures which range from the mildly-wince-inducing (broken claws) to the downright horrific (one particular cat is vividly described after being nearly wrenched in half by a passing car, although it did go on to survive). As a country vet, there is also a fair amount of birthing animals. Now, I’ve never been one to shy away from my prudish nature, but this brutal honesty is sometimes a little disturbing as you imagine the young vet, naked to the waist, covered in blood, bile, and a wide range of other fluids, wrestling with one arm inside a cow, in a filthy cow byre in the middle of a frozen Yorkshire night.  It made me think of the comfortable life which we have come to lead, the luxuries which we take for granted, and of those less fortunate than us who have to push themselves beyond the realms of what we would consider decent to earn a living.

To counter the harsh realities of his daily life, Herriot writes with a sense of positive nostalgia. He writes with fondness about the joy of being a country vet, about the simple happiness that being a respected professional can bring in a small Yorkshire town, and he writes convincingly of his love for his adopted County. Much as Herriot clearly lives for animals, his life is enriched by the beautiful countryside in which he gets to spend his life. I actually think he’s on to a bit of a winner here. Whilst we might live in a more luxurious age, we often disregard some of the purest pleasures in life – stunning vistas, human kindness, and, above all out, the intrinsic value of time spent with loved ones.

Throughout this series of books we learn (albeit sporadically) about Herriot’s love life. From early courting, to marriage, to children, a picture of homeliness is painted which elicits pangs of jealousy. At times I skipped over certain cases to rejoin the developing narrative of his personal life, of children growing up in a loving environment which allows them the confidence to become his aides. And yet… once more, this aspect of the book feels like it is viewed through rose tinted glasses. We never hear of a proper row just like we never hear complaints about the idyllic life he seems to live. This is a little disconcerting – and to me only served to undermine the validity of the factual truths with which I was presented.

Another niggle for me arises from the two volumes of this collection written about his time during WW2. Herriot trained as a pilot, training which took him around the country. The narrative is jarred by injections of animal based tales, often tenuously linked. He’ll comment on seeing a dog walk down the street, and then wax lyrical about a range of dog cases. When commenting on the vista which presented itself to him when he first went aloft in a plane, he segues into memories of his native vistas. As someone with an interest in the War, I was highly excited by being able to follow the story of one individual before, during, and after, to place context to his interpretations of war. As such, these volumes felt somewhat lacking (particularly compared to later accounts of a few international voyages supervising animals in transit to Istanbul and Russia).

And yet… And yet… There is something about Herriot that is just priceless. I mentioned to various people of an older generation that I was reading this series, and all warmly recalled their own memories of this book. Perhaps it was a gluttonous mistake to plow through the entire series in an unbroken chain, as after a few books the regular accounts of animal encounters began to grate, a lack of variety and development tainting my ability to enjoy flowing prose. If this book were a food, it would be a low-fat yogurt. Innocent, frivolous, pain free joy. I’d often go to bed, allow myself 20 pages, and then notice some time later that I’d read 50. Overall, I’m glad to have read this series, I’m glad to be moving on to something else – but I’m also glad to have it on my shelves, and I know one day I will dive once more into its comfortable pages.

*The various titles that make up this shelf-filling collection are:

  1. It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet
  2. If Only They Could Talk
  3. Let Sleeping Vets Lie
  4. Vet in Harness
  5. Vets Might Fly
  6. Vet in a Spin
  7. The Lord God Made Them All
  8. Every Living Thing

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