Year of Important Books: If Only They Could Talk, by James Herriot

 

You may have noticed by now that animals feature large in this series of blog posts in which I am returning to books that were important to me in childhood. The Wind in the Willows, The Yearling, Winnie the Pooh, and Watership Down all are about animals in one form or another. It is true that many children books are about animals, so it is no wonder that many of my favourites contain four-legged characters. But it is also true that although I read a lot of books as a child, the ones with animals were invariably my favourites. Yes, I loved Peter Pan, and The Swiss Family Robinson, Huckleberry Finn, and other non-animal classics. But the animal stories have always risen to the top of my faves.

So as I thought about what to include in my reading list this year, I just couldn’t go without including a James Herriot book. I discovered these charming tales about a 1930s Yorkshire vet when I was somewhere around ten or eleven, I think, as books I brought home from the school library. And luckily Herriot was still writing new books during those years, and so I got the joy of reading his new releases as I got older.

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My slightly battered James Herriot collection, bought in 1984. But it’s not complete – I’m missing The Lord God Made Them All (1981) and Every Living Thing (1992). Methinks a new collection is in order!

 

James Herriot is the pseudonym of James Alfred “Alf” Wight (1916-1995), a Scottish veterinarian who practiced in and around the Yorkshire Dales during the 1940s to the 1970s. The books were semi-autobiographical in nature, and he began writing them in 1966 when he was 50 years old, at the urging of his wife. He had always wanted to write books, but in the early years his busy practice did not allow any time for writing, but thankfully he listened to his wife and began to put pen to paper.

His first few stories on other subjects such as football were rejected, but then he turned to what he knew best: being a vet in a rural country practice, and his first book, If Only They Could Talk, was published in 1970, followed by It  Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet  in 1972. But the books were not runaway successes. It wasn’t until American publisher Thomas McCormack (St. Thomas Press, New York) read the books and decided to bundle them together into one volume and publish them under the title All Creatures Great and Small in 1972, that Wight became a bestselling author.

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James “Alf” Wight, aka James Herriot. Doesn’t he have a kind face? Photo from biography.com

There is more to these stories than a collection of tales about a rural country vet. But If Only They Could Talk is certainly that, told with a dry humour that is one of the appealing characteristics of the books. In this opening volume of the series we get introduced to the main characters – James Herriot, a newly minted vet looking for this first position, his employer Sigfried Farnon, owner of a practice in the fictional town of Darrowby in Yorkshire, and Sigfried’s younger brother Tristan, a ne’er-do-well, charming young man who is bent on doing the least work he can do and yet still graduate from veterinary school.

But underlying the well-drawn and likeable characters in this book and in the ones that followed is the obvious love and respect Wight had for the people whose animals he looked after, and for the place itself – the wide, wild upswept moors of the Yorkshire Dales, and the picturesque valleys between them.

I love the interactions between James, Sigfried and Tristan, and suffered along with James as he was presented with one baffling case or strong-willed farmer after another, but a lot of my love for these books is tied up with passages like these:

We took a steep, winding road, climbing higher and still higher with the hillside falling away sheer to a dark ravine where a rocky stream rushed headlong to the gentler country below. On the top, we got out of the car. In the summer dusk, a wild panorama of tumbling fells and peaks rolled away and lost itself in the crimson and gold ribbons of the Western sky. To the East, a black mountain overhung us, menacing in its naked bulk. Huge, square-cut boulders littered the lower slopes. 

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Rolling hills in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, scenery that would have been very familiar to Alf Wight. Photo from photeverywhere.co.uk.

This wild country is populated with tough, hardy farmers.  Not an easy bunch to impress but Herriot manages to gain their respect as he shows his willingness to come out to their isolated farms at any time of the day or night, summer or winter, roll up his sleeves, and get to work. His respect for these people and their way of life is evident, giving us a glimpse of the last days of farming in England before the horse disappeared all together and was replaced by machines.

A lot of the humour in the book comes from Herriot’s ability to laugh at himself and the sometimes absurd situations he finds himself in. For example, in this particular book my favourite scene is where James is assisting another vet, Angus Grier, whom Sigfried warns James, can be vindictive if you cross him. James innocently says the wrong thing on the way out to the farm, and Grier gets his revenge by getting  James to don a calving outfit he is carrying around in his trunk.

The outfit turns out to be a heavy rubber suit which obviously had been designed by someone who had never been calving and is more like a scuba diving suit that almost immobilizes James once Grier zips James into it.

When he had finished he stood back admiringly. I must have been a grotesque sight, sheathed  from head to foot in gleaming black, my arms, bare to the shoulders, sticking out almost at right angles. Grier appeared well satisfied. “Well, come on, it’s time we got on wi’ the job.”He turned and hurried towards the byre; I plodded ponderously after him like an automaton. 

Our arrival in the byre caused a sensation. There were present the farmer, two cowmen and a little girl. The men’s cheerful greeting froze on their lips as the menacing figure paced slowly, deliberately in. The little girl burst into tears and ran outside. 

…Grier was working away inside the cow and mumbling away about the weather, but the men weren’t listening, they never took their eyes away from me as I stood rigid, like a suit of armour against the wall. They studied each part of the outfit in turn, wonderingly. I know what they were thinking. Just what was going to happen when this formidable unknown finally went into action. Anybody dressed like that must have some tremendous task ahead of him. 

The intense pressure of the collar against my larynx kept me entirely out of any conversation and this must have added to my air of mystery. I began to sweat inside the suit.

As it turns out the only task James has is to hand Grier a tin of ointment.  I will admit to laughing out loud at this scene, the picture he paints is so excruciatingly embarrassing and ridiculous you can’t help it.

I should perhaps start another series of blog posts, entitled,  “Places I Have Visited Because of Books, ” because, just like the Reichenbach Falls was basically the reason we went to Switzerland, when my hubby and I went to England the first time together I insisted on going to Yorkshire to see the Dales and the places so vividly described in these books.

We went to the small town of Thirsk, which is one of the places Wight lived and was one of the towns upon which he based his imaginary town of Darrowby. But best of all, we took a drive up the fells above the town, up to the high country, and spent a marvellous afternoon exploring this beautiful and remote landscape.

And even though I was there in the mid-eighties, some fifty years after the books were set, I would think that mostly it is the same. Beautiful and rugged, with a sense when you are up there that you are on top of the world.

I can see why Wight loved it so much. And I’m so glad he finally took some time to put his pen to paper and share with us these wonderful tales of the people and animals he served there.

Review: The Last Kingdom

I finally finished watching this 2015 BBC series, which has been available on Netflix for some time now. It is an 8-episode adaptation of the Saxon novels by Bernard Cornwell.

To be clear, I only read the first of the Cornwall novels, also called The Last Kingdom, as I discovered them in the midst of writing my own Dark Ages novel. I read the first book to get a flavour of how another novelist tackled some of the practicalities of writing about this era, like, what do you call the various places? How do you explain the social structure of the times? What do these people eat? etc. Of course I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t want to read any more than one, because I didn’t want my books to take on any “Cornwell” flavour. And besides, Cornwell’s books take place after the Viking invasion, and mine, before, so I didn’t want to mix myself up in the history that I was learning.

Because I have only a little familiarity with the books, therefore, this review will strictly be on the series itself, without any reference to the books and how well the series did or did not capture the essence of the books.

So, caveat aside, it was with great anticipation that I settled down with my husband to watch this series. I mean, if it’s good to read another novel about the era you are interested in, imagine the delight of seeing it come to life?

And I will say the The Last Kingdom did not disappoint. The makers of the series went to a great deal of trouble to get the details right, for the most part, although I did have a couple of small quibbles with it, which I will cover later.

First of all, high marks to the producers for their excellent production values. I loved the costumes, and the way the Danes were portrayed in terms of their dress and hairstyles as opposed to the Saxons.

 

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This is the bloodthirsty Dane, Skorpa, ably played by the Swedish actor Jonas Malmsjö. That’s not blood on his teeth, they are showing how the Danes would file horizontal grooves in their teeth and stain them with red berry juice (probably to look like blood, however!) Looks like a character quite capable of going beserker, no? Photo: BBCAmerica

In fact the producers did a great job all in all of showing the contrast between the Danes and the Saxons. Just as an aside, the Danes themselves were not called Vikings until centuries later, in the 8th century they were called denes by the Anglo-Saxons, from which we get the word “Danes”. In the series we see the fighting, drinking, barbarian, party-animal Danes, and the more pious, educated Christian Saxons. I think there is a sense in which this contrast is played a bit too far, but I understand that for dramatic purposes you need to have clear demarcations between your characters or else it all becomes a muddle.

Speaking of protagonists, our hero of the story is Uhtred son of Uhtred, the heir to an earldoman of Northumbria. Uhtred is a boy when his father is killed fighting the Danes, and Uhtred is taken as a slave. He finds favour with his master and is basically adopted as a son. So his story is an compelling one – among the Danes he is seen as a Saxon, among the Saxons, a Dane. And this makes for some interesting conflicts and dilemmas for Uhtred, and keeps us watching!

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Our hero, Uhtred, played by Alexander Dreymon (photo from BBCAmerica). In many ways a stranger in a strange land, no matter where he goes. His quest is to get back his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg, and he will do just about anything to do it, including kill, cheat, and marry a pious Christian wife in order to get her wealth, even though he is a pagan.  But it’s never that easy…..

I get tired of Christians being portrayed as boring, dull, serious, and stupid in modern entertainment,  and although because of the aforementioned contrast with the Danes there is a bit of this happening in this series, on the whole I was happy with the portrayal of the Christian people here. I especially like the character of Mildrith, Uhtred’s Saxon wife, given to him in an arranged marriage by King Alfred. I like the interplay between the two, and the way her faith is portrayed as genuine. She comes across as a real person, not a caricature, and I appreciate that.

Sometimes when we read history, it’s all dry facts and dates. But when you see the events unfolding, even in fictional form, it brings back to us how terrifying these events must have been to the people of the times. While watching the Danes raid, rape and pillage I remarked to my husband, “Gee, it’s like they were the ISIS of the times.” And aside from the religious motivation of ISIS, which the Danes did not share, they were strictly motivated by the prospect of land, wealth, and power, the comparison works. The terror of seeing the Danes descend upon your village must have been overwhelming. As the kingdoms fall one by one and only Wessex is left, you get the sense that this is one of history’s turning points, as indeed it was in many ways.

Speaking of Wessex, one of my favourite characters in the series, besides Uhtred, is Alfred, King of Wessex. Because of my research of the history of the times for my books, I have learned a bit about Alfred, and discovered that he really was one of England’s greatest kings. He comes along after the events in my novels, of course, but because I was intrigued by him I read more than I needed to about him. And I think this show gives us a good portrait of this man. By all accounts he was more of a scholar than a warrior, and an extremely intelligent man. But he is able enough militarily to stop the Danes’ advance (in the show, it was because he had Uhtred’s help, hah) at a time when all the other English kingdoms had fallen.

Alfred leaves us some fantastic legacies – he develops England’s first code of law, commissions several important translations of major Latin works into Old English and likely is responsible for the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (mental note – I have to feature this on my blog soon!) and Bede’s  Ecclesiastical History as well. I definitely have a soft spot for this king, and I loved seeing him come to life in this series!

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The Alfred Jewel, discovered in 1693 in Somerset. There is an inscription around the edge which reads “ALFRED MEC HET GEWYRCAN” which mean “Alfred ordered me made” (you can see the letters on the bottom left of the jewel). It is thought by scholars to be the end of a pointed stick by which people would follow words in a text as they read. This beautifully decorated gold, enamel and crystal object was worthy of a king, and it was likely one of Alfred’s own possessions. (Photo by Bill Tyne, on Flickr)

Final small quibble with the series – Wessex, the “last kingdom” was not really the last kingdom to fall in all of Britain. Our friends the Celts up in the north and west of Britain in some cases were never conquered or managed to align themselves with the Danes against the Anglo-Saxons. And although the Danes and Saxons get a lot of screen time, we don’t see much of the Celts in the series, except for the introduction of Uthred’s relationship with the British sorcerer Iseult near the end. I would have liked to have seen more of the Celts in the show, but I understand that the focus had to be on the other two cultures, and the Celts were very much on the fringe of the cultures of the times, so it’s not wrong that the story didn’t include them much. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of them in Season 2, which happily, has been confirmed. No release date yet, I’m not sure if they have begun production.

All in all, I give this series 5 stars. The acting is excellent, the production values superb, and the story-line compelling. Be warned, though, there is plenty of violence and blood, so if you are squeamish, this might not be the show for you. There is some sexual scenes as well, but I thought they were done tastefully for the most part.

I really enjoyed seeing these people and cultures come to life. If you have watched the show, what did you think?


 

Featured photo from BBCAmerica.