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Today is the birthday of James Alfred “Alf” Wight, a British veterinary surgeon and writer, who wrote under the pen name James Herriot. He used his lifetime of experiences as a vet in the Yorkshire Dales to write a series of books of stories about animals and their owners the best known of which are often referred to collectively as All Creatures Great and Small.

Wight was born in Sunderland, County Durham to James and Hannah (Bell) Wight. Shortly after their wedding, the Wights moved from Brandling Street, Sunderland to Glasgow where James took work as both a ship plater and pianist for a local cinema, while Hannah was a singer, as well as a dressmaker. For Alf’s birth, his mother returned to Sunderland, taking him back to Glasgow when he was three weeks old. He attended Yoker Primary School and Hillhead High School. From his father he gained a passion for Sunderland Football Club and remained a lifelong fan. In 1992 he was named a Life President of the club.

In 1939, at the age of 23, he qualified as a veterinary surgeon with Glasgow Veterinary College. In January 1940, he took a brief job at a veterinary practice in Sunderland, but moved in July to work in a rural practice based at 23 Kirkgate in the town of Thirsk, Yorkshire, close to the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. On 5 November 1941, he married Joan Catherine Anderson Danbury, known as Helen Alderson in his books. The couple had two children, James Alexander (Jim), born 13 February 1943, who also became a vet and was a partner in the practice, and Rosemary (Rosie), born 1947, who became a physician in general practice.

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Wight served in the Royal Air Force in 1942. His wife moved to her parents’ house during this time and, upon being discharged from the RAF as a Leading Aircraftman, Wight joined her. They lived there until 1946, at which point they moved back to Kirkgate, staying until 1953. Later, he moved with his wife to a house on Topcliffe Road, Thirsk, opposite the secondary school. The original practice is now a museum, “The World of James Herriot.”. He later moved with his family to the village of Thirlby, about four miles from Thirsk, where he resided until his death. Wight intended for years to write a book, but with most of his time consumed by veterinary practice and family, his writing ambition went nowhere. Challenged by his wife, in 1966 (at the age of 50), he began writing. After several rejected stories on other subjects like football, he turned to what he knew best. In 1969 Wight wrote If Only They Could Talk, the first of the now-famous series based on his life working as a vet and his training in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

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Owing in part to professional etiquette, which at that time frowned on veterinary surgeons and other professionals from advertising their services, he took a pen name, choosing “James Herriot” after seeing the Scottish goalkeeper, Jim Herriot, play for Birmingham City F.C. in a televised game against Manchester United. If Only They Could Talk was published in the United Kingdom in 1970 by Michael Joseph Ltd, but sales were slow until Thomas McCormack, of St. Martin’s Press in New York City, received a copy and arranged to have it and a second book, It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet (1972), published as a single volume in the United States. The resulting book, titled All Creatures Great and Small, was a huge success, spawning numerous sequels, movies and a successful television adaptation.

Contrary to popular belief, Wight’s books are only partially autobiographical, with many of the stories being only loosely based on real events or people. Wight’s son, Jim, states that a lot of the stories, although set in the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s in the books, were actually inspired by cases that Wight attended in the 1960s and 1970s.

James Herriot on his farm, Yorkshire, Britain - 1995

From an historical standpoint, the stories help document a transitional period in veterinary medicine in Britain. Agriculture was moving from the traditional use of beasts of burden (in Britain, primarily the draught horse) to reliance upon the mechanical tractor, and medical science was just on the cusp of discovering antibiotics and other drugs that eliminated many of the ancient remedies that were still in use at the time. These and other sociological factors, like increased affluence, prompted a large-scale shift in veterinary practice over the course of the 20th century from a period when virtually all of a vet’s time was spent working with large animals such as horses (motive power in both town and country), cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, to mostly dogs, cats, and other pets. Wight (as Herriot) occasionally steps out of his narrative to comment, with the benefit of hindsight, on the primitive state of veterinary medicine at the time of the story he is relating; for example, he describes his first hysterectomy on a cat and his first (almost disastrous) Caesarean section on a cow.

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The Herriot books are described often as “animal stories” (Wight himself was known to refer to them as his “little cat-and-dog stories”), and given that they are about the life of a country veterinarian, animals certainly play a significant role in most of the stories. Yet animals play a lesser, sometimes even a negligible, role in many of Wight’s tales: the overall theme of his stories is Yorkshire country life. It is Wight’s observations of people, animals, and their close inter-relationship, which give his writing its flavor. Wight was just as interested in their owners as he was in his patients and his writing is, at root, an amiable but keen comment on the human condition. The Yorkshire animals provide the elements of pain and drama; the role of their owners is to feel and express joy and sadness in what is a special, old-fashioned Yorkshire way. As such the books are evocative of a time and place now mostly lost to modern culture and technology.

History feature for Nov7: Alf Wight (aka james Herriot)

Wight’s son, in his biography of his father, reports that he was given to long bouts of depression especially in his 40s. Wight himself was unable to describe the feelings except to refer to them as “melancholy,” or “the vapors.” He underwent a series of treatments, including electro-shock, without much effect. Wight’s son attributes the depression to a combination of feeling as if he failed his parents and was inadequate as a father. His mother’s work as a dressmaker put her in touch with wealthy families, and she had aspirations that James would marry into that class. In consequence she and her husband scrimped so as to send him to expensive private schools. When he became engaged to a regular middle class woman, his mother was so disappointed that she would not attend the wedding, nor did his father. Wight could not afford to send his son and daughter to private schools, and this fact preyed on him even though both felt that they had had a good education at their state schools and would not have fared any better at private schools. His son followed him into veterinary practice, and his daughter, who was accepted to both Oxford and Cambridge, became a family physician.

In his books, Wight calls the town where Herriot lives and works, Darrowby, which he based largely on the towns of Thirsk and Sowerby.

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Wight was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991, and underwent treatment in the Lambert Memorial Hospital in Thirsk. He died on 23 February 1995, aged 78, at home in Thirlby. His wife, Joan Wight née Danbury, died four years later on 14 July 1999.

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The parkin of the Yorkshire Dales is legendary. It is a sticky, moist gingerbread made rather dense with the addition of oats. I used to make it all the time in the winter, sometimes adding a cup of chopped rhubarb (common in Yorkshire), for a little extra density and tartness. Letting the finished parkin mellow for up to a week is essential.

Yorkshire Parkin

Ingredients

8 oz/220g soft butter
4 oz/110g soft, dark brown sugar
2oz / 55g black treacle
7oz / 200g golden syrup/ corn syrup
5oz/ 120g oatmeal
7 oz/ 200g self raising flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 tsp ground ginger (or more if you fancy)
1 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp cinnamon
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tbsp milk

Instructions

Heat the oven to 275°F/140°C

Thoroughly grease an 8″ x 8″/ 20cm x 20cm square cake tin. Parkin is sticky, so do this well.

Combine all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir well.

Melt together the butter, sugar, treacle, and golden syrup over a gentle heat in a heavy pan. Do not allow the mixture to boil. Just be sure the butter is melted, the sugar is dissolved, and the treacle and golden syrup are of pouring consistency.

Gradually add the heated mixture stirring to the dry ingredients, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until they are completely mixed. This is heavy work – take your time to be sure everything is well mixed.

Beat the eggs and milk together and then add them slowly to the batter, stirring well until you have an homogenous mass.

Pour the mixture into the prepared tin and cook for 1½ hours until firm and set and a dark golden brown. A toothpick inserted in the center should come out clean.

Remove the parkin from the oven and leave it to cool in the tin on a wire rack. Once cool, turn out the parkin and store it in an airtight container for at least 3 days up to a week. In this way the flavors develop and the parkin becomes moist and sticky.