I have written about the semi-auto biographical memoirs of the Yorskhire based vet James Herriot’s before at A Year In The Country but I am returning to them as a while ago I finished reading the series of books and this post is something of a tip of the hat to Mr Herriot’s work both as a vet and author (and also something of a wandering down other parallel pathways.)
(I say semi-auto biographical as apparently, contrary to popular belief, the books are only loosely based on real events and people and are actually a melding of fact and fiction. James Herriot was actually the pen name of James Alfred Wight.)
They were originally published in seven books between 1970 and 1993 and have in more recent years been compiled into five books with a set of cover illustrations by Tom Cole which, if placed together, create a panorama that reflects both the passing of the seasons and of life in general.
(They were also made into a popular mainstream British television series in the 1970s.)
The books are set in the 1930s through to the 1950s, which within British life, farming and veterinary practise was a time of great change – a time when, to quote James Herriot, there was a “melting away” of the blacksmiths, the arrival of tractors on farms to replace horses and vast changes and advances in veterinary methods and techniques, which in some ways in the way it is presented in the books, particularly previously to the 1940s, seems to have not advanced all that much further from previous centuries.
It is often the small details of the changes in life and technology that are mentioned in the books which are particularly fascinating – such as in the days before heated windows were fitted as standard (or possibly even been invented) in cars, James Herriot receiving by mailorder a small car window de-icing heater device, which when clamped to the windscreen gave a few inches wide area of visibility in windows that froze up every few miles in cold weather
Previous to the arrival of this device the car would have to be stopped every few miles in order for the ice on the window to be scraped off, which as a then inherent part of driving is almost difficult to imagine today.
The books appeal to a sense or yearning for a rural escape and idyll but while they may have a gentleness to their tone, they do not flinch from the realities of this life.
The life and work of a vet depicted in the books seems curiously hard, both physically and mentally: vets are shown as having been constantly on call – a recurring event in the books seems to be James Herriot being called out in the middle of the night to help deliver a newborn farm animal in the middle of all kinds of harsh weather and primitive unsheltered conditions – a job which often was physically not just demanding but exhausting and could take many hours.
While the worry about sometimes not being able to successfully treat an animal is also a recurring theme in the books.
Having said which, James Herriot expresses a great pride and sometimes joy in his work, in amongst its rigours, particularly when seeing the successfully delivered newborn farm animals and in being able to return a beloved pet to good health and vigour.
That just mentioned yearning for a rural escape, of searching for a restful Arcadian idyll and repose seems to be an inherent part of the English/British character.
The interest in the flipside and undercurrents of pastoral and folk based culture in recent years – what could loosely be called “wyrd” culture – could be seen as an alternative expression of that yearning.
As I have mentioned before, author and lecturer Robert Macfarlane is quoted in the book The Edge Is Where The Centre Is as saying that this area of cultural interest and work may be an attempt to make sense, explain, account for and possibly act as a respite, allow refuge from and act as a bulwark against the current dominant economic/political system.
As also mentioned by Robert Macfarlane, part of the above work, acitivity and interest can involve a utilising or reconfiguring of the spectral or preternatural as a form of expression, exploration and escape from related turbulence and pressures.
This is in contrast to say the more overtly gentle views of the rural presented in James Herriot’s books, rather in such work etc the attempt to create a space for respite and repose has often taken the form of hauntological-esque pastoral inflected work and interests, which often contain eerie or unsettling aspects,
Elsewhere at A Year In The Country:
1) Wanderings #35/52a: All Creatures Great And Small And Non-Chocolate Box Chocolate Box-isms
2) Wanderings, Explorations and Signposts 2/52: Penda’s Fen and The Edge Is Where The Centre Is – Explorations of the Occult, Otherly and Hidden Landscape