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The Real James Herriot: A Memoir of My Fatherby Jim Wight
23 February 1995 was a beautiful day in my part of North Yorkshire. From the top of Sutton Bank on the western edge of the North York Moors National Park, it was possible to see right across the Vale of York to the Yorkshire Dales over thirty miles away. The sun shone brightly out of a cloudless winter sky and I could clearly see the familiar bulk of Pen Hill, standing majestically over the entrance to Wensleydale — the fresh whiteness of its snow-dusted slopes in vivid contrast to the dark green dale below. It was a cold, crisp, perfect winter's day, one that normally would have had me longing to walk for mile after mile in the clean air. It was a day when I should have felt glad to be alive.
The timeless magic of the Dales has always thrilled me but, on that brilliant February day, my mood was one of emptiness, as I knew that I would never again gaze across at those distant hills without a feeling of nostalgia and regret. On that day a great friend had did. His name was James Alfred Wight, a father in whose company I had spent countless happy hours. A man I shall never forget.
I was not alone in my sorrow. On that same day, others all over the world were also mourning the loss of a friend. His name was James Herriot, the country practitioner whose skill as a writer had elevated him to the statue of the world's most famous and best-loved veterinary surgeon. This incredibly successful storyteller, who sold more than 60 million books which had been translated into over twenty languages, wrote with such warmth, humour and sincerity that he was regarded as a friend by all who read him.
James Alfred Wight, the real James Herriot, was every inch the gentleman his many fans imagined him to be. He was a completely modest man who remained bemused by his success until the end of his life, yet this self-confessed 'run of the mill vet' is likely to be remembered for decades to come. My own memories of him, however, are not of a famous author but of a father who always put the interests of his family ahead of his own.
I think it is true to say that in everyone's life, no matter how happy they may be, there is always a dark cloud somewhere on the horizon.
My own particular cloud had been my father's health which had given the family cause for concern for concern for a number of years; it had assumed threatening proportions in December 1991 when I learned that he had cancer, and the final blow fell when he died just over three years later.
On 20 October 1995, some eight months after my father's death, I found myself seated in the front row of York Minster, surely one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. The occasion was the Memorial Service for James Herriot, to which over 2,300 people had come to pay their last respects to a man who had given pleasure to millions. Christopher Timothy, who played the part of James Herriot in the television series All Creatures Great and Small, was reading a passage from one of my father's best-selling books and laughter was echoing around the ancient Minster. Although it might have been unusual to hear the sound of such merriment in those magnificent but austere surroundings, I felt that James Herriot's Memorial Service was turning out to be exactly as he would have wished. On that day, we had smiles, not tears.
Alf, as my father always known to his friends, had always had an intense dislike of funerals, wishing with all his heart that these events could be less solemn. 'Of course, people must be respectful in these situations,' he once said, 'but I feel very sorry for the family and friends on these sad occasions.' I well remember the occasion of one funeral that he had really enjoyed. It happened many years ago when I was still at school, and was the funeral of a Mr. Bartholomew, a former associate of one of my father's great friends, Denton Pette (immortalised in the hard-drinking veterinary surgeon, had stipulated shortly before his death that several bottles of the finest Scotch whisky should be provided for those of his colleagues who attended his funeral. My father, Denton and many others were present and afterwards they dutifully carried out Bart's last wishes.
There was a somewhat different atmosphere, however, at home, twenty-five miles away in the market town of Thirsk in North Yorkshire.
'Where on earth is your dad?' my mother exclaimed. He set off for that funeral at two o'clock this afternoon and it's now almost midnight!
What is he doing?'
Knowing how much my father enjoyed the company of his professional colleagues, especially those of the calibre of Denton Pette, it was not difficult to imagine what he was doing. I never heard him return home but he presented a delicate figure seated opposite me at the table the following morning.
He chewed at his dry toast for a minute or two before he spoke. "You know . . . that funeral was not the mourning of the passing of a meaningful and fulsome life,' he said, a gleam of pleasure in his bloodshot eyes. 'It was something else. It was a celebration!'
I feel sure my father would have approved of the celebration we were enjoying in York Minster that day, just as he had enjoyed Bart's final farewell all those years before.
Chris Timothy was giving an excellent reading of the passage from Vet in Harness, the story where the young James is manfully trying to persuade the suspicious and belligerent Mr. Biggins that a veterinary visit to his cow would, despite an ensuing bill, be well worthwhile. It was as I was looking up at Chris and thinking how well the words sounded that I was struck by a stark realisation. In all the years that had known my father, during all the hours we had spent together discussing our common interests (and there were many of those), I had never once told him how good I considered his writing to be. Indeed, I do not think I had ever told him what I really felt about him. I think he knew but, nevertheless, there is a feeling of regret that I shall carry with me for ever. My father often told me that he was always grateful to the local people for not making a fuss of him. How ironic that his own son should be one of them.
A few months after the Memorial Service, I received a telephone call from Jacqueline Korn, my father's literary agent at David Higham Associates in London. She had a proposition for me. 'How about writing a book about your father?' she asked. 'You knew him better than anyone and the appreciation of him that you gave at the Minster was enjoyed by everyone. I am sure that you could do it.' The prospect of undertaking a biographical work was one that frightened me. I was a veterinary surgeon, not a writer. Why should I be capable of performing such a task? I abandoned English in my fifth year at school and was not, compared to my father, a widely-read man. Jacqueline Korn did alleviate my concerns a little when she explained to me that, on no account should I try to emulate him as a writer but, instead, put down my memories in a readable way. Despite her words of encouragement, I expressed my grave doubts.
I remained indecisive for several weeks but one thing that made me think about the idea seriously was the fact that my father was, without doubt, a world-wide celebrity - one with a massive following. This was vividly illustrated on a trip I made to the United States shortly after Jacqueline Korn's telephone call. I had been invited to speak about James Herriot at a veterinary student convention in Stillwater, Oklahoma, during which time - as part of the trip - my wife Gillian and I were invited to take a few days' holiday in Winter Park, Colorado. One of the highlights was a dog-sleigh ride into the mountains around Winter Park. We were gliding over the snow, with the little Siberian Huskies effortlessly pulling us along, when the team leader, a friendly man who went by the name of 'J.D.', opened the conversation. He had noticed that Gill was wearing an anorak with the words 'Oklahoma State Veterinary School' as the logo.
'You guys veterinarians?' he asked.
'How do you know?' I replied.
'It's on the anorak. You're from England, yeah?'
'Yes, we are.'
'What part of England are you guys from?'
'Yorkshire,' I replied, thinking that, perhaps, he had never heard of the place.
He hesitated before speaking again. 'Say! Maybe you knew that "Doc Herriot' who wrote those books? He was from Yorkshire.'
The conversation was beginning to assume a familiar ring - one I had heard many times before. I said, 'Yes, I knew him.'
'You knew him? You knew him well?' J.D. was impressed.
'Yes,' I continued, 'I knew him pretty well really,'
'Wow? What sort of guy was he? He sure wrote terrific books! Did you get to speak to him?'
'Yes, actually, I did.' 'As a matter of fact . . . he was my dad.'
There was a pause while J.D. took this on board. He then whistled softly. 'You don't say! Boy, wait till I tell my wife? I'm telling you, she is one real fan of your dad's!'
After the ride, Gill and I were introduced to the other dog-team leaders, all of whom seemed to be well acquainted with my father's work. It was obvious that James Herriot's name and fame had thoroughly penetrated into this land of ice and snow, so far from my home in Yorkshire. I began to wonder whether there was anywhere in the United States that the name of James Herriot was not familiar.
The rest of our stay served only to confirm the high esteem in which he was held in that country, with countless numbers of students at the veterinary convention telling me that reading his books had given them the inspiration to take up veterinary medicine for a career. By the time we returned to England, I had almost made up my mind to attempt my father's biography.
Three weeks later, unable to procrastinate any longer, I boarded the train for London to meet with Jacqueline Korn. We had been travelling south for only a short time and I was staring out at the Yorkshire landscape, my mind wrestling with the impending decision, when the loudspeaker system came on.
'Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is your conductor, Don Sinclair, speaking. You are travelling on the Newcastle to London King's Cross train, calling at . . . '
Don Sinclair?! The real name of my father's life-long partner, better known to the millions of James Herriot fans as 'Siegfried Farnon', and the pivotal character running throughout his books. I am a sceptic by nature but that extraordinary, almost supernatural episode swayed my decision to accept the challenge of writing the story of my father's life. It was as though something was telling me to go ahead.
The research for this book has been an enjoyable and exciting, as well as an emotional undertaking, but I do not know whether my father would have shared my enthusiasm. He was a very modest and private man - one who insulated his personal life from the rest of the world - I can only hope that he would have approved.
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