Sunday, 18 December 2011

Every Living Thing

Alf Wight was an ordinary veterinarian working in the country sides of Yorkshire Dales, until in 1969 he published a book, If Only They Could Talk. The book is a collection of stories about another veterinarian named James Herriot, loosely based on his experience treating the animals in a fictional but realistically portrayed town called Darrowby in the 1950s. Wight was already 50 then.

This book might never come into existence if it were not for one woman, Joan Danbury. Joan is inspiration for Helen, the wife of James Herriot, and Alf's real life wife. Anyone who have read any of Herriot books, especially the later titles, would have easily guessed this.

After a series of unsuccessful attempts at breaking into the writing scene, Alf Wight was convinced that he was hack. He tried writing about one of his passions, football, but attracted very little interest from publishers. Joan stepped in and challenged him write about something else which is closer to his heart.

For Wight it was, "Challenged accepted." Well, he probably did not utter those exact words, but the result of that was a dozen of titles of what Wight calls "little cats-and-dogs stories." And Wight's "little cats-and-dogs stories" went on to become one of most beloved book series of the 20th century.

Wight passed away in 1995. His name, or rather James Herriot's, came into my knowledge only about four year ago when my former boss enthusiastically recommended the first book If Only They Could Talk. My former boss and I are both bibliophiles, but we do not exactly have the same taste in our reading selection. I took the book with a slight feeling of trepidation. My former boss is a big time Herriot fan. If I find this book uninteresting, our friendship could be jeopardised. Not to mentioned our professional relationship. I could get fired for not liking this book.

It turns out that despite the differences in our literary predilection, this was the one book we both falling in love with. Falling in love with a book is a level above liking a book. If you like a book, I would tell other people to read it. If love a book, it could be either you would tell other people to read it or you would never ever tell anyone about it, because love, as you know, can be weird and selfish. It was the Herriot's charm at work and we could do very little to resist it.

Treating the animals in Darrowby is actually part veterinary and part public relations. There are farmers sceptical of modern treatments, pet owners who are clueless about their four legged family members, and the worst of all, the heartless folks who treat animals like discarded trash. Herriot's patient list is clearly a mixed bunch. A lot of them had me smiling till my face hurts. Others me made feel glad I am not veterinarian, although that used to be a childhood dream of mine.

I devoured each books expecting new experiences, and by extension, more things to be excited about the country side veterinary practice. Instead by doing so I found myself being satisfied instead with the simple tales about people and their animals. No earth-shattering plot twists here. Just as Herriot had said, little cats-and-dogs stories.

Every Living Thing brings the series to a close, although I doubt that was the plan. As a writer who had a late start, he keep writing till the end of his life churning out books about animals for adult and children readers. His sincerity, warmth, and love for animals were visibly retained throughout his book series, and I imagine if he were still alive we would be hearing more about the people of Darrowby, and their cow, horse, sheep, dog, and cat problems. I imagine problems with iguanas or tarantulas were still very much out of the picture back then.

I close the book after finishing the last chapter, in which Herriot had made a friend, a wild cat that keep showing up in his garden but refused any physical contact. A bitter sweet tale about a friendship earned, and a wonderful way to cap off the series and to sum up my feelings for the books. 

The biggest lesson learned from Herriot is to open myself the lessons that animals can teach us. Living in the city for the large part of my life has made me to see animals mostly as either pets, pests, or pictures in a book or magazine. This lack of positive relationship between human, nature, and animals is beginning to sound to me as a huge disadvantage of being a city dweller.

If you are willing to look past the Yorkshire accent sprinkled throughout, you will find yourself a treasure. I know I can be a selfish person, but out of love I say this, never pass up a chance to read James Herriot. You could become a better person because of it.

Source: alikewise


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