James Herriot: the wild years
Before he became a best-selling author and beloved country vet, Alf Wight was a frequently hungover student and riotously entertaining diarist
When you read the diaries that Alf Wight kept as a veterinary student in Glasgow in the Thirties, it soon becomes apparent that he was a PG Wodehouse fan. It’s there in the Wodehousian language: “In the morning, I endeavoured to assimilate some chemistry,” he writes. Or: “In the afternoon I toddled along to the baths.” Or: “I plied my books with commendable industry.” He even signs off with a “pip, pip” in one entry. And if further proof were needed, he writes: “Got out Love Among the Chickens, a PG. I laughed at it all afternoon.”
The more I think about this, the more it makes sense. What Alf went on to write, under the pen-name James Herriot, became a publishing phenomenon. His vet stories sold 60 million copies worldwide and stayed at the top of the New York Times bestseller lists for months on end. Part of their appeal was that they portrayed the lives of hard-bitten farmers in northern England as evocatively and whimsically as PG Wodehouse portrayed the lives of decadent aristocrats in southern England. There may have been considerable differences in style and tone – the Herriot stories include sad and poignant passages, which you never find in Wodehouse – but both authors were writing nostalgically about a halcyon world that had long since disappeared. The Herriot stories were, after all, set in the Forties and Fifties, yet they weren’t written until the late Sixties and Seventies.
I am shown the diaries – which have never been published – by Jim Wight, Alf’s son, who is himself a retired vet. We meet in Thirsk, the cobbled market town in North Yorkshire which was given the fictional name Darrowby in the vet books. Jim grew up “above the shop” and then went on to work in it, taking over his father’s practice. On a tour of the surgery – now a James Herriot museum – he tells me of how his father would sit down in front of the television after a hard day calving cows, or treating foot-rot in ewes, and write his books on an Olivetti typewriter. “He would do it in half-hour bursts while watchingNationwide,” he says.
He shows me the old car that belonged to “Siegfried Farnon” (real name Donald Sinclair), the vet who originally owned the practice. “He used to have a very eccentric way of driving,” Jim says. “Using his elbows to steer while cupping his chin in his hands. My father found it very unnerving. There was no heating in the car and on winter days he would be stupefied with cold on the journey over to the Dales.” Although the veterinary surgery was in Thirsk, much of the filming for the television series All Creatures Great and Small was done in the more scenic Wensleydale about 20 miles away, as well I recall because my father’s farm there was used as one of the locations. (And if the stars of the show, Christopher Timothy and Robert Hardy, ever wondered who that strange boy was who kept hanging around the set staring at them, it was me.)
At the time, most farmers in the Dales were bemused by the fame of the local “vitnry”. One day Alf was operating on a cow and was going through the process of closing up the wound when the farmer suddenly said: “Ah’ve read one o’ yer books, Mr Wight.” This came as a shock to the vet because he hadn’t supposed that any of the farmers had read them. He hardly dare ask what his opinion was. The farmer replied slowly: “Aye, why, it’s all about nowt!” Alf took that as a compliment. It meant he had captured farming life so accurately the farmer couldn’t understand why the books were considered fictional, and couldn’t see why others might consider farming folk eccentric. To him the stories were mundane.
The novels and the television series covered Herriot’s experiences of working as a veterinary surgeon in the Yorkshire Dales in the Forties and Fifties. But one aspect of his life they didn’t cover was his student days in the Thirties, and these are about to be the subject of Young Herriot, a BBC drama series to be shown this Christmas. You can see the dramatic potential. The veterinary college he attended in Glasgow was a deeply eccentric place with “a glorious insouciance”.
According to the young Alf Wight: “I was transported into a world where nobody seemed to care whether we learnt anything or not.” In appearance, the college was “a low seedy building covered half heartedly in peeling, yellowish paint crouching apologetically among grime-blackened, decaying apartment houses… There was a common room with a few rickety chairs and a battered grand piano, which was mainly used as a card table, and a hatch in the corner which serviced tea, meat pies and the heaviest apple tarts in Scotland.” As he had been brought up in a Methodist household where there had been no swearing, gambling or drinking, college life came as something of a shock to him. In his diary, he recorded his first impressions of his fellow students. “They are a queer crowd here, all types and kinds, but decent enough.”
Queer is the word. Some of the students took up to 14 years to finish the five-year course, which delighted the college authorities, as long as their fees were paid on time. The “veterans of a thousand failed exams”, as Alf Wight called them, could have stepped straight out of Wodehouse’s Drones Club. They spent most of their time playing poker on top of the piano in the common room. They even did it in lectures and at times the professors could hardly be heard for the clatter of coins being placed as chips.
Even Alf got sucked into this gambling habit for a time. When he found he owed everyone in the college several shillings, with no means of paying them back, he saved his daily allowance by walking to college instead of getting the tram. He also filled up on cheap apple cake so that he could miss out meals. When he eventually saved enough to pay his debts, the old veterans were bemused. No one had ever paid them back before. “Paying gambling debts,” one chuckled. “You’ll come tae a bad end.” Alf recalled one student, McAloon, who had only managed to get as far as the second year in the curriculum after 14 years. He held the record at the time but many others were into double figures. McAloon was held in especially high esteem and when he finally left, he was much missed. One professor pointed at an empty seat and said: “Mr McAloon sat at that stool for 11 years. It is going to be strange without him.” Had he finally passed? No. He had left to join the police.
The Glasgow Herald captured the atmosphere of the college in a report about its prize-giving day. “The platform party was met by thunderous applause and banshee shrieks when they entered the hall. The opening remarks of the chairman were met with loud interruptions and the speaker was threatened with early hoarseness. Someone had inserted a goldfish in his water carafe. After his first few sentences he raised his head and was confronted by a dark brown skull revolving slowly on a cord from the ceiling in front of his face.” In his diary that day, Alf wrote: “The prize giving. What a rag! They hissed the unpopular profs, cheered the doctor and sang ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’ and bawled remarks at the big wigs as they entered. I enjoyed it, I can tell you.”
Another eccentricity of the place was the dissections. Some of Alf’s diary entries are brutally descriptive: “This morning hacked the forelegs off a horse.” And on January 24, 1934 he wrote: “They were cutting greyhounds’ throats in another lab next door and did they yell! I felt I wanted to charge in and sock the blighters who were doing it, but that’s just not done of course.” As John Lewis-Stempel reveals in his bookYoung Herriot, animal bodies for necropsy were trundled along the streets of Glasgow on carts, and overflow dissection classes were done in the entrance yard of the college, in full view of passers-by. The college was also able to use dead bodies from the zoo so they would practise their post mortem examinations and dissections on zebras, lions and even an elephant.
But it wasn’t all jollity at the college. The young Alf Wight was prone to bouts of depression. In one diary entry he writes: “I have been getting intermittent fits of the blues of late, but I don’t know what’s up. I’m sure I’ve got nothing to complain of.” And of the library where he had to swot up on animal husbandry he wrote: “That place depresses me. You can almost hear the brains throbbing.” As well as occasional bouts of melancholy, he was also prone to injury and illness and on one occasion he had groin strain after a run and “put chillie [sic] paste on my bad leg and it gave me a real hot time”. Already it seemed he was showing his willingness to be broad-minded about remedies, as he would later be when treating animals (one of his cures for horse colic was a raw onion up the rectum).
That was a minor setback compared to the rectal pain he suffered as a student. The condition developed into a discharging anal fistula and would dog him for the rest of his life. This acutely painful affliction affected his ability to concentrate fully on his studies, especially as, without the antibiotics that would play such a big part in his life as a vet, he suffered from septicaemia. The only treatment was to go to bed with a raging temperature and bathe the area in hot water in an attempt to keep the infection under control. With good humour, though, he would describe himself as an expert in “arseology”:“I’ve had several operations on the old posterior, all of them agony, but I’ve had enough! No one else is going to have a go at remodelling my backside. This lot is going in the ‘box’ with me.”
As well as the diaries, Jim brings out his father’s college photographs. He shows me a picture of Alf doing a Nazi salute with his friends, one of whom has a Hitler moustache and side parting. Youthful high spirits indeed. But most of the photographs reflect his sporting prowess. Alf was a keen college boxer and footballer. He was also a fanatical Sunderland football fan (and would one day become president of the team). In his student diaries he always noted the scores, in one case adding in capital letters underlined “SUNDERLAND DEFEATED BY DERBY AT HOME”.
In some ways he could be a typical student, one who was always skiving off to go to the cinema with his mates. Though you suspect he can’t have been that lazy, given that he had read the complete works of Dickens by the age of 15, he was nevertheless quite hard on himself in his diaries. “GROSS LAZINESS” he records in capital letters across three days of his diary. Another entry reads “loafed about” while another reads: “I could kick myself for being so lazy.” Like most students, he liked a drink. “Got on last train home from boxing match in Edinburgh. Most of the lads were a trifle happy and some definitely tight. Ate a lot of bacon sandwiches, chips, chocolate and beer, stagger in at 10 o’clock great stuff!… I’m afraid we were rather boisterous.” The next day he records: “Gosh, it was awful getting up this morning.” There are even intimations of an early love life. On February 14 1934 he wrote: “Got a Valentine — GEH?” Another entry records that a girlfriend had written: “Thanks for a wonderful night in Dublin.”
Even more colourful than the students at the college were the professors. Most were retired vets. Some of them were deaf and short-sighted. The professor of botany and zoology did his job simply by reading from a textbook. Quite often he would turn two pages at once by mistake, but he never noticed until the class drew his attention to it by a series of yells. He would then look over his glasses at them, smile indulgently and turn the page back unabashed. “We were very fond of him,” Alf wrote, “and cheered him to the echo at the end of every lecture when he never failed to make the same little phrase. ‘Well gentlemen,’ he would always murmour [sic], forgetting that there was one girl in the class. ‘I see by my gold watch and chain that our time is up.’ He accepted the ensuing standing ovation graciously.” His professor of pathology, meanwhile, scared everyone. “Burley, black-browed, smouldering-eyed, he could cower every one of us with a single look.” Another professor was a man of mystery who no one ever saw arrive or leave. One student claimed to have seen him flash through the wall of the pathology lab leaving behind a strong smell of brimstone.
Alf was to look back on his treatment of these professors with a mixture of affection and guilt. “We really plagued these poor old men, shouting, laughing, and throwing things around, playing practical jokes. Our professor of histology was almost completely deaf but didn’t seem to mind as he mumbled contentedly through his lectures with the hubbub raging around him.” His favourite professor was Hugh Begg, who taught him parasitology. He offered a piece of advice which the young Alf would never forget. “Gentleman,” he said solemnly, “ye’ll never make veterinary surgeons until every last one o’ ye has filled a 40-acre field full o’ carcasses!”
On December 14 1939, Alf Wight qualified from Glasgow Veterinary College. He had taken six and a quarter years to complete a five-year course, but by comparison with some of his contemporaries, this was considered speedy. This is how he summed up his feelings about his alma mater: “Though the course was out of date and inefficient, there was a carefree, easy-going charm about that whole time, which has held in my mind in a golden glow.”
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