“They didn’t say anything about this in the books, I thought, as the snow blew in through the gaping doorway and settled on my naked back.
I lay face down on the cobbled floor in a pool of nameless muck, my arm deep inside the straining cow, my feet scrabbling for a toe-hold between the stones. I was stripped to the waist and the snow mingled with the dirt and the dried blood on my body. I could see nothing outside the circle of flickering light thrown by the smoky oil lamp which the farmer held over me… There was no mention anywhere of the gradual exhaustion, the feeling of futility and the little far-off voice of panic.
My mind went back to that picture in the obstetrics book. A cow standing in the middle of a gleaming floor while a sleek veterinary surgeon in a spotless parturition overall inserted his arm to a polite distance. He was relaxed and smiling, the farmer and his helpers were smiling, even the cow was smiling. There was no dirt or blood or sweat anywhere.
The man in the picture had just finished a bit of excellent lunch and had moved next door to do a bit of calving just for the sheer pleasure of it, as a kind of dessert. He hadn’t crawled shivering from his bed and two o’clock in the morning and bumped over twelve miles of frozen snow, staring sleepily ahead till the lonely farm showed in the headlights. He hadn’t climbed half a mile of white fell-side to the doorless barn where his patient lay.”
They didn’t say anything about this in the books. This statement is to become the oft-repeated mantra of James Herriot, a newly-graduated student of veterinary medicine starting his career in Darrowby, a sleepy little village in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales. In 1930, veterinary positions are difficult to come by and pay little enough when secured, so James gamely tackles every challenge life throws his way, whether it be bitter cold in the wee hours, skeptical clients who insist they know better, or the kicks, bites, cuts, and general filth that is inherently tied to a country vet’s lifestyle. Luckily for Herriot, his new boss Siegfried Farnon is not the hardened taskmaster he expected, but instead proves to be an energetic, clever man who approaches life with a sense of British decorum and panache.
Perhaps it is Herriot’s long-cultivated work ethic, or his cheerful, self-deprecatory sense of humor, but gradually his clients warm to him. His new job exposes him to a wide array of personalities – hardy Dalesmen maintaining a family farm far away from the comfort of a town, nervous dowagers fussing over pet kittens, young farmers’ sons desperate to save a beloved dog, idiosyncratic country gentlemen – with whom he connects over a shared love of animals. Always the observant type, Herriot chose to record his experiences in a semi-autobiographical series of books entitled All Creatures Great and Small.
Herriot deftly balances hilarity and hardship in a joyous celebration of life in all forms. As the Yorkshire Post so aptly puts it: “After an evening among his tales, anyone with so much as a dog or a budgerigar will feel he should move to Darrowby at once.” Through beautiful descriptions and simple stories, Herriot expresses his deep affection for the wild, windswept loveliness of the Dales, as well as the people and animals who called them their home, inviting his readers to love them too.
Works Cited: Herriot, James. If Only They Could Talk. 1970.
Yorkshire Post. 2006.