Ordinarily when traveling, my reading list is determined by several books I have taken with me, or – more frequently – by volumes uncovered in the local and regional book stores I love to browse along the way. I am not easily diverted from some kind of a planned reading itinerary, especially when I find such rich pickings in those out-of-the-way collectors’ troves. That changed for me unexpectedly while staying in the ocean-side cottage of friends when I picked up, first laid aside, and finally was intrigued enough to explore a small, unassuming gift-sized volume titled CAT STORIES, by well-known deceased British animal writer James Herriot.
Of course I was no stranger to the veterinary-author’s decades-long appeal to a world-wide audience of readers and fans of the famous television series based on his best-selling family of stories published under the rubric “All Creatures Great and Small”, “All Things Wise and Wonderful”, etc.. At one time I had even collected annual calendars featuring much-admired photography from the Northern Yorkshire “Swaledale” country in which he lived and worked, and which he helped to make a magnet to visitors and tourists, a phenomenon which continues today long after his death.
As I breezed through a table of contents with such titles as “Oscar: the Socialite Cat”, “Moses Found Among the Rushes” and “Buster the Feline Retriever”, I found little to excite my interest, until I began to read first one, and then another of these small but wonderfully-crafted literary gems. I read quietly and thoughtfully at first, and then, at my wife’s urging, aloud for the benefit of both of us. While I had long been entertained by the author’s lifelong attachment to and unabashed love for the animal kingdom and his rare insight into country life in an era fast disappearing from what we too-casually call “the modern world”, I began to recognize that I had been missing something important: James Herriot had been painting a far broader word “landscape” than the one I (and probably many others) had been seeing. To explain this, I need to back up and connect my readers with some history.
The real name of the Englishman about whom I write was James Alfred Wight, who did indeed become a country veterinarian after service in the RAF during WWII, and who with his wife chose to live in North Yorkshire where he set up his practice in Thirsk, and then nearby Thirlby in the “Dales” of that green and picturesque country of broad pastures, wandering lanes and stone walls. Aside from the farm animals which consumed his very busy daily life, he had an intense interest in – even a passion for – the English game of “football”. (I use quotation marks for the benefit of Americans who might be confused by such terminology.) Young Alf had long wanted to write and the sport of football was his chosen subject. Not wishing to bring embarrassment to the profession in which he labored, he chose to use the name of one of his favorite goalies as a pen name, and James “Herriot” was born. Alas, his career as a sports writer was discouraged by a stream of rejection slips. Then, and not until the age of 50, he discovered what so many authors learn eventually, and he began to write about the things he knew best, and the adventures of a country animal doctor took the world by storm.
What I really came to understand thanks to a small book called CAT STORIES is something his own son (also a veterinarian and writer) captured so well in a biographical sketch of his Dad:
“One of the things that people get wrong about my father is that he wrote ‘nice little stories about animals’. My father didn’t write about animals – he wrote about people. That I think is what keeps his work alive today.”
And that is what I finally came to discover on my own in an innocent-appearing little book I look upon as a collection of literary jewels, penned by an incredibly sensitive man with a deep interest in people.
James Alfred Herriot (nee Alf Wight) passed away at his home on Feb. 23rd, 1995, and the world is richer for his having lived among us.
: Published just months before the author’s death at age 79, CAT STORIES presents a rare and intimate insight into the complex, seldom-explored and often poignant relationships between small household animals and the people whose lives they touch.