Before Surgery Reading: Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small

I’ve always loved animals. I can’t say where it comes from, but maybe it’s in the genes. Both my nieces exhibit the same trait. Currently, I’ve been reading James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. If you’re old enough, you may have seen the BBC rendition back in the late 70s and into the 80s, ninety episodes in all. It’s good reading for me, given the sciatica pain that’s turned me into virtually an invalid replete with cane these past five weeks. Now comes surgery at dawn tomorrow.

Herriot’s work is much more about human eccentricity than animals and delivers dependable relief beyond medication to me in its rich mix of humor and humility garnered from thirty years as a 24/7 veterinary surgeon in the hollows of England’s remote Yorkshire country, regionally fictionalized, like Hardy and Faulkner, as Darrowby.

I had missed out on the BBC series, but came upon Herriot’s work providentially with a chance to download his works in one sweet bundle at just $2.99.

By the way, James Herriot is a pseudonym for James Wight (1916-1995). A devoted fan of soccer, he took the name from a soccer goalie named Jim Herriot.  At the time, tooting  your own horn in professions like law and medicine was considered bad form.

I hadn’t realized Wight was a prolific writer of animal stories for children as well, although a good many of his adult stories can be read that way.

I love the outdoors and sorely miss being out in my garden, hoe or weedeater in hand, accompanied by the fellowship of fauna and flora busy in their pursuit of life. Herriot reminds me of my lost bliss and kindles my enthusiasm to get it back.

I’ve found no one commenting on Herriot’s keen writing skills and the focused observations he brings to his narratives, earmarking him as one our better nature writers. Take this passage, for example, describing the artistry of a night wind in shaping morning’s wintry landscape:

But as always, even in my disappointment, I looked with wonder at the shapes the wind had sculpted in the night; the flowing folds of the most perfect smoothness tapering to the finest of points, deep hollows with knife-edged rims, soaring cliffs with overhanging margins almost transparent in their delicacy.

Busy in his profession, we’re fortunate Herriot got down to writing at all, beginning at age 50 and, initially, not garnering any attention until we Americans put him on the map.

I wish I could have met the man, first rate not only as a writer but, more importantly, as a sensitive man of science endowed with empathy for all creatures great and small.


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