The Anti-Canon Series: James Herriot by Nell Frizzell

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

book_vetinaharness
book_vetinaharness

Great emotion ruins great art.

As anyone who has ever suffered a break up can tell you, sometimes you just don’t want to deal with emotions. Not in life, nor in literature.

When you’ve been thrown against the snot-drenched rocks of fate, you cannot handle heartache, have no truck with love, feel done in by drama, you are too glutted with both pity and pain to bother with it in your cultural life.

It is at times like these that all you really want is a cow’s rectum. Or a prolapsed equine vagina or sheep with lead poisoning, perhaps.

When you are ploughing your way through the stuff that art is made of – sorrow, joy, love, loss, hysteria, desperation, longing and the rest, the only antidote is to read a description of a man, stripped to the waist, in a howling North Moors gale, up to his armpit in cow uterus, trying to loop a rope over an unborn calf’s jaw. Which is why I want to venerate the vet and prolific author James Herriot into the literary anti-canon... because there is no greater antidote to a surfeit of emotion than 250 pages on scrofulous dogs, breech calves and septic hooves.

Many of you will probably know James Herriot – if you know him at all – as the Sunday afternoon subject of Yorkshire cosefest All Creatures Great and Small. Which is fine; there is a time and a place for comforting rural television and I am not going to pretend otherwise for the sake of cynical charm.

But rather as comic actors are rarely recognized by the Academy – passed over in favour of yet another second world war/ special needs/ social deprivation/ motherhood and madness depiction of misery – so we tend to underestimate the quality and value of nice books. Even the word nice sounds like the kind of compliment you give to a fat, ugly, talentless child. “Oh, she’s very nice.”

Well, I for one, am done with suffering. In the words of Dylan Thomas’ un-underwired Mrs Dai Bread, “nice to be comfy, nice to be nice.” And it takes a talented writer to make the oral-administration of liquid paraffin to a constipated horse sound nice, and comforting, and even reassuring.

James Herriot’s books are not memoirs. James Herriot was actually the pen name of James Alfred Wight, who worked for, and later ran, a veterinary practice in Thirsk, North Yorkshire from 1940. The surgery of the books is based in Darrowby, which it doesn’t take the residents of Bletchley Park to realise is an amalgam of Thirsk and nearby Sowerby. But while the names in the books are disguised or elaborated, the stories are all genuine. I know, because as the granddaughter of a horse vet, I grew up surrounded by similar ones told about my granddad.

book_itshouldnthappentoavet
book_itshouldnthappentoavet

Even as semi-fictional stories, Herriot’s books are still a hugely interesting account of veterinary medicine in the forties; a time when materials, techniques and apparatus had barely scraped past the middle ages. At one point a prolapsed and engorged cow uterus is treated by sprinkling it in sugar, propping the animal so its hind legs are raised on a pig stool, loading the uterus onto a beer tray and simply pushing the organ back into the poor bovine’s vagina.

In another, a fellow vet’s supplies are described as having “a whiff of black magic about them; like his paste of arsenic and soft soap which you smeared on a length of twine and tied around the necks of tumours where it was supposed to eat its way through.” Now, I’m no doctor but if ever a man comes at me with a length of string covered in arsenic and soap, I imagine my expression would be set some way below unenthusiastic.

The description of Herriot’s own pharmacy reveals, not the ketamine and robaxin of fevered adolescent hope, but bottles of turpentine and iodine, shelves stacked with whelping forceps and tooth scalers and plenty of rope. Although surgery is performed – often in freezing byres or dark and dripping stables – there is far more time dedicated to the surprising or amusing cures that seem, to a modern eye, little more than luck.

A wild-eyed and panting bull, which cannot eat, cannot sit and seems to be suffering from internal pain is discovered to actually just be dehydrated – cured within the hour by having a cold hose played across its face and body. In another chapter, a group of calves, struck by some kind of muscle tremor and a glazed blindness are discovered to be suffering from lead poisoning, after licking the paint off their walls. In this case, as in so many, the cure is a handful of Epsom salts, morning and evening and plenty of fresh drinking water.

Even when animals die, or are put down, the emotional keel of the story never dips too far below regrettable. The light-touch diagnosis and treatment – a dab of iodine here, a chat with a farmer there – echoes the light touch of the writing. And it takes a deft writer indeed, to do so with such apparent ease.

The stories are also funny. Very funny at times. There is a Wodehousian lilt to the language that is at once self-deprecating, avuncular and benevolently frustrated.  A simple knock at the door becomes a thing of unfamiliar loveliness; “I rang the doorbell and instantly the afternoon peace was shattered by a distant baying like a wolf pack in full cry... as I peered through, a river of dogs poured round the corner of a long passage and dashed itself with frenzied yells against the door.”

I would argue that most half-decent writers can make a readable book out of unfamiliar and exotic situations. A voyage into the criminal underworld, a trip up the Amazon, a stint on the frontline; to a large extent these stories write themselves. It is a different talent altogether to turn the mundane, the known and the everyday into something that can entertain thousands of people across several decades. Someone who can, as in the extract above, make ringing a doorbell worth a read, is a writer worth getting to know.

Now, my adolescent ambition to be a vet is long since past. Although I did once get the chance to pull on an up-to-the-shoulder glove, push my arm up the back end of a cow and feel its hot, twitching calf inside, I fear I will never practice animal medicine. I may not even get to wear a tweed suit.

Instead, I am trying, slowly, to become a writer. And if I can ever be as good a writer, entertaining a raconteur and reassuring a narrator as James Herriot then I will die a happy woman. Preferably not as a consequence of arsenic and soft soap.