Recommendation: All Creatures Great and Small

Since earlier this week I brought up the wonderful Robert Hardy and his role in All Creatures Great and Small, I think we’ll delve a bit more into it, or at least the book it is based on.

All Creatures Great and Small is the first volume of semi-fictionalized tales of the life of a rural vet in Yorkshire in the 1930s. The stories were written by a man named Alf Wight, under the pseudonym ‘James Harriet’ and all drawn closely from his real experience, but rearranged and altered slightly so as not to give notoriety or offense to his neighbors and clients. There are several other volumes in the series, though I’m afraid I’ve as yet only read the first one (I have, though, seen the whole of the initial run of the celebrated television series of the same name, which follows the stories very closely).

The book opens like all great stories do: with our protagonist lying in a pool of muck on a barn floor in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with his arm half-way inside a cow, trying to deliver the backwards, but still-living calf while the farmer holds a light over him and the farmer’s brother from the next county cheerfully describes how his own, far-superior vet would handle the situation.

From that introduction, we go back for some catching up: freshly-qualified vet James Harriet emerges from school to discover that there are very few veterinary jobs available in the United Kingdom in 1937, and those that are available aren’t being offered to a man with no experience. Many of his friends are being forced to take jobs as clerks, or worse still, hire themselves out as assistants to arbitrary, narrow-minded tyrants for little pay.

By good fortune, however, he finds a notice for practice in a small village called Darrowby in rural Yorkshire, where, after a brief trial, he’s brought on as an assistant to the good-humored, though capricious Siegfried Farnon (whose name prompts Harriet to picture a plump elderly German, but instead proves to be “the most English-looking man I had ever seen”).

The rest of the book is a series of loosely-connected chapters dealing with James’s first year on the job and detailing of some of the most interesting, amusing, and alarming cases that he encounters. When deciding to be a vet, he’d pictured a cushy, quiet life tending people’s dogs and cats. Instead, he now finds himself racing about the country at all hours of the night and in every kind of weather in a rickety old car that is perpetually at death’s door in order to care for ailing cows and pregnant sheep under the baleful gaze of skeptical Yorkshire farmers.

The results range from the hilarious (Siegfried takes James on a postmortem case and is obliged to demand a carving knife from the startled housewife, only to subsequently discover they’re at the wrong farm) to the heartbreaking (a would-be farmer loses his entire investment to a bout of mad-cow) to the uplifting (a gypsy family’s beloved pony is saved by recourse to an unexpectedly archaic remedy). And in the meantime we also have the delightfully rambunctious household itself, which consists not only of James and Siegfried, but also of Siegfried’s ne’er-do-well brother Tristan, who is still studying to be a qualified vet and has rather more committed (though equally successful) ambitions to be a gallant man-about-town. They exist under the care of of the redoubtable Mrs. Hall, and briefly are subject to the rule of Miss Harbottle, a secretary hired to bring some order to their haphazard business model, but who quickly descends into open warfare with Siegfried (whose idea it was to hire her in the first place).

One particularly funny through-line deals with wealthy old Mrs. Pumphrey and her beloved pet Pekinese, Tricki-Woo. Mrs. Pumphrey, Harriet assures us, is a very astute and sensible, and certainly a very kind woman in most respects, but has a spot of near-madness where her dog is concerned, insisting that he’s a reincarnated Chinese emperor, treating him almost a son, relating things he’s said, and proving constitutionally incapable of following the vets’ advice on his care (e.g. “Don’t feed him birthday cake”). Tricki himself, meanwhile, is a perfectly happy and friendly little dog, but never refuses anything set before him. The result is that at one point he ends up looking “like a little sausage with legs”.

Later on she acquires a pig named Nugent, whom the vets at least manage to convince her is best kept outside the house, much to the relief of her servants.

Another chapter has James visiting two homes in turn; one a large, elegant country house with every comfort, where the owner is treated with open contempt and disdain by his wife and daughter and finds his only solace in his dogs and hunting. Another is a hardscrabble little farm, where the teenage daughter happily takes it on herself to ride miles into town to buy her father a bottle of beer for an after-dinner surprise, prompting Harriet to wonder who of the two is really the better off.

Something else emphasized is the fact that the vets have to employ a good deal more detective work than ordinary practitioners, since of course the animals can’t tell them what’s wrong or what their symptoms are. Diagnosis thus is entirely a matter of observation, experience, careful probing, and, sometimes, just plain guess work, ratcheting up the tension in several scenes.

The chapters are mostly distinct incidents, but the book has a loose backbone of Harriet settling into his new life, embodied in his attempts to woo the daughter of one of the more prosperous farmers. Said courtship is as awkward, humorous, and accident-prone as everything else in the book, of course, but forms a sweet kind of barometer of his progress, while being yet another opportunity to show off the oddities of country life.

Besides which, he’s simply a good writer. He knows how to structure and build a story, how to capture the audience’s attention, and exactly what he needs to describe to convey the scene. Take the opening two paragraphs for instance:

“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.”

What a way to set the scene, to convey just how sheerly uncomfortable he is (and it only gets worse from there), while simultaneously hitting the book’s main theme of the disconnect between what he expected his life to be and what it turned out to be.

I think the chief appeal of these stories is that mark of authenticity; it feels like sitting down at a pub with a man and listening to him tell you tales of a particularly fascinating an unusual profession, one where a man has opportunity to experience a lot of adversity and a lot of absurdity, to see all kinds of different people and do a lot of different things. It’s also a marvelous glimpse into old English farming life, a lifestyle that was just beginning to fade away. There are any number of odd or eccentric characters in the book, but they’re in no way looked down on or held up for ridicule; Harriet evidently has enormous respect for the working farmers he plies his practice among and often praises their grit and stoical philosophy. The oddities are entirely human ones, instances of the endless variety and individuality to be found among people. It’s a warm, comforting, intensely honest-feeling book.

Overall, I heartily recommend it. If you’re an animal-lover, this is a must-read (though it will certainly make you cry at some point), but I think just about anyone would enjoy the stories simply for the authenticity, the humor, and the well-told glimpse into a little-known world.

Note: The above is Amazon affiliate link. A purchase made through this link nets me a small commission at no extra charge to you.

Note: If you have a chance, I’d definitely also recommend at least the initial run of the TV series, which has all the same strengths as the book (Harriet closely collaborated with the show makers), plus some marvelous performances – especially the aforementioned Robert Hardy as Siegfried – and lots of gorgeous views of the Yorkshire countryside.

Also, Tristan is played by none other than the marvelous Peter Davison prior to his becoming the fifth Doctor, a role he got partly due to his experience on this show.

Though if you’re squeamish, be warned that there is a lot of what seems to be real veterinary practice going on – which is kind of amazing in itself – so expect frequent scenes of the actors with their arm thrust deep into a cow’s rectum.

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