Tuesday, January 12, 2010

All creatures

I've just returned from a summer beach holiday at Apollo Bay. We're blessed with great beaches here in Australia and Apollo Bay is no exception: the sea was that inviting turquoise colour and swimming in the surf there late in the day was a great invigorating pleasure.

I usually try to do a bit of light reading on these beach holidays. This year I picked up an omnibus edition of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small. I had watched the TV series many years ago and was curious to finally read the book.

I wasn't disappointed. For those who don't know, James Herriot (real name Alf Wight) began his veterinary career in rural Yorkshire in the late 1930s. At a relatively late age, he began to write some semi-autobiographical stories about his experiences. They were first published with great success in the US in the early 1970s.

What's appealing about the stories? James Herriot was obviously highly responsive to nature and he writes with an obvious love of the countryside in the Yorkshire Dales. He also identified with the local population and warmly observed both their virtues and their foibles. The sense of people and place is unusually strong in his stories.

The importance of personal character also comes through, with the quirks of individual character something to be borne largely with good humour. Adversity in life is recognised, but the overall attitude is one of gratitude and appreciation.

All of which sets Herriot outside the trend toward the mass, undifferentiated society. Herriot's world has a real, concrete setting in the Yorkshire Dales.

It also sets Herriot apart from the whole "gnostic" trend, in which the actual, existing world is thought to be a false, oppressive, illusory one that we must seek liberation from. The gnostics can only see tradition as something hateful to be overthrown; Herriot was able to look at it more sympathetically, as the transmission of a particular way of life that gave a distinct character to a local culture he identified with.

Top: the town square in Thirsk where Herriot's veterinary surgery was located

Bottom: St Mary's in Thirsk, a beautiful medieval church where James Herriot was married


  1. Thanks for this post, Mark! It is this sort of approach to life that holds such promise for the future of our society... if only people would see it. Traditional life may not be easy and certainly is not without fault, but it upholds simple pleasures that everyone can enjoy, focusses on the tangible (people and place) rather than vague ideas like "freedom", and has a deep respect for culture and identity without pandering to political correctness whatsoever. Man and nature are intertwined rather than at odds with each other. Happy reading!

  2. Coincidentally, I too have been reading Herriot's books, in the long wonter days in Britain.

    What is so enchanting is the "human" aspect to everything.