And so, another school year is under way.
While I did not relish sitting through endless, tedious start-of-term meetings, and bidding adieu to mornings in bed is proving to be a wrench, it has been fun catching up with colleagues and settling in again. “Did you have a good holiday?” was the question on everybody’s lips over the first few days. I wonder if anybody ever answers “no”?
I myself had a splendid holiday. I was lucky enough to be able to spend time in Italy and England, as well as the French countryside. I had been particularly looking forward to my trip to England, as it was to be my first visit to the Lake District. I, and two friends, had booked ourselves into a cosy, white-washed B&B in some remote spot we could barely locate on a map, and long hikes, scones with clotted cream, and visits to Dove Cottage and Hill Top Farm (home to William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter respectively) were on the agenda. Absolute heaven.
We had forgotten, however, that the access to heavens of any kind is rarely easy. They must be striven for. In our case, traffic on the drive up from London was so bad that we began to fear we would never reach our destination. As we inched our way up the M6, we realised we were going to waste an entire day of our lovely holiday just getting there.
It was nearing dinner-time when we passed a sign reading “Welcome to the Dales”. I had been slumped despondently on the back seat but at that, I sat up straight.
“Oh look!”, I cried excitedly, “We’re in James Herriot country!”
No response from the other two. Perhaps they hadn’t heard me properly. I tried again.
“Did you see? We’ve entered James Herriot country!”
Still no answer, but I saw them exchange an embarrassed glance. Finally, one of them said:
“Um. Who’s James Herriot?”
I stared in disbelief. I had genuinely thought that everyone knew Yorkshire’s most beloved vet. I grew up with James Herriot. I learned my geography of the British Isles through the works of the writers who wrote about them: Dickens for London, Daphne du Maurier for Cornwall, the Brontës for the Moors… James Herriot’s descriptions had brought the Dales alive for me like nothing else – and certainly no map – could have done.
As we drove through, I recognised the windswept hills, the dry-stone walls rambling up and down through the bracken and heather, the flocks of sheep huddling in the distance, a black and white sheepdog yapping at their heels, the remote grey stone farmhouses that were only accessible via rutted, muddy country roads. It all felt as familiar as if I’d spent my childhood there – which, in a way, I had.
I remember a picture-book my mother used to read to us, called Oscar, Cat-About-Town, about a stray cat the Herriots adopted. Later on, on the long drives back to Paris after weekends spent at our country house in Normandy, my parents would put on audio cassettes to keep us occupied. Among those we liked best was James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, narrated by Christopher Timothy. Years before my siblings and I ever saw the BBC series, or even knew it existed, and years before any of us read Herriot’s books for ourselves, we were familiar with all of his stories, thanks to those tapes. To us, Christopher Timothy was James Herriot, and even now, whenever I read the books, it is his voice I hear in my head. Sitting in the car, the four of us would listen, utterly engrossed. Those weekend trips were peopled with marmalade cats, enormous, gentle draught horses, stray dogs of all shapes and sizes, and Yorkshire farmers with broad accents and weatherbeaten faces. Any knowledge I may have of how to deal with a colicky horse or a calving cow I owe entirely to Herriot, and if anyone had told me beforehand I would find such subjects to my liking, I would have laughed in their face – but there you have it.
It’s all in the telling of the story, and from the moment when the newly-qualified James Herriot stepped off the bus in the small Yorkshire market-town of Darrowby, crossed the street and rang the doorbell of Skeldale House to attend his very first job interview, not only was he embarked on an adventure that would change the course of his life, but so was I. During the course of that memorable day, he was mobbed by a motley pack of seemingly ferocious dogs, had to explain his presence to a dour housekeeper who had absolutely no prior knowledge of his intended visit, was forced to face the disconcerting fact that his would-be employer had forgotten their appointment, and was finally discovered by said employer fast asleep under a tree in the garden. As first impressions go, it was a doozy. Had he but known it, that day was to prove characteristic of his new life.
The life of a country vet in the 30’s seems to have been fraught with many an unusual or incongruous situation. I fancy, however, that no-one but James Herriot could have boasted of quite such an unusual and incongruous employer, and later, partner, as Mr Siegfried Farnon, MRCVS. As a figment of Herriot’s imagination, Farnon would have been a literary masterpiece of inventiveness; the mind simply boggles at such a man really existing. In an attempt to protect his friend’s reputation and not to cause offence, Herriot both changed his name and tried to tone down his portrayal of him. To no avail: the real Farnon was furious, and the book Farnon leaps off the page, large as life and twice as natural, brilliant, generous, warm-hearted, but irascible, disorganised and forgetful, apt to blame others for his own errors and to read them long lectures on the proper way of doing things, infuriating, endearing, and hilarious.
While Herriot was as frequently on the receiving end of his partner’s vagaries of temper as anybody else in the vicinity, Siegfried’s most blistering tirades were reserved for his younger brother, Tristan. Also training to be a vet, Tristan had nevertheless elected to put his share of the family talent and eccentricity to the service of mischief-making, repeatedly flunking his exams and annoying his brother as much as possible. As an inmate of Skeldale House, his antics include accidentally setting fire to a barn during a consultation, and impersonating the ghost of a mediaeval monk to frighten nocturnal travellers – a prank that backfired quite spectacularly when James decided to get involved. The reader is left alternately groaning in dismay and laughing uncontrollably. As for Herriot, caught between the Farnon brothers, it is a miracle he did not take to the gin bottle. Long walks through the heather, the sympathetic presence of his wife, Helen, and his own sense of humour seem to have gone a long way towards preserving his sanity.
I tried to convey a little of all this to my friends, but the joy of Herriot’s adventures is in his own unique way of telling them.
A week or so later, I was at my parents’ new house, unpacking boxes, when I came across a pile of audio cassettes and the portable tape-recorder we used to have in our attic playroom in Normandy. There was Herriot, alongside Austen and Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis. And to my delight, the tape-recorder still worked. I claimed it forthwith for my bedroom above the old stone barn. That night, I closed the door against the bats and a neighbouring cat that somehow occasionally manages to get into the barn, despite closed doors and the discouraging presence of five dogs, slipped the first cassette of Favourite Dog Stories into the machine, and settled back against my pillows with a cup of tea and my knitting.
When I decided to be a vet, I knew that I wanted to be a dog doctor, so I could spend all my time with dogs.
Christopher Timothy’s voice filled the quiet room and I heaved a sigh of pure contentment: whatever was going wrong in the world, I knew that I would always be able to seek comfort in James Herriot country.
© Florence Berlioz 2016