The bull stiffened but did not move as I plunged the needle in and with relief I saw the blood flowing darkly into the syringe. Thank God I had hit the vein first time and didn’t have to start poking around. I was withdrawing the needle and thinking that the job had been so simple after all when everything started to happen. The bull gave a tremendous bellow and whipped round at me with no trace of his former lethargy. I saw that he had got one horn out of the yoke and though he couldn’t reach me with his head his shoulder knocked me on my back with a terrifying revelation of unbelievable strength.
That suspenseful passage from All Things Bright and Beautiful graphically describes the literary style and the professional calling of a rural English veterinarian who writes as “James Herriot.” The book, currently No. 1 in U.S. nonfiction, is the second successive best-seller Herriot has written. His first, All Creatures Great and Small, also a bucolic chronicle of his life and death struggles with cows, lambs, dogs, cats and other furry beasts in the Yorkshire dales during the Depression, became a surprise hit two years ago. It sold millions of paperbacks and has been apotheosized as a TV movie to be aired on NBC Feb. 4.
Both books tell of Herriot’s apprenticeship as a veterinary surgeon in the hamlet of Thirsk. There Herriot learned the simple pleasures of pastoral life and, despite his astounding success and fame as the Marcus Welby of the animal kingdom, he continues to make his usual rounds to this day.
Dressed in tweeds smelling faintly of disinfectants, each morning Herriot sets off in his Peugeot through the district of hardscrabble farms where he arrived more than three decades ago. On one farm he may foal a mare, on another extract a wire from a bull’s mouth. Afternoons are devoted to such domestic patients as dogs, parakeets and hamsters (“I don’t like to treat them; they bite”) in an office shared with Donald Sinclair—memorialized as “Siegfried Farnon” in his books.
Educated in Glasgow, where he was born James Alfred Wight 58 years ago (he borrowed the pseudonym from an English soccer player), Herriot has been caring for four-legged creatures (and sometimes two-legged ones) since he first observed wildlife near Loch Lomond. He answered a classified ad to get his job in Thirsk and, aside from a stint flying with the RAF, never left. His wife, Joan, is the daughter of a local farmer, and his son James recently joined his practice.
“My wife said that people of 50 don’t start writing books,” he recalls about his beginning as an author. “So I sat down and did it.” He quietly published in England two small books about his life before Thomas Mc Cormack of New York’s St. Martin’s Press followed a hunch and packaged the two under a single title for U.S. readers.
These winter nights find Herriot typing out his next book. As he has already mined a familiar Anglican hymn for his other titles, his third presumptive bestseller doubtless will be called All Things Wise and Wonderful.