The Private Hell of James Herriot

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 25, 1997 | Go to article overview

The Private Hell of James Herriot


Byline: FIONA BARTON

JAMES HERRIOT created a world of rural innocence and charm. His tales of a vet in the Yorkshire Dales brought to life a rich universe of laughter and love that captivated millions of readers and television viewers. To many, Herriot's world was not just an image of rural England - it was rural England.

With the slow pace of the country, idiosyncratic farmers and caring vets it was far removed from the humdrum, suburban lives of most of his fans.

At the centre of these tales was Herriot - the pen-name of Alf Wight, a real-life vet who simply sat down one day and began writing of his work in Thirsk. The millions who came to love his stories could be forgiven for thinking Wight's own history was as portrayed in the best-selling books and played by Christopher Timothy in the hugely successful TV series.

But it was not. There was, sadly, an unrevealed and much darker side to Wight's existence.

Now his son Jimmy has told for the first time how his father suffered severe bouts of depression, struggled with money problems most of his life and, at 41, had a nervous breakdown when his beloved father died.

Jimmy says: `My dad was not the happy-go-lucky character seen on TV. He was a wonderful, loving father, but he had emotional problems and financial problems.

`The newspapers wrote about the Magical World Of James Herriot - if only they knew.

`An American author wrote about my dad working in a paradise, a peaceable kingdom, a snow-capped Eden where man and beasts live in gentle harmony.

`It is laughable. It wasn't a magical world. Life was tough and hard.

There were times when he did get very depressed. Money was always a problem.

`He qualified during the Depression when there was no money to be made.

Thirty shillings a week was all he got when he started off.

`He insulated us kids from that, but it was always an uphill struggle. He couldn't even afford to take my mum out for a meal on their silver wedding anniversary.'

ALF WIGHT was born in 1916 and was 23 when he started at the vets' practice in Thirsk, where he worked for the next 50 years - with a wartime break serving in the RAF.

He didn't begin writing until he was 50 and even when he was world-renowned and the royalties were pouring in he always referred to writing as his `hobby', continued to work as a vet and did not change his lifestyle.

His books It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet, If Only They Could Talk and 17 other titles have sold more than 60 million copies worldwide, and spawned two hit films and the TV series All Creatures Great And Small, which attracted 18 million viewers a week in Britain alone.

After his first book was published in 1970 to immediate success - his first royalties cheque was for [pounds sterling]170 - he knew financial security until his death, at the age of 78, in 1995. But from his earliest days as a veterinary student, Alf was always a terrible worrier.

`On several pages of the diary he kept, he just wrote `I wish I knew more',' says Jimmy. `His job was a strain. It may look very light-hearted in the television series, but it is all about responsibility for life and death.

`At the moment there is a very high suicide rate in the profession. It is a very emotional job, you know, and there is a lot of pressure.

`He hid these things very well from us, but there were grim times that did transmit through to the family.'

Matters reached crisis point in 1964, when the sudden death of Alf Wight's father coincided with problems within his veterinary practice.

`The death of his father really shook him. It precipitated a very severe reaction in the form of a nervous breakdown.

`Those were very, very dark days, but my dad worked his way through it, even though he became very ill. He fought it and beat it through work. …

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