James Herriot's Private Hell; Tormented by Jealousy, Terrified of Fame and Driven to a Breakdown. the Shocking Truth about the Man Behind TV's Most Famous Vet Is Revealed in a New Book by His Son
Jim Wight is talking about his father's 'little attacks of melancholy'. His quaint turn of phrase evokes a bygone era when expressions such as 'having a turn' or 'an attack of the vapours' might just as easily be used. But the much harsher word 'depression' would, today, be applied to describe his condition.
Jim says of his father, Alf - who is better known to millions by his pen name and alter ego James Herriot - 'My dad had a wonderfully happy life, but it was one that included little periods of depression, or whatever you like to call it. He had the big one - a proper nervous breakdown - when I was in sixth form, but there were other little episodes, never lasting very long, throughout his life. Once, when he was having one of these attacks, I asked what was wrong, and he said he didn't know. He couldn't describe it as anything other than "overwhelming melancholy".'
How poignant then, that the country vet who took to writing about his experiences was unable to explain parts of his own life. To this day, James Herriot and the fictionalised accounts of his life - based almost entirely on Alf's, but tweaked to avoid libel claims - remain etched on the national psyche, to the point that his old stomping ground, the Yorkshire Dales, is still known as Herriot Country.
Fifteen years after his death, he is still much loved. Yet the man whose books, such as All Creatures Great And Small, brought joy to millions was plagued by depression and feelings of inadequacy - due largely to his relationship with his own parents. Although from a modest background themselves, his parents never approved of Alf's choice of bride - Joan Danbury, a secretary - because they were socially ambitious for him. His mother, Hannah, who had delusions of grandeur because her work as a dressmaker brought her into contact with another social scene, refused to come to the wedding; his father, James Alfred, stayed away in solidarity, and Alf was devastated.
It was after his own father's death - by which point Alf had a teenage family himself - that old wounds resurfaced and, in 1960, he suffered a nervous breakdown. Jim partly blames the family history. 'Although they had no money, his parents had scrimped and saved to send him to private school. It was because of this that he had got into university, and been able to follow his vocation. Twenty years on, he was hit badly by the death of his father, and maybe some old worries came to the fore.'
Jim, 67, who followed in his father's footsteps, first as a vet and then as a writer, believes now that Alf was tortured by the thought that he wasn't doing a good job as a father. 'It was linked in some way with his mother wanting certain standards for him. He thought he was failing us because he hadn't sent us to private school. Dad just couldn't afford to. With hindsight, it was a needless worry. I couldn't have had a better education, and the same goes for my sister, Rosie. I went to university and Rosie got accepted to both Oxford and Cambridge. But in the midst of his difficulties, my father couldn't see that. With depression, you can't put things into proportion.'
That inability to think rationally seeped into the marriage. At one point, Alf became convinced that Joan - always an outgoing, even mildly flirtatious woman - was having an affair. There was no basis for his fears, but they tortured him anyway. …