Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In Praise of James Herriot

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.
A few years ago, in late afternoon, I would enter Happa's room. She would rouse from a nap, and with the last few moments of my day at the nursing home, I would read aloud. Her eyes would slowly close, and several times I thought she'd drifted off again. But then a smile would widen her mouth, her eyes would crinkle in amusement, and she would chuckle.

I was reading from James Herriot's "All Creatures Great and Small."

It sat on her bedside table. In the sterile environment of buzzers and medication, it was a souvenir to the familiar. I had grown up watching the BBC series "All Creatures Great and Small," and now I sat with a woman unmoored in deepening dementia, and we enjoyed the anecdotes together. Those are some of my favorite memories from the nursing home. To the end, her vocabulary was pristine and polished, her verbal expressions exquisite and articulate. Having taught in a university for years, we sat - the recent student and the aging professor, a mirror of past and future.

James Herriot is the pen name and alter ego of Alf Wight - a country vet in Yorkshire in the 1930's. Growing up, my brother and I giggled at the antics of Yorkshire farmers, squealed at the realistic depictions of a vet caring for the most intimate problems of cows, and yearned for the countryside of the Dales. I have now settled in a part of the U.S. that most resembles the rolling hills and dry stone masonry fences of Yorkshire: the Bluegrass of central Kentucky.

Siegfried and Tristan are bywords in my sibling lingo. My brother sighed contentedly when he saw Helen come on screen last week. "Helen!" he exclaimed. "This is so nostalgic. I always watched this when I was sick. It makes me want to eat an orange."

When I moved from home, some Herriot books followed me. At the end of a long day, a relaxing chapter about a quirky farmer, a difficult calving, distinct local bacon, or difficult coworkers are as soothing as the pots of tea I've drunk in the last week while catching up with the inhabitants of Skeldale House.

There are several short stories for children with beautiful illustrations about working farm horses, abandoned kittens, or stray dogs that would make great gifts for kids.

In a more technological rendering, it's been sublime to enjoy BBC's "All Creatures" via Netflix's instant queue on John's bargain XBox 360. Which means that instead of purchasing the DVD sets (pricey), or waiting to rent them through the mail, they are instantly downloaded via internet to the XBox. Soon, I have "Rebel Without a Cause" lined up, too. But for now, I'm happily settled in Yorkshire this January.

1 comment:

Bob said...

I loved those shows (books) I never did like the replacement Helen after the first few years. I still like seeing Robert Hardy (Siegfried) in the Harry Potter movies. Peter Davison (Tristan) went on to be a short term Dr. Who, and saw him in something recently, but don't remember what. I still whistle the tune of the opening credits.