by Stephen Parrish
All Creatures Great and Small is the first volume of James Herriot’s memoirs of his career as a country veterinarian, beginning around 1940 in northern England. In this, the first scene of the book, Herriot (whose real name was Wight) is finishing up with what has been a very difficult calving. “Uncle” is the brother of the cow’s owner, Mr. Dinsdale. Mr. Broomfield is Uncle’s veterinarian, and is clearly superior, in Uncle’s opinion, to Mr. Herriot.
I grinned. This was the bit I liked. The little miracle. I felt it was something that would never grow stale no matter how often I saw it. I cleaned as much of the dried blood and filth from my body as I could, but most of it had caked on my skin and not even my finger nails would move it. It would have to wait for the hot bath at home. Pulling my shirt over my head, I felt as though I had been beaten for a long time with a thick stick. Every muscle ached. My mouth was dried out, my lips almost sticking together.
A long, sad figure hovered near. “How about a drink?” asked Mr. Dinsdale.
I could feel my grimy face cracking into an incredulous smile. A vision of hot tea well laced with whisky swam before me. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Dinsdale, I’d love a drink. It’s been a hard two hours.”
“Nay,” said Mr. Dinsdale looking at me steadily, “I meant for the cow.”
I began to babble. “Oh yes, of course, certainly, by all means give her a drink. She must be very thirsty. It’ll do her good. Certainly, certainly, give her a drink.”
I gathered up my tackle and stumbled out of the barn. On the moor it was still dark and a bitter wind whipped over the snow, stinging my eyes. As I plodded down the slope, Uncle’s voice, strident and undefeated, reached me for the last time.
“Mr. Broomfield doesn’t believe in giving a drink after calving. Says it chills the stomach.”
The magic of James Herriot is his ability to find humor and poignancy in everyday situations. To another veterinarian this might have been just another calving. To Herriot it is a vignette worth sharing, a small parable about the human condition. His sense of timing—who knows when Uncle really made the drink-after-calving remark?—is pitch perfect.
I’m often told that a visual artist sees the world differently from the rest of us; she views objects in terms of hue and value, angles and proportions. A photographer is always looking for light and shadow. A choreographer watches how people move. I guess all of this is true. I believe a writer sees little stories in everyday situations.
My favorite places are train stations and airports, places where people meet each other, sometimes after a long absence, or bid farewell, sometimes forever. The details are usually subtle because the people involved know they’re on public display. Yet the more subtle the details are, the more interesting the story tends to be. Mere eye contact between two people as one of them peers out of a receding bus window can summarize a love story.
What do you think?
Click here to visit the book’s Amazon page.
Bonus poignant little story, an excerpt, by Linda Elegant, from I Thought My Father Was God, edited by Paul Auster. Here is the glorious entirety of Chapter One:
As I was walking down Stanton Street early one Sunday morning, I saw a chicken a few yards ahead of me. I was walking faster than the chicken, so I gradually caught up. By the time we approached Eighteenth Avenue, I was close behind. The chicken turned south on Eighteenth. At the fourth house along, it turned in at the walk, hopped up the front steps, and rapped sharply on the metal storm door with its beak. After a moment, the door opened and the chicken went in.