Long a Success as 'James Herriot,' Yorkshire Vet Jim Wight Says All Things Must Come to An End
03/18/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
That old favorite Protestant hymn could provide only so much inspiration. After four best-sellers, James Herriot has finally reached the end of the verse. All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Creatures Great and Small, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All, and Herriot is leaving the sequel up to Him. A hint of religion nevertheless crept into the title of Herriot's latest, Moses the Kitten, a brief, sweetly illustrated story of a kitten saved from the cold and nurtured by a sow. Though the book has taken its predestined place on the best-seller lists, Herriot, whose real name is Jim Wight, declares it will probably be his last literary labor. After nearly 15 years of making alternate rounds as a vet on the farms of Yorkshire and as a celebrity author on the talk show circuit, Herriot/Wight has tired of being all things to all people.
"I want to slip back and go do the things that everybody else at my age does," says Wight, 68. "It's horrible when you see the sands of time running out, and you have four nice grandchildren. What's the use of me hammering a typewriter when they are there?" Actually, even Moses the Kitten (St. Martin's), a seven-minute read that sells for $9.95, represents slim pickings reworked from the earlier Herriot canon. Readers have nevertheless warmed to Moses as they have to all Wight's cuddly tales.
Like the other Herriot stories, this one draws on real events in a way that appeals to both adults and children. "Aye," says Wight in his throaty Glaswegian way, "it's true, every word of it." By cleaving so faithfully to his own life behind the Herriot pseudonym (which he picked up from a soccer player he was watching on television while writing his first book), Wight has sacrificed a measure of privacy. Although he at first cajoled journalists into revealing only that he lived "somewhere in Yorkshire," Wight's Yankee fans soon showed up on his doorstep in the north Yorkshire market town of Thirsk. They still flock in on Wednesdays and Fridays, during his office hours in the red brick, vine-draped Georgian structure, where he began his practice more than 40 years ago. Wight says he is usually "all too pleased to see American visitors down at the surgery and to sign the books, because they bought baby new shoes."
In fact, as many as 50 million Herriot books have been sold, but most of Wight's earnings have gone to the government. "I wrote six books at 83 percent tax, and at the end of it my accountant said, 'You've written six books, and five of them you wrote for the tax man,' " says Wight. "Anyway, they gave me the OBE"—meaning Officer of the British Empire, conferred on Wight by Prince Charles in 1979.
Wight is the son of an opera-singer mother and a father who played piano and organ. He grew up in Glasgow appreciating arts and letters, but decided on a career in animal medicine at 13, when he read an article on the vet's life in the British boys' magazine Meccano. Wight began his second career at the age of 50—in response to his wife's challenge that men his age didn't write first books. Their son, Jimmy, 42, has joined his father's practice. Daughter Rosemary, 36, is a physician who ministers to the human residents of Thirsk. Wight and his wife, Joan, 65, live out of town in a two-bedroom bungalow overlooking a small duck pond on five acres. "I don't eat meat much," says Herriot with a nod to his patients. "I prefer vegetables, you know."
Throughout his literary success, Wight never considered abandoning his practice. Says he, "When I'm walking out in a farmyard, out in all the dust and all the old smells and sensations, I think, 'I'd hate to stop doing this.' " He allows that inspiration might one day call him back to the typewriter. "I might get what they call a rush of blood," he says. "Besides, I'm not so good at pushing the horses and cows about as I used to be." Whether or not James Herriot returns, Jim Wight can have the satisfaction of knowing he has lived both his lives well.