When I started at Macmillan nearly four years ago, one of my first jobs was working on new editions of the first two James Herriot titles. Whilst secretly pleased, I remember thinking, ‘hang on, am I working in the children’s books division?’ Because that’s what they were to me – books I’d read and loved as a kid; books that had made me desperately want to become a vet; books that had painted a picture of Yorkshire so vivid that on visiting family I’d felt faintly let down that there were no rolling hills or escaped pigs in Rotherham town centre.
In house, we all have our childhood memories of James Herriot – Jon Butler, the Non-Fiction Publisher, spent Sunday after Sunday watching All Creatures Great and Small round his nan’s house; Jenny Shone, our Senior Production Controller, remembers her mum accidentally reading her a particularly gory tale about pulling out a horse’s tooth just after she’d had a tooth removed; Sophie Jonathan from Picador simply gasped when I said the name and all but started singing the Animal Hospital theme tune.
But reading them again, the most important thing that struck me is that they’re not children’s books. Heart-warming stories of animal companionship aside, life as a vet in the 1930s onwards was also one of hardship and determination. From darkly comic tales of the early days of bovine IVF, to the tragedy of family farms laid low by foot and mouth, to the privations and separations of wartime, Herriot’s idyll was hard-won. In a time when East End nurses are de rigueur, spare a thought for the Yorkshire country vet.
A final thought: two months ago, my beloved dog, Eddie, died. When we got him I was a country bumpkin twelve-year-old; when we lost him I was a twenty-five-year-old Londoner, but our diverging lives made no difference to the way I felt. And the first thing I did was to stop working on these books, stop thinking about them as an editor, and take them home and read them again. Because they reconnect us, not so much to our childhoods, as to our homes and our families. And because if anyone understands why, despite the inevitable heartache, we long to spend our lives with animals, it’s James Herriot.
So if you’ve read them before, why not remind yourself of what you loved about them the first time round? And if you haven’t, well, I’m quite jealous of everything you’ve got to catch up on.
Non-Fiction Editorial, Macmillan