Tag Archives: James Herriot


Tuesday morning began well with Dagny and Magne operating to remove the most enormous piece of detached cartilage I have ever seen from a dogs shoulder joint. It went so smoothly that I had a good feeling about the remainder of the day. Reality reasserted itself when I went through and carefully laid the dog in the kennel… and stood up, bashing my head off the door of the left upper kennel. Instinctively recoiling, I ricocheted and thumped the other side of my head on the door of the other kennel. It was that kind of day.

Next came a mammary tumour, which I had seen on the computer. I confess I had expected a dog (I saw the operation, and didn’t check the species because mammary tumours in dogs are incredibly common, and in cats incredibly rare). Again the same pattern, the operation itself went very well. I was doing this one on Magne’s behalf because he was running slightly behind schedule. As I inserted the last stitch, stripped my gloves off and walked out of theatre to wash my hands, Mobility Magne rushed into the room, brandishing a cat cage at arms length.

‘Can you do something with this,’ he gasped, before disappearing. I confess, I was somewhat surprised, but as the most disgusting stink assailed me, I realised that the cat in question had deposited something utterly rank in the cage. Luckily I have a strong stomach, so without further ado, I cleaned up the mess. Being a vet really is a very glamorous job. I am reminded at such moments, of James Herriot, comparing his vocation with that of a small animal surgeon and humorously self-deprecating as usual. He mentions that after his operations, “the final scene would have been of Herriot the great surgeon swilling the floor with mop and bucket”. Well even though I now work in small-animal practice, it’s not so very different. ReMorseful Magne (see what I did there) did proffer a partial explanation later when he told me that the awful smell was literally making him gag.

In the afternoon, I had a cat spay booked in, but somewhat to my surprise, two turned up. The owners, after being told by Magne that I sutured very beautifully, had asked that I be allowed to spay their cat, but they seemed confused when they arrived and saw only me. They had been expecting Magne to supervise. Fortunately at this moment, the man himself turned up and smoothed everything over. The highlight of my afternoon however, was when Irene was attempting to shave up the second spay for me. Because most cats here are spayed midline, she needed to be reminded of the landmarks I use when deciding where to incise. She had the cat laid out on a chair and seemed to be paying close attention as she felt around for the bony protuberances of the hip and thighbone. Finally, she found what she thought felt right.

‘Am I in the right place?’ she asked. Rounding the corner of the table to take a look, I was somewhat surprised to see her eyes were close to shut as she concentrated fiercely on what she was feeling, and that one of her fingers was on the shoulder and the other somewhere on the neck.

‘Um… well it would be if the cat was the right way round.’ I commented with a giggle. Fully expecting her to join in with my hilarity at this very funny joke, I was amazed when she opened her eyes wide and looked mortified. She really hadn’t noticed.

‘This stays strictly between us.’ Red-faced, she tried to silence me, but unfortunately nothing so amusing ever stays private here and she did continue giggling at herself for at least half-an-hour, so I guess she must have seen the funny side. I fear she may try to get her revenge by commenting to mention the very loud fart I let out when I was bending over to clean the floor in room B last week, but of course everyone will know that couldn’t possibly be true. I could never be so crudie.

Thursday morning began with a Caesarean. Dagny and Magne again, working as a team. Magne did the first part of the operation while Dagny revived the puppies, and then Dagny took over to stitch up. There were four healthy puppies, which is always a lovely event. Dagny had only had two hours sleep, but was still working as efficiently as ever. I have a feeling that her amazing cheekbones can get her through almost anything because she looked as good as ever too. Fortunately after the operation, she was able to go home and get a couple of hours sleep before the lunchtime meeting.

This weeks picture shows Wivek operating. It doesn’t get much more glamorous than this.

Welford Geography

First of all, I need to add one of those “disambiguation” notices like they have at the top of a Wikipedia page. The only Welford I am referring to here is the fictional Yorkshire version from Animal Ark / Hope Meadows. Any resemblance to any actual Welford (I see there are several) is purely coincidental.

I was amused however, to find that at least two Welfords host a church that is remarkably similar to the one I describe in Summer at Hope Meadows. I suppose that relates to the fact that Welford is, in many ways, an archetypal English village.

The geography of Welford has been a challenge. As I mentioned before, the very first chapter contained the direction, “Mandy’s childhood flashes before her, with memories sparked by every location of lovely Welford”. I didn’t just want to evoke Mandy’s memories of past events. I also wanted to know that the geographical locations were consistent.

Of course, with so many Animal Ark books, there have been a lot of locations mentioned. Although the writers had tried to portray an accurate picture of welfare issues and animal facts, one of the things my adult brain marvelled at, was just how many things there were to do and see in this tiny Yorkshire village.

As well as the church and the veterinary practice, there was a village green, a post-office, the Fox and Goose public house, a village hall and lots of cottages belonging to different characters. When I read further, I discovered tennis courts, stables and a camp-site. There had even been a western-style ranch at one point.

I had two quite memorable conversations with Victoria on this subject. The first was a request for a Welford Map. I asked whether there had been one at any time. Victoria replied that she had, at some point, tried to create such a document, but that she had no idea where it had gone. Instead, a very short time afterwards, she set the Working Partners intern to producing one.

I’m not sure how many books were referred to. There is a very detailed list of past characters, which has obviously been added to over time, but the geography list is less detailed. Still, armed with my new map, I was satisfied that for all the Hope Meadows books, we now had a consistent plan.

Our other conversation related to the surprisingly profitable and business-rich nature of the place. What was described as a village, seemed closer to being a bustling market town.

Victoria and I settled on the idea that there had been a lot of peripheral housing development since the 1980s, beyond the centre. So the quaint heart remains the same as ever and still has a village feel. But when Mandy looks down at Welford from the top of Sowerby Fell later, she can see a string of housing estates scattered along the road to neighbouring Walton.

Finally, I was also interested in which area of Yorkshire Welford was set. It was described as being about an hour’s drive from York and two hours from Leeds. There were times Mandy had to drive between Leeds and Welford. I think it is situated to the northwest of York.

In fact, I strongly suspect that if Animal Ark was a real practice, it would be in competition with the practice in Thirsk, where James Herriot worked. Like Mr Herriot, my descriptions of Welford and its surroundings have more in common with the villages and towns higher up in the Yorkshire Dales than in Thirsk itself.

I don’t know what the great man would have thought of Animal Ark. It seems to me, there are more than a few nods towards the Herriot vision of Yorkshire. But my overwhelming wish is to produce work that reflects my respect. I hope he would have approved.

This weeks image is of St Chad’s church in Middlesmoor, at the top of Nidderdale.

On Writing

Some of those who access this post will recognise I have shamelessly stolen today’s title from Stephen King… because one day I’m going to be as big as him, obviously. I’m not going to emulate him in trying to tell others how to write however, I just wanted to reflect a little on the writing process, and on the dreary experience of approaching a brick wall of literary agents. I think that is the correct collective noun, though of course (as ever) I hope to be proved wrong this time.

I find the whole process of trying to find an agent very distressing. I am fully aware there are other people out there who are much worse off. I could, for example, be trying to try and find a job to pay the bills. I am immensely lucky in having a very supportive husband. But the process of putting my work out there and then… well actually the rejections themselves aren’t so bad; it’s the long silences I find harder to bear. I find myself checking my e-mail box with ridiculous frequency. It would be easier if I knew that agents had down time. If I could stop checking over the weekend, for example, it would give me a break, but I know they read and respond at all sorts of odd times. They are very busy, that much is clear. Of course, if I had any of that thing known as self-control, I could have a break anyway. Sadly the self-control gene passed me by.

For the moment, it is “Tomorrow” I am trying to promote. An odd experience because I have done it before with the same chapters and a similar synopsis. The last time, I had the unmitigated joy of receiving a request for the full manuscript. In the event, the full MS was rejected within a day of being sent off, (rightly so as it wasn’t ready) but at least I have to presume that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the chapters I am sending. It is just a subjective matter of finding someone who likes them.

In the meantime, I want to get on with something else, and although I have been toying with putting together a detailed plot for a new book, I have also received some feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and I feel inspired rather to head back and redraft that before moving on. One of the frustrations of teaching yourself to write is that feedback can be terribly difficult to come by. Informed feedback even more so. So then, I have to take what I can, where I find it. I have various friends who read “Ready, Vet, Go!” and the majority of them reacted positively. One or two never finished reading it, which I put down at the time, to life getting in the way. When I sent my chapters and synopsis off to the first agents, (for anyone reading who doesn’t write, this is the standard sample that literary agents ask for to assess your manuscript) I was fully expecting an enthusiastic response… or at least some response other than absolute silence or flat generic rejection.

The first response I received was from an agent I’ve been communicating with occasionally for years, ever since I wrote to James Wight (son of the late, great James Herriot) and he generously (and incredibly) telephoned me to put me in touch with his agent. They’ve been very kind, though they have steadfastly rejected me a number of times, but one thing they have always done has been to give me feedback. They commented that the chapters were well written, but that the plot seemed a little slow, and they were struggling to see a narrative hook that they could use to sell it to publishers. I wasn’t too downhearted at that, and set out to send it to other agencies. Resounding silence ensued. Having contacted twenty agents, I couldn’t honestly bring myself to carry on putting myself through the wringer. Only one more agency gave me feedback, this time to say “Your veterinary details ring true but you need a much greater depth of characterisation and a stronger plot.” For those of you who have never been through this process, it will be difficult to understand why I felt glad to receive such a brief and negative message, but I had honestly reached the stage when any feedback at all regarding my utter lack of success was valued.

It took a while to work out my next move. I really wanted to know whether there was a genuine fault with my narrative, or whether it was just that it hadn’t resonated with any agents, so I set out, via this blog, to find some readers who weren’t friends and family to test-drive my novel. It was an interesting experience. I posted on a Facebook forum, and very quickly received seven enthusiastic offers. Smiling to myself… obviously my three chapters were not so awful… I send out the book to my new group of beta-readers… and the result was another deafening silence. It was a very odd experience. When I contacted them, those who did respond invariably said that they had been enjoying the book, but life got in the way. Some of them cited bereavements, some just family pressures. One lady, after my prompting did finally finish, and said she enjoyed it, but I had to accept that even without more concrete feedback, a novel that can be put down so easily and forgotten, is fundamentally a novel that isn’t doing its job.

And yet still I had this problem of a lack of constructive feedback. I knew there was something wrong, just not how to fix it. I am an enduringly fortunate person. At this point my parents, for the first time, really engaged with my plight and stepped in. Perhaps this was because I had spent part of the summer holidays hogging their printer to send out four precious printed submissions (one of which prompted the “Veterinary details ring true” response). A friend of theirs was a professional playwright and poet, and better still she used to run creative writing courses. For the first time, I was able to receive some detailed feedback from someone who had read the whole work, and knew what she was talking about. She had some very positive things to say abut my easy writing style, and consistency. She suggested that to improve the work, I would need to inject some additional tension, and perhaps a little dark to counteract the lightness. She also suggested that to improve the characterisation, I perhaps could weave in some back-story for the protagonists. She was very upbeat about the prospect of me finding an agent. She said she thought it was just a matter of time and perseverance. She did have some negative feedback though on my subject matter. Her gut feeling was that the veterinary theme has been done to death, and that very few publishers would even consider it. She suggested I move on and work on other projects.

This was a very odd feeling for me. I have always felt that there continued to be such an interest in animal-stories that, so long as it was really well done, there would always be a space for another vet. Last year there was a blatant attempt by the BBC to reinstate James Herriot, which to me suggests that they would like to have a new veterinary series. The immediate audience response was to tune in (nine-million of them, I believe) and then to tune out again because… well in my opinion the characters were just not engaging.

Anyway, I put everything aside, and had been trying to start something new. A couple of days ago, however, I received an unexpected e-mail from one of the agents I contacted with “Ready, Vet, Go!”. Now I don’t know whether she was kind enough to give me feedback because she my submission had been “misfiled” (her word) and there had been an excessive delay. Anyway, for whatever reason, she was the third agent to give me feedback on “Ready, Vet, Go!” and this is what she said.

“I’m sorry that your novel is not one for which we would be confident of securing a commercial publisher’s support. I’m old enough to remember the James Herriot novels which I loved and I was initially intrigued by the idea of something similar. I do think your idea has potential, but I didn’t feel your narrative voice was quite strong enough to support the ambition of your ideas. I felt as if I was being retold a story, rather than the story itself.”

This then was something new. An agent who didn’t like my writing so much, but who definitely didn’t feel negative about the subject matter. I have honestly been toiling with starting to put together a whole new project. I am aware that agents want you to do that. You should always be writing “the next thing”. But really, it is hard to motivate oneself with so little feedback, so little positive affirmation that yes, at some point, someone will read and love my work. Hard to find the enthusiasm when there is wind and rain and grey skies outside. And so rather than starting something difficult, I have decided to go back and review an old friend. I don’t want anyone to feel I am just retelling a story. I want them to share the joy of standing in a cow-byre, ankle deep in straw and unnamed muck looking at a placid, motherly animal, in the knowledge that it really is possible to make life better.