Valerie's Reviews > All Things Bright And Beautiful

All Things Bright And Beautiful by James Herriot
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Aug 28, 2011

Read from August 28 to September 05, 2011 — I own a copy

The titles of these books were different in Britain, and so the books are somewhat out of order for Americans. The American editions have the text of the hymn in the front. It's such a beautiful poem that I wondered why I hadn't ever heard the hymn before. Then I heard it...and it's AWFUL. Somebody would be doing the lyrics a significant favor to reset them to different music. If even my cousin, who consistently won audiences with his dynamite Al Jolson impression couldn't make it sound good...

Herriot made it clear from the beginning that he didn't want to discuss World War II in his books, and that makes this second volume a bit jumpy, since he kept casting back, forth, and sideways, trying to avoid the subject. If you do the math, you'll realize that he was married in 1939--so the bear in the room was hard to evade. The later book in which he DID discuss his war experiences begins to explain why he didn't want to discuss it. Here I'll just note that he didn't.

There are many points that even the genial Herriot has difficulty passing off lightly. The tendency to sell diseased meat from the knacker yards for animal feed should shock people more than it did. People don't even seem to recognize the process that was a major contributor to the BSE ('mad cow' disease) epidemic as shocking and dangerous. Herriot clucks his tongue mildly at the practice, but doesn't really campaign against it (as he does against poisoning dogs, for example).

Furthermore, Herriot recognizes the tragic effects of the consolodation of the smallholdings into large factory farms, and of the tendency to replace the varied breeds of moor cattle with 'pedigreed' creatures of only one or two breeds that can't survive a winter in the open. He understands the dangers of creatures that are so inbred that they're all susceptible to the same diseases. He also complains that the animals are being butchered at such young ages that only the dairy animals are allowed to live long enough to reproduce, by and large. He greets all these problems with resignation. Sometimes I wish he'd just speak up, and (like the Prince of Wales, for example), chide people for insisting on eating lamb instead of mutton.

One thing he DOESN'T note is the tendency to 'doctor' animals by consistently drugging them with antibiotics and growth hormones. He does mention antibiotics, but not as a regular part of treatment. In the 30s, even the sulfa drugs were very new, and their effects were often miraculous--because bacteria, never having been exposed to them, had no immunity to them. As for growth hormones, there WAS experimentation with hormones at the time (cf Dorothy L Sayers' discussion of 'glands' as the new miracle treatments in current discussion), but the routine administration of growth hormones was probably quite a bit later.

On reflection, I'm amazed that Herriot never managed to kill or severely injure himself or someone else. It's not so much driving drunk (he only seems to have done that once or twice). It's the sonambulistic state he describes himself as being in on night calls. Why one of the three vets in the books doesn't get assigned to only night calls is beyond me. In rotation, if necessary. But the practice of working both day and night calls could have been very dangerous--and possibly even deadly.

As for the descriptions of food, they give the lie to nutritionists who argue that present-day people eat a uniquely large junk-food diet. Check out the description of the 'tea' early in the book, for example. Only six people (James, Helen, her father, her aunt, and her two child siblings) put away a tableful of food (a 'groaning board', and no mistake)--but though this is a Sunday tea, the evidence is that other meals were not much smaller. The heavy farm work in the open air with little mechanized aid probably helped work off a lot of the calories--but still, the amount of food is incredible compared to present 'servings'.

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