Tuesday, June 13, 2023

If Only They Could Talk By James Herriot - A Book Review



If Only They Could Talk, was Alf Wight's first book published in 1970 under the author name of James Herriot. It was also his first book that I read, and as a young child, I was completely and utterly enthralled. My copy is now very old and looks a little time-worn. This book has been with me on trains, and holidays and moved with me to every home I have lived in and I still love it. 

Surprisingly, knowing now just how popular his books and the series that followed, James Herriot was turned down by publishing houses when he first presented his book. I imagine given his subsequent success and place in many people's hearts, that the publishers who turned him down bitterly regretted their decision! I am very glad that Alf White did not take rejection to heart and persevered to get his first book published. 

Alf Wight could not publish under his own name as that would have been seen as advertising, which was professionally frowned upon by the veterinary profession. He chose the pen name James Herriot from the name of the Scottish goalkeeper Jim Herriot, who Alf would have known about.  

Surgery in Thirsk
Surgery In Thirsk Where James Herriot (Author) Alf Wight (Vet) Practiced. 

If Only They Could Talk is a warm hearted book recounting his early experiences as a young veterinary surgeon in Thirsk, a small rural town in North Yorkshire, UK during the 1930's. I have written about Thirsk in my article Reviewing Our Visit To James Herriot Country Thirsk North Yorkshire UK, should you wish to know more about the town and the surgery where he practiced. 

His first book is full of witty observations, humourous moments and heart warming stories about the animals he treated and their owners. He depicts with honesty the difficulties, challenges, passion and wonders of a young vet starting out in the 1930's.   


His writing style is very easy, engaging and descriptive, bringing the animals and people to life so you feel like you are living his experiences right along with him. I just love the stories and tales he so wonderfully brings through the page.

His growing love of his adoptive county of North Yorkshire shows in his writing as he skillfully transports us via his words to the gorgeous stunning scenery of the Yorkshire Dales countryside. 

Whether he is helping a sheep in difficulty give birth in a cold field on an early Spring evening, performing small animal surgery, or diagnosing a beloved dog's illness, his love of the work and his passion to do his best for both animal and owner and his commitment to veterinary practice shines through. You really feel the dedication he has to his patients and the joy and sadness, frustration and amusement the work brings. 

Reading it again now makes you realise how much the world has changed and how much we have lost and gained. How community was so important and how they lived with significantly less technology than we do now. It was often frustrating that vets did not have the medicines they needed yet they were inventive and persistent to do their utmost to relieve suffering and cure, working hard and valuing each other.

He clearly has a wonderful sense of humour and the book is filled with hilarious anecdotes of his experiences with the animals and their owners which will make you laugh. I love the way he depicts the many wonderful often larger than life characters both human and animal he came across in his work. Truly one of the joys and gifts of all his writing.   

horse biting enclosure

If Only They Could Talk, is a touching, funny and uplifting book. I loved it as a child and as a teenager, often reading deep into the night, way longer than I should have on a school night. I loved it even more as an adult, picking up more on the nuances of life as a vet and the challenges, joy and frustration it would bring. It can be read on many levels, appealing to animal lovers, depicting life as a young vet, and for anyone seeking an escape into the 1930's Yorkshire countryside along with a young vet making his way in the world. 

Whatever age and stage of life I have been when I read the book it has made me laugh and cry every time. There were times I quietly smiled and times I felt it pull at my heart. The book appreciates the special bonds we can develop with animals and recognises those deep enduring feelings. It brings to life the struggles of farming life, making a living in harsh conditions and of being a pet owner with the deep bonds and emotions that prevail.

It depicts clearly and without pretension or hubris what it was like for a country vet in the 1930s in North Yorkshire including the joys and sorrows, the successes and failures and slowly becoming a part of the landscape he worked within.


Overall If Only They Could Talk available at Amazon, is a beautiful book, a timeless classic I have enjoyed reading and rereading for decades and I would highly recommend it. As his first book as a published author, I think he writes very well, easy enough for older children to read, yet there are I think deeper levels to recognise as an adult. If you have enjoyed the TV series then do read the book which has the scope and time to go into more detail. 

Reviewing Our Visit To James Herriot Country Thirsk North Yorkshire UK

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  1. It sounds like a book I would love reading, several times! I was not familiar with Alf Wight aka James Herriot, the author, before you introduced me to his work, writing, and home town a few weeks ago. It would seem he certainly found his calling in being a caring vet and an insightful writer. I have no doubt, I will love this book. Thanks for the review & recommendation!

  2. I have read James Herriot in the past and may possibly have read this particular first book. But reading your book review here reminds me of how much I enjoyed his books. I will definitely have to look this one up and read (or re-read as the case may be) as you have now reawakened my interest in his stories.

  3. My husband and I have loved the TV series “All Creatures Great and Small” and it’s Lear after reading your review that we would love reading Herriot’s (Wight’s) books about his experiences as a rural North Yorkshire vet. Thanks so much for the review and recommendation.

  4. Oh I love books that are interesting for multi generations. This one sounds perfect for young people who love animals and their parents as well. Who knows after reading something like this book, it might just encourage a future for them with animals as a Vet or Animal Tech. It's never too early to get the young ones thinking. Thanks for you recommendation and review!

  5. I actually find the stories of famous authors turned down by publishers (in their beginning stages) motivational - it's also J.K. Rowling's story! (I couldn't believe that), but then again, yes I could! It's wonderful that he kept plowing forward to ultimately be published and then some! This book sounds like a must read for anyone, but especially animal lovers - I love how how you've read it throughout your life, at many ages as well - there's beauty in that - a testiment to this book and the author.


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