James herriots dog stori.., p.2
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       James Herriot's Dog Stories, p.2

           James Herriot
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  As I have said, much of the tuition at the old College was a joke and, indeed, the whole curriculum was steeped in the Dark Ages, but there was a bright side. We saw a lot of practice. We had no clinic, so we had to go out and observe animal treatment in the real world. In fact, in our final year we had only one lecture in the morning and then we were out with one of the local practitioners for the rest of the day. The real world contained very few horses and a lot of dogs.

  I was lucky. I was a student with Donald Campbell of Rutherglen, a fine man and an outstanding veterinarian but, being dog-orientated, my biggest break was being able to work at the surgery of the great Weipers in the heart of the city. Bill Weipers, now Sir William Weipers and in later life Dean of the new Veterinary School of Glasgow University, was a man ahead of his time by many years. He set up a purely small animal practice and established it on a standard which was undreamed of at that time. He was a brilliant, immensely likeable man of boundless energy and his students worshipped at his shrine. As for me, I was spellbound. It was just dogs and cats all day long and when I saw the fine operating theatre, the top class surgical procedures, the X-ray machine and the laboratory where blood, bacterial and other examinations were carried out, one thought hammered away in my head. This was what I would do some day.

  This practical experience was a Godsend, and there was another advantage about those old days. There was no Veterinary Surgeons Act then and it was quite legal for students to work on their own. Some of us helped out the local vets at weekends and I actually did a complete fortnight’s locum at the age of nineteen. The vet went off on holiday and left me, wet behind the ears as I was, to run his practice. That fortnight seemed to last a year, but it did me a world of good.

  It was deeply satisfying to be able to apply our scientific knowledge to practical things, because we did glean some vital information from the college tuition. For instance we really did learn pathology. The redoubtable Professor Emslie insisted on it. He was no broken-down old practitioner, he was a dynamic intellectual in the prime of life with a passion for his subject and an awesome personality. Burly, black-browed, smouldering-eyed, he could cower every one of us with a single look. The bunch of hell-raisers with the poor old men were frightened little mice with Emslie. And he taught us pathology. With a savage wit and terrifying outbursts of rage, he rammed it into us.

  I was as scared as the rest but grateful to him, too, because pathology lies at the heart of all animal treatment and in those early days when I was seeing animals with pneumonia, renal and cardiac conditions and struggling to understand what was behind them, it was like the lifting of a veil.

  When I qualified and walked out of the door of the College for the last time I felt an acute sense of loss, an awareness of something good gone forever. Some of my happiest years were spent in that seedy old building and though my veterinary course was out of date and inefficient in many ways, there was a carefree, easy-going charm about that whole time which has held it in my mind in a golden glow.

  When, many years later, I saw my son, Jimmy, on to the train in York to begin his new life as a veterinary student, I said only one thing to him – ‘Have a good time.’

  I know he did, but nobody had a better time than me.

  With MRCVS after my name, I was now out in the big world, but it soon turned out to be cold and hard. I must have been blinkered during my years of training because my boyhood vision had remained unchanged. I was still in my white coat or in an operating gown under the brilliant lights with the nurses around me. I could see no impediment to my ambition. I would take an assistantship in a small animal practice, then after I had gained experience and earned some money I would look for a partnership or possibly put up my plate in Glasgow. The future seemed rosy. There were dogs everywhere, just waiting for me.

  But when I qualified I came up against harsh reality. The depression of the thirties was still lying over our profession like a dark blanket and jobs were desperately scarce. For every vacant appointment advertised in the Veterinary Record, there were eighty applicants and for those who did manage to find a post, the remuneration was often pitiful. Qualified veterinary surgeons were working for thirty shillings a week plus bed and board and it was terrible to read in the ‘appointments required’ column the dread phrase ‘Will work for keep’. These words cropped up again and again, a heart cry from many who, like me, would do anything to get off their parents’ hands.

  I saw my colleagues taking jobs in shops or in the Clyde-side shipyards and I was just beginning to despair when I was offered an interview for a post in the Yorkshire Dales. I could hardly believe my luck when I was taken on. It was a lifeline, but even in my euphoria a sad little thought intruded. This was a large animal practice, dealing almost entirely with farm horses, cows, sheep and pigs. Where was my dream now?

  But I had no time to worry about such things and the vision of the immaculate young vet in his sterile surroundings soon melted away. I spent my time in shirt sleeves and wellingtons, trudging through mud and muck, wrestling with huge beasts, being kicked, knocked down and trodden on. As a city boy, thrown headlong into the kind of remote rural community I had only read about in books, I was like a poor swimmer trying to keep afloat in the deep end. I was acutely aware that I had no agricultural background and that I had to establish myself among farmers who had spent a lifetime with livestock and often had a jaundiced attitude to what they called ‘book-learnin’ ’. Life was very full.

  And yet, among the hurly-burly, there was a magical element. I was working outside all the time, in the sunshine and clean air, and around me was a countryside which was all the more enchanting for being unexpected. I was amazed that nobody had ever told me about Yorkshire. The majestic grassy fells soaring high above the pebbly rivers and the grey villages, the airy distances of the moors with their billowing sea of purple heather. I had stumbled on a wonderland which appeared to be undiscovered because often I was quite alone in those wide landscapes. There was a sense of solitude here, a nearness of the wild which was exciting and I realised that if fate had decreed that I was going to be a farm physician instead of a dog doctor, the compensations were enormous.

  As the months passed this feeling deepened into a conviction. This was the life for me. I would never go back to a city again.

  It was a pity I would never realise my ambition. It had been with me for a long time, but I pushed it to the back of my mind. Then it began to come through to me that, even here, there was dog work all around – a whole charming little world of it among the scattered villages of the Dales. People had pets there, just as in the cities. Not in such large numbers but enough to make a refreshing sideline to my large animal duties. And to my surprise I found that these people were ready and eager for my services. The main reason was that among the tough, hard­bitten horse- and farm-doctors of that period, it was considered slightly cissy to attend to the needs of dogs and cats. I remember one old practitioner looking down his nose at me when I described a small animal case. ‘That’s not veterinary surgery,’ he grunted.

  But it was to me. Very much so. And I found that I had a pretty free rein in my practice, because my boss, later to be my partner, was a dedicated horseman who seized on every equine problem, leaving the dogs and cats to me. So it happened that after a year or so I had what amounted to my own small animal practice, with clients coming from far around to our little town to seek the services of a vet who actually wanted to treat their pets.

  This part of my work was like a bright thread running through the stern fabric of my daily round. Country practice is hard, but it was a lot harder half a century ago, before the modern drugs, the metal crushes and tranquillisers which make the handling of the big, struggling beasts so much easier. I was a young, fit man and I gladly accepted the rough life, but it was still a magical relief to step out of the dirt, the cold, and the bruising routine to treat the ailments of gentle little animals in drawing-rooms.

  It wasn’t the kind of dog practice I h
ad dreamed of as a boy. There was no operating room, no white-coated nurses. Memories come back of anaesthetising a broken-legged yellow Labrador on the floor of a village post office, of delivering puppies in a dark corner of a cow shed, of carrying out all sorts of surgical procedures on the kitchen tables and draining boards of lonely cottages. Since I spent ninety-nine per cent of my time driving round the farms, I could not have set surgery hours so people brought their pets to me when they knew I would probably be at home, at meal times or first thing in the morning. My wife often had to leave her cooking to hang on to a reluctant patient.

  As I say, the reality was nothing like the dream, but there was one tremendous bonus. My dog practice, though widely scattered, was never big enough to become impersonal. Whereas a city practice could consist of a never-ending canine wave flowing through the consulting rooms, that never happened to me. I knew every patient by name. I could remember all their ailments and it was one of my rewards to be able to pick them out in the village streets as I drove through and to see how well they had recovered.

  Over the years, our practice, like country practices all over the world, has gradually changed. The pet population has vastly increased so that something like fifty per cent of our work is with small animals. We now have the operating theatre, the X-ray equipment, the consulting rooms I dreamed of as a boy. And, of course, we also have all the modern drugs which were not available to me in those early days. To me, as to all vets, it is a source of great satisfaction to be able to do so many things for our patients which were impossible a few years ago.

  I know I am lucky in my job because I get a kick out of just seeing the dogs and cats come into our surgery. Apart from the medical aspect, there is a constant pleasure for the animal lover in observing the differing personalities of people’s pets. Because vets are animal lovers – that’s why they become vets in the first place. A lot of people think we are detached and have only a clinical interest in our patients, but it is not so. Ours is a caring profession.

  This attitude of mind is often borne out in our relationship with our own pets, and I have often detected in some of the most macho of my colleagues a thoroughly sentimental streak. As for myself, I am as soppy over my dogs as any old lady and it is a trait which has always stood me in good stead in my dealings with clients. So many people are embarrassed when they have to reveal to the vet their affection for their pets, their worries over their welfare, the anguish when their too-short lives come to an end. They needn’t be diffident with me. In the words of the old song, they don’t have to tell me, I know.

  I realise when I look back over the years that I have been so fortunate with my own dogs. Everyone who acquires a dog has to face the fact that they do not live long enough and that there is sadness ahead and in the course of my work I have had to witness so many little tragedies when even that short span is cruelly curtailed by illness or accident. But all my dogs have lived into their teens and, though the final break was possibly even harder, I have always felt thankful that I have been able to keep them for so long.

  I often think of them all, of their different characters and the happiness I had with them. The beautiful Irish Setter with whom I walked the Scottish hills during my boyhood, the little white mongrel who baffled all attempts to pinpoint his ancestry but who bulged with character and intelligence, my beloved Beagle whose big liquid eyes still seem to look out at me from so many birthday cards. Then came Hector and Dan.

  I dedicated my book Vets Might Fly ‘To my dogs, Hector and Dan, faithful companions of the daily round’. That is what they were. Their life was mine. Every morning after breakfast, they rushed outside and leaped into the car, eager to start the day’s work. Hector was a Jack Russell Terrier and Dan a black Labrador and they made a sharp contrast of perkiness and dignity.

  Hector was the elder by two years. When my Beagle died, I followed the advice I had given to so many people – to get another dog immediately. Twenty-four hours of enquiries produced nothing, then I noticed an entry in an evening paper advertising a litter of Jack Russell puppies. Strangely, I had been speaking to a friend a few days before and he had warned me never to get a Jack Russell. ‘They’re snappy little devils,’ he said. ‘Take the hand off you as soon as look at you.’ And in truth, I had dealt with some very tough specimens in my surgery and had come to the conclusion that the Darrowby Jack Russells had to be watched carefully.

  Nevertheless, I drove out to the farm and asked to see the litter. There were five puppies, seven weeks old, grouped around their mother. Four of them looked at me impassively but the fifth trotted out to me, wagged his stumpy tail and licked my hand furiously.

  ‘I’ll have this one,’ I said, and Hector and I started our fifteen-year association.

  He turned out to be the soul of good nature, a dog who loved all people and all other dogs. Everybody fell for him on sight, too, and he was exposed to a wide section of the community, because, in those days, I drove only convertible cars and he was on show all the time. When I arrived on the farms, the farmers’ children used to run out to stroke the friendly little animal craning out of the roofless vehicle. Their parents, in turn, were invariably intrigued by the sight of an amiable Jack Russell and one phrase cropped up again and again. ‘Hey, that’s a grand little dog. Can I use him when my bitch comes into season?’

  Over the years, Hector’s fame as a stud dog grew steadily and he produced a long series of happy, good-natured puppies. These puppies in turn had puppies of their own, all seemingly stamped with Hector’s temperament and so it went on in great widening ripples. It is not too much to say that by his own efforts, he changed the character of the Jack Russell breed in the entire district.

  Even now, many years after his death, my heart lifts when I see little Hector look-alikes walk into our surgery. He had an unusually long, sharp-pointed face and lean body with the classical ‘Chippendale legs’, and sometimes his progeny’s progeny remind me almost painfully of the happy years I spent with him.

  Dan came to me by accident. When my son, Jimmy, qualified as a veterinary surgeon, he received various gifts from family and friends. One of my colleagues gave him a five pound note. With this money, he bought a black Labrador pup and named him Dan. Jimmy’s first job was as assistant to the famous Eddie Straiton, the TV vet, and Dan was his companion in the night and day slog of this busy practice.

  When he came to join our practice, he brought Dan with him, so we had two dogs in the house. It was an instant friendship between them, Hector frisking around, gnawing playfully at the big dog’s legs, Dan submitting happily.

  Dan was truly beautiful with his noble head, serene expression and the glossiest black coat I had ever seen. Jimmy declared that his superb lustre was due to the vast quantities of milk he consumed at the Straiton establishment. There was a large cat colony at Eddie’s animal hospital and Dan used to raid their bowls shamelessly. I loved to watch him bounding along after a stick with his muscles rippling under that shiny skin. It was his greatest joy and it is how I always think of him now.

  When Jimmy left home to be married, he left Dan with me. He knew I had become attached to the big dog and he was being kind to me and kind to Hector. I consoled myself with the thought that his unselfishness would not be too hard on him because his new home was only a mile away, he was working with me in the practice and he would see Dan every day. He bought himself a lovely little Lancashire Heeler bitch which he mated and kept one of the pups, so that in Sophie and Chloe he had his own car dogs.

  As for me, I settled down to an era which I cherish in my memory as the Hector and Dan time. To a country vet like myself whose life was spent on the roads and lanes these dogs were very important. The pattern was always the same, Dan stretched on the passenger seat with his head on my knee, Hector peering through the windscreen, his paws balanced on my hand as it rested on the gear lever. Dan wasn’t worried about what went on outside but Hector hated to miss a thing. His head bobbed around erratically as I changed gear but h
is feet never slipped off my hand.

  One great bonus in my life was that I was able to take occasional breaks between visits, and since I worked among some of the finest dog-walking country in England those breaks were special. I do feel for the thousands of dog owners who live in cities. They labour under so many difficulties and disadvantages, but my walks took me along grassy tracks on the hilltops and among the heather. There was an endless multitude of these little paths, soft on paws and feet, free of cars and people and noise, remote and peaceful.

  I could hardly believe my good fortune at being able to call a halt in the day and step from the car into a tranquil world. Within seconds I was out in the beauty of Yorkshire, wandering along in the sunshine and the clean air with my two companions trotting ahead of me. Lucky dogs, I often thought, and lucky, lucky me.

  One thing Dan insisted on during these walks was a stick to carry. If he didn’t have one in his mouth he was miserable, and since we were usually up on the high, treeless country where wood was difficult to find, he used to spend his time ferreting about in frustration. Sometimes I was compelled to break off a strong stem of heather for him to carry, but he accepted it with poor grace. He didn’t just like sticks, he liked big ones, so very early in our association I took to carrying a supply in my car boot.

  One day a farmer was standing by me as I fished out my wellingtons and syringe, and he looked wonderingly at the stout branches reclining among my drugs.

  ‘What the ’ell have you got them great shillelaghs for?’ he asked.

 

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