Enchanting stories from James Herriot, Britain's most celebrated vet

Dog the size of a donkey that made all of us scaredy cats: More enchanting stories from JAMES HERRIOT, Britain’s most celebrated vet

As Britain’s most beloved vet, James Herriot’s delightfully honest and at times hilarious reminiscences of a vet’s life in 1930s Yorkshire charmed millions in his books — and were turned into a long-running hit series. And as this exclusive reprint reveals around 50 years after it was first published, his magical work is still able to warm a nation’s hearts in this darkest of times . . .

As the faint rumbling growl rolled up from the rib cage into the ear pieces of my stethoscope, the realisation burst upon me with uncomfortable clarity that this was probably the biggest dog I had ever seen.

In my limited past experience some Irish wolfhounds had undoubtedly been taller and a certain number of bull mastiffs had possibly been broader, but, for sheer gross poundage, Clancy had it.

Looking like an Airedale but as big as a donkey, the huge hairy form had been brought into our afternoon surgery by his owner Joe Mulligan, an elderly and very deaf Irishman.

My boss Siegfried had told me that, when bored, Clancy would throw Joe to the ground and worry him like a rat and I became aware that my position, kneeling on the floor with my right ear a few inches from his mouth, was infinitely vulnerable.

As Britain’s most beloved vet, James Herriot’s delightfully honest and at times hilarious reminiscences of a vet’s life in 1930s Yorkshire charmed millions in his books — and were turned into a long-running hit BBC series

As I got to my feet, the dog gave me a cold glance without moving his head and there was a chilling menace in his very immobility. I didn’t mind my patients snapping at me but this one, I felt sure, wouldn’t snap. If he started something it would be on a spectacular scale.

I stepped back a pace.

‘Now what did you say his symptoms were, Mr Mulligan?’

‘Phwaat’s that?’ Joe cupped his ear with his hand. I took a deep breath and then, remembering something of Clancy’s past history, I bawled with all my power into his face: ‘Is he vomiting?’

‘Oh aye, he’s womitin’ sorr. He’s womitin’ bad.’

According to Siegfried, there was nothing wrong with Clancy except a penchant for eating every bit of rubbish in his path, with the inevitable result.

Over the years the dog’s treatment had all been at long range, a large bottle of indigestion medicine being dispensed at regular intervals, but prickings of conscience told me I should carry out a full examination. Take his temperature, for instance.

All I had to do was to lift that tail and push a thermometer into . . . the dog turned his head and the upper lip lifted a fraction to show a quick gleam of white.

‘Yes, yes, right, Mr Mulligan,’ I said briskly. ‘I’ll get you a bottle of the usual.’

Joe seemed satisfied as he pocketed the familiar white medicine. But as he turned to go on that Wednesday afternoon my conscience smote me again. Maybe Clancy ought to be seen again.

‘Bring him back tomorrow at two o’clock,’ I yelled, knowing that Thursday was my half day and I’d be at the cinema with Helen, the farmer’s daughter I was courting.

On that return visit, Clancy was seen by Siegfried’s younger brother Tristan who gave him yet more of the white medicine and was vague when Siegfried later questioned us both about what our examinations had disclosed. ‘Well now, let’s see.’ Tristan rubbed his chin. ‘He looked pretty lively, really.’

‘Is that all?’

‘Yes . . . yes . . . I think so.’

Siegfried turned to me. ‘And how about you, James? What were your findings?’

‘Well,’ I said. ‘I must say I thought the same as Tristan — he did look pretty lively.’

‘God help us,’ said Siegfried wearily. ‘You, James, a veterinary surgeon of two years’ experience and you, Tristan, a final year student, can’t come up with anything better between you than “pretty lively”. Hardly a worthy description of clinical findings is it?’

He decided to visit Joe and see the dog for himself and afterwards I was fairly confident that he would have something to say, if only to point out the benefits of a thorough clinical examination. But he was silent on the subject.

It happened that I came upon old Joe in the market place sauntering over the cobbles with Clancy inevitably trotting at his heels.

‘Mr Farnon fixed him up, then?’ I shouted.

‘Aye, gave him some more of the white medicine. He’s a clever man, Mr Farnon — I’ve niver seen a man work as fast, no I haven’t.’

And as this exclusive reprint reveals around 50 years after it was first published, his magical work is still able to warm a nation’s hearts in this darkest of times

‘What do you mean?’

‘Well now I’ll tell ye. As he came in he was pullin’ his thermometer out of its case. Clancy was lyin’ by the fire and he rose up in a flash and he gave a bit of a wuff, so he did.’

‘A bit of a wuff, eh?’ I could imagine the hairy monster leaping up and baying into Siegfried’s face. I could see the gaping jaws, the gleaming teeth.

‘Aye, just a bit of a wuff. Well, Mr Farnon just put the thermometer straight back in its case, turned round and went out the door.’

Nothing more was said for over a week, but it must have niggled at Siegfried because he arranged for Joe to bring Clancy back in when all three of us were there to handle him. On the appointed afternoon, nobody else came in at all and it added to the tension of waiting.

We mooched about, glancing with studied carelessness into the front street and consulting our watches every 30 seconds, then at exactly 2.30pm Siegfried spoke up.

‘Right. I told Joe to be here before half past and we’re not waiting any longer. You and I, James, have got that colt to cut and you, Tristan, have to see that beast of Wilson’s. Let’s be off.’

Until then, Laurel and Hardy were the only people I had ever seen getting jammed together in doorways but the three of us gave a passable imitation of the famous comics as we all fought our way into the street at the same time. It wasn’t until Siegfried and I had reached the outskirts of the town that we saw Joe. He had just left his house with Clancy as always bringing up the rear.

‘There he is!’ Siegfried exclaimed. ‘At the rate he’s going he’ll get to the surgery around three o’clock. Well we won’t be there and it’s his own fault.’

He looked at the great curly-coated animal tripping along, a picture of health and energy.

‘Well, I suppose we’d have been wasting our time examining that dog in any case. There’s nothing really wrong with him.’

For a moment he paused, lost in thought, then he turned to me.

‘He does look pretty lively, doesn’t he?’

Thank heaven for the infinite variety of veterinary practice. One afternoon, after a bull had pinned me against a partition and nearly crushed the life out of me, I needed something small and harmless to deal with and relief spread over my face as I consulted my list of visits.

‘Mrs Tompkin, 14, Jasmine Terrace. Clip budgie’s beak.’

As I was led into Mrs Tompkin’s cramped living room by Mrs Dodds, a neighbour who kept an eye on her, the old lady nodded and smiled at me.

‘Poor little feller can’t hardly eat with ’is long beak and I’m worried about him. He’s me only companion, you know.’

I looked at the cage by the window with the green budgie perched inside.

‘These little birds can be wonderful company when they start chattering.’

She laughed. ‘Aye, but it’s a funny thing. Peter never has said owt much. I think he’s lazy! But I just like havin’ him with me.’

‘Come on, Peter,’ I wheedled. As I lifted him out I felt in my pocket with the other hand for the clippers, but as I poised them I stopped.

The tiny head was no longer poking cheekily from my fingers but had fallen loosely to one side. The eyes were closed. I stared at the bird uncomprehendingly for a moment then opened my hand. He lay quite motionless on my palm. He was dead.

I hadn’t squeezed him or been rough with him in any way. It must have been sheer fright.

The neighbour and I looked at each other in horror and I drew her to one side.

‘Mrs Dodds, how much does she see?’

‘Oh she’s very short-sighted,’ she said. ‘She’s hard of hearin’, too.’

‘Well look,’ I said, my heart pounding. ‘If I tell her about this the shock will be terrible. Do you know where I can get another budgie?’

Three minutes later, at her suggestion, I was knocking at the door of Jack Almond, president of the Darrowby and Houlton Cage Bird Society.

James Herriot’s books have entertained thousands of Britons for generations

‘Have you got a green budgie?’ I asked breathlessly.

The stout, shirt-sleeved Mr Almond drew himself up with dignity. ‘Ah’ve got canaries, budgies, parrots, parakeets, cockatoos . . .’

‘I just want a budgie.’

‘Well ah’ve got Albinos, Blue-greens, Barreds, Lutinos . . .’

‘I just want a green one.’

A slightly pained expression flitted across his face but he led me through to the backyard and a long shed containing a bewildering variety of birds.

‘There’s a nice little green ’un here. But he’s a bit older than t’others. Matter of fact I’ve got ’im talkin’.’

‘All the better, just the thing. How much?’

He pursed his lips in frustration then shrugged his shoulders. ‘Ten bob.’

‘Right. Bung him in this cage.’

Mrs Tompkin smiled at me as I returned. ‘That wasn’t a long job, Mr Herriot.’

‘No,’ I said, hanging the cage with the new bird back up by the window. ‘I think you’ll find all is well.’

It was months before I dared put my hand into a budgie’s cage again, or to go back to Mrs Tompkin’s, but one day I dropped in on impulse.

In the living room the cage still hung by the window and Peter the Second took a look at me, then put on a little act for my benefit; he hopped around the bars of the cage, ran up and down his ladder and rang his bell a couple of times before returning to his perch.

‘You know, you wouldn’t believe it,’ his mistress said. ‘He’s like a different bird.’

I swallowed. ‘Is that so? In what way?’

‘Well he’s so active now. Lively as can be. You know ’e chatters to me all day long. It’s wonderful what cuttin’ a beak can do.’

Mr Handshaw didn’t believe a word I was saying. He looked down at his cow and his mouth tightened into a stubborn line. ‘Broken pelvis? You’re trying to tell me she’ll never get up n’more?! I’ll tell you this, young man — me dad would’ve soon got her up if he’d been alive today.’

The creature was suffering from milk fever, a calcium deficiency attacking just after calving and leading to collapse and coma.

The modern calcium injections I had given her normally meant one could bask in a cheap glory, having jerked an animal back from imminent death. But although the improvement in this cow had been obvious when I injected her three days previously, she was still unable to get to her feet.

Now the conversation between Mr Handshaw and I was being witnessed by a wide-eyed ring of his neighbouring farmers. They had come to help us lift the cow and when that failed he had come up with another suggestion.

‘Me dad used to say a strange dog would allus get a cow up.’

There had been murmurs of assent from the assembled farmers and immediate offers of dogs. I tried to point out that one would be enough but my authority had dwindled and it seemed only minutes before the byre was alive with snapping, snarling curs and the finest dog fight I had ever seen.

As I watched helplessly a total stranger tugged at my sleeve and whispered: ‘Hasta tried a teaspoonful of Jeyes’ Fluid in a pint of old beer every two hours?’

It seemed that all the forces of black magic were engulfing me, but then the cow shifted her position slightly and above the din I somehow heard a creaking sound coming from her pelvis. It took me some time to attract attention — I think everybody had forgotten I was there — but finally I had the stage and requested hot water and soap so that I could examine her internally.

It was as I had feared. ‘It’s hopeless, I’m afraid,’ I told Mr Handshaw. ‘The only thing you can do is get her off to the butcher.’

That was when he really blew his top, delivering the lengthy speech about what his dad would have done. At the end, I took myself off. There was nothing more I could do and I firmly believed that time would prove me right, but the next day I had a phone call from Mr Handshaw.

James Herriot’s best selling series of books were turned into a drama series by the BBC

‘Is that Mr Herriot? Aye, well, good mornin’ to you. I’m just ringing to tell you that me cow’s up on her legs and doing fine.’

I gripped the receiver tightly with both hands. ‘What? What’s that you say?’

‘And you said she’d never get up n’more. Well, I just happened to remember another old trick of me dad’s. I put a fresh-killed sheep skin on her back and had her up in no time.’

Blindly I made my way into the dining-room. I had to consult Siegfried about this.

‘Hard luck, James,’ he said. ‘The old sheepskin eh? You know it has a grain of sense behind it, like a lot of these old remedies.

‘There’s a lot of heat generated under a fresh sheep skin and if a cow is lying there out of sheer cussedness she’ll often get up just to get rid of it.’

‘But damn it, how about the broken pelvis? I tell you it was creaking and wobbling all over the place!’

‘Well, James, you’re not the first to have been caught that way. Sometimes the pelvic ligaments don’t tighten up for a few days after calving and you get this effect.’

‘Oh God,’ I moaned. ‘What a bloody mess I’ve made of the whole thing.’

‘Oh, you haven’t really.’ Siegfried lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. ‘This sort of thing happens to us all, so forget it, James.’

But forgetting wasn’t so easy. That cow became a celebrity in the district. Mr Handshaw showed her with pride to the postman, the policeman, corn merchants and fertiliser salesmen. And they all told me about it frequently with pleased smiles.

His speech was always the same, delivered, they said, in ringing, triumphant tones: ‘There’s the cow that Mr Herriot said would never get up n’more!’

Nobody could blame him for preening himself a little. And in a way I did that cow a good turn because Mr Handshaw kept her long beyond her normal working period just as an exhibit.

Years after she had stopped giving more than a couple of gallons of milk a day she was still grazing happily in the field by the roadside.

She had one curiously upturned horn and was easy to recognise. I often pulled up my car and looked wistfully over the wall at the cow that would never get up n’more.

  • Adapted from James Herriot’s series All Creatures Great And Small, published by Pan Macmillan. © James Herriot 1970.


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