Vet in a Spin

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

Volume six of James Herriot’s fictionalised memoirs have him completing basic training in the RAF and going to learn how to actually fly a plane. He completes this but ends up being invalided out the service before he ever sees action – I guess the military want people to be fully healthy before they send them off to be killed!

But as with the last volume, we spend very little time in the RAF, with most of the book being taken up with Jim’s musings on his previous life in the Yorkshire Dales. We meet more of the wonderful farmers and villagers that make up his life and there are some touching stories about how their lives touch that of Jim.

We don’t see much of the supporting cast this time round, although we do get to see an unexpectedly tender side to Tristan, which leads into a beautifully bittersweet story. Jim’s business partner Siegfried barely turns up at all, and we don’t get any appearance from the always delightful Granville.

But as with the others, it’s a pleasure to read, and Jim always has empathy for his charges, whether that’s a farm animal or a beloved pet. His writing is soothing and the glimpse into another time is fascinating. Even for a confirmed urbanite like me, it’s a wonderful read.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443579

Vets Might Fly

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I was wondering what this fifth volume of James Herriot’s (fictionalised) memoirs would be like, given that the last had him leaving his wife and practice to join the RAF during WW2. As it turns out, although we do get a little bit of life as a trainee airman, he mostly uses incidents in the military as jumping off points to talk about other events in his veterinary career (although I did enjoy his playing truant in order to go and see his pregnant wife, and how he played the corporal who spotted him). Mostly, these books are gentle and very easy to read, and this is no exception. Apart from the chapter where someone in the town is poisoning dogs with strychnine, and six out of the seven creatures that Herriot treats die. I was not prepared for that!

Apart from that, we have mostly enjoyable anecdotes of veterinary life in the 1930s. It was hard, and a way of life that has pretty much entirely died out with the changes that have come in the latter half of the 20th and now the 21st centuries, and this provides a fascinating snapshot into a period of history, and a way of life that I mostly don’t know much about.

I’ve come to really like the other characters that Herriot deals with regularly – his partner Siegfried and the perpetual student Tristan, but my favourite character has to be Grenville Bennett, the expert in dogs and general bon vivant, in whose company Jim invariably ends up completely plastered, and showing himself up. It’s utterly cringeworthy (and normally I hate that) but so much fun, just to see how the utterly oblivious Grenville (who is really most jovial and friendly, and doesn’t have a mean bone in his body) spoils Jim’s day this time.

Speaking of drinking, the one thing that always jars in these books, and brings home just how much societal attitudes have changed, is the way that many characters, Herriot included, go the pub, have a few drinks and then just hop in their car and drive off. From a modern perspective, this his horrifying, but it was completely normal at the time.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoy this series. It’s not something I would have picked up for myself, but I’m glad that my friend bought them for me. I look forward to reading more of Jim’s veterinary and air force adventures soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443586
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2006

Vet in Harness

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I enjoyed this fourth volume of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs even more than the preceding volumes. This volume spends less time on farms with Jim elbow-deep in a cow’s vagina, and more time with some of the smaller animals that a vet sometimes has to deal with, particularly dogs. There’s also a slightly melancholy air to it, as although it’s hardly mentioned, the War is looming. And indeed, this volume ends with Jim being called up to serve, along with his partner Siegfried and the newly qualified Tristan (Siegfried’s brother), leaving the practice in the care of strangers.

Speaking of those two characters, another change to previous volumes is that they barely show up. There’s an amusing story of Siegfried judging a Christmas cake and Tristan pranking a drunk who mistakes their surgery for the GP practice next door, but other than that, it’s very much just Jim trudging through the Yorkshire hills and the characters he meets in his practice.

To make up for it to some degree, we’re introduced to a new regular – the specialist small animal surgeon Granville Bennett, a larger than life character with whom Jim inexplicably tries to match drink for drink every time they meet up, and ends up consistently making a fool of himself, in an endearing way.

Like the other Herriot memoirs, this is a very gentle and readable book, where Herriot’s love of the Yorkshire countryside is often to the fore. I look forward to the next one soon.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443562
Publisher: Pan Books (UK)
Year of publication: 2006

Let Sleeping Vets Lie

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

I’m not sure I can write anything about this third volume of James Herriot’s (fictionalised) memoirs that is really that different from the first two. Herriot continues to be in love with the Yorkshire Dales, and with the beautiful Helen, although he seems incapable of wooing her in any sensible way. Somehow though, she sees past all that and decides that she likes him anyway.

Siegfried and Tristan both continue to be true to their established characters, although now that I’m ready for them, they become funny traits that I look forward to seeing. Herriot obviously puts a lot of love into the characterisation of the various folk that he comes into contact with over the course of his practice, both the loveable ones and the not-so-loveable.

This is mostly just very pleasant, light reading with nostalgic fondness for a hard time, long gone. Although in saying that, there are a couple of tear-jerking stories, and I tense up every time that Herriot has to go and visit a dog in the fear that something bad might happen to it.

I’m not really an animal person, and not a country person, but I do find myself enjoying these memoirs a lot.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443548

It Shouldn’t Happen to a Vet

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

The second volume of James Herriot’s veterinary memoirs follow much in the same vein as his first. He talks about specific cases and characters from his time practising in the Yorkshire Dales, as as well as the eccentricities of his boss Siegfried and his boss’s brother Tristan, who also helps out, when he’s not studying. This volume also introduces us to Helen Alderson, whom our intrepid vet starts to woo. (The dates that he takes her on are toe-curlingly disastrous, but she keeps coming back, so I guess there must be something to the young man).

Herriot paints a lovely picture of a time that’s now long gone. I wonder what he would have made of modern industrial farming, without the space for the eccentrics and smallholders that populated the dales in the first half of the 20th century and who Herriot describes so lovingly. While I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to live in that period (or, indeed, any period without modern medicine and a decent Wi-Fi connection), I can be slightly sad that we’ve lost something as we’ve modernised.

These books are a charming, low stress look into the past and I look forward to reading more of them.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330443463

If Only They Could Talk

By James Herriot

Rating: 4 stars

Prior to reading this, my knowledge of this series by James Herriot didn’t go any further than knowing that the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison, starred in a BBC adaptation of it in the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, I thought it was a fictional account of a country vet, rather than a fictionalised memoir. In any event, it’s not a book that I would ever have picked up for myself, but a friend bought me the entire box set for my birthday and I’m now glad that she did.

It’s a very gentle, low-pressure account of the practice of veterinary medicine around the middle of the 20th century in the countryside of the north of England. A time when you could drive to the pub, drink several pints and then hop back into the car to go home (this made me shudder every time). Herriot quietly teases out the eccentric personalities of both his fellow vets (he’s the assistant here to the very strange Siegfried Farnon, whose younger brother Tristan also hangs around, when he’s not at university, allegedly studying to be a vet himself) and the good people of the Yorkshire dales where he works. You get a real feeling for both the place and the people.

I’ll definitely read more in the series, but it doesn’t make being a vet sound enticing at all (not that it did before – I am not an animal person), but being up all hours to be feeling around in the rear end of a cow, or having to put down a dog is not my idea of a good way to spend my working life.

Book details

ISBN: 9780330447089
Publisher: Pan Publishing
Year of publication: 2006

Queen of Science: Personal Recollections of Mary Somerville

By Mary Somerville

Rating: 3 stars

I’m finding it difficult to sum this book up. Despite the author being intimately familiar with science, particularly maths and astronomy, this very definitely isn’t a science book. It doesn’t even really talk very much about the difficulties Somerville faced in her studies and in being accepted in the scientific world, despite an unsympathetic family and first husband in her youth.

What it is, is a very interesting portrait of a fairly well-to-do British family in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is the kind of family that can hobnob with royalty and popes (Mary Somerville recounts meeting at least two) and spend their year wandering around Europe, staying with wealthy families on country estates for months on end. At one point, it is mentioned that the Somervilles do lose the bulk of their fortune, but there are no details, and it doesn’t seem to make that much difference to their lives.

Somerville is quite the scientific pioneer, in her translation and popular science writing work, and she mentions being granted honorary and associate membership of many scientific bodies. I felt it was entirely unfair that these memberships weren’t full (because the bodies at the time didn’t allow women to be members), but Somerville herself never mentions the point at all. I don’t know what she’d make of the fact that she’s going to feature on the £10 note from the Royal Bank of Scotland from 2017.

She was a life-long liberal (and, indeed, Liberal-with-a-capital-L), and very fond of animals, putting her name to various attempts in Italy (where she spent most of the later part of her life) to create legislative protection for them. In other ways, she perhaps wouldn’t be considered liberal to modern eyes, being firmly behind the adventure of empire, believing it to be “civilising” to the native peoples, and lamenting the fact that black men were given the vote before white women. We can’t be too harsh on her, as these were attitudes that were very difficult to avoid in the era that she lived, and for her time, she was indeed a very progressive person.

Somerville wrote her memoirs in the last few years of her life, and they were edited and published by her daughter after her death. This isn’t that book; the current editor has taken the published text, along with the original manuscripts of the various drafts and drawn together a new text synthesising all of the above (clearly labelling parts of the text that were drawn from the manuscripts). This is a very interesting insight into the editing process, looking at what Somerville and, then her daughter, felt fit to include or exclude.

So an interesting sketch of a particular part of a society that is now distant from us in time and attitudes, but not exactly a salacious warts ‘n’ all autobiography.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841951362
Publisher: Canongate UK
Year of publication: 1973

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

By Iain Banks

Rating: 4 stars

Let me say at the outset that I know nothing about whisky, and, indeed, am teetotal. However, this book, ostensibly about that liquor, is not really anything of the sort. Banks is invited to travel his native Scotland “in search of the perfect dram”. And so we set off, touring distilleries, with lengthy detours to discuss Great Wee Roads (GWRs) and his passion for cars and driving, generally; anecdotes from his past (including the infamous urban climbing at the Brighton WorldCon, which I had always thought took place in Glasgow); ramblings about the second Gulf War; and a general enthusiasm for Scotland.

This is probably the closest that Banks ever came to writing his memoires or to autobiography, and it’s a pleasure to read. I didn’t know Banks, but I met him a few times, and had the pleasure of buying him a drink at a wee con once. The book reads exactly as I remember him talking. Excited, enthusiastic and full of joie de vivre. I’m still astonished and shocked that a man so full of life died so suddenly when so (comparatively) young.

So don’t read this as a guide to whisky. Read it for a mighty enthusiasm about it, and enjoy the ride around Scotland in the company of some of Bankie’s pals, in his fun cars as you’re laughing down a GWR somewhere in the Highlands.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099460275
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 2003

Adventures With the Wife in Space: Living With Doctor Who

By Neil Perryman

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t remember where I first discovered Adventures with the Wife in Space, one fan’s rewatching of Classic Who from the beginning with his non-fan wife, but I quickly became hooked, always being pleased when a new episode popped up in my RSS reader. In no small part was this due to ‘the wife’, Sue, whose witty, insightful, often furniture-themed comments were a delight to read. I count myself a fan (even a Whovian), although my knowledge is patchy (although I did read a lot of the Target novelisations as a child) but haven’t seen nearly as many stories as Sue has. And she has my undying respect for sitting through the ‘recons’, something that I’ve never managed.

When I heard that the Perrymans were turning the blog into a book, I wasn’t sure how it would turn out. There’ a lot of material in there, and I imagined a lot would have to be cut out to bring it to book length. However, that’s not what this is. Although there are snippets from the blog here, it’s more a memoir of Neil and Doctor Who, as well as the story of the blog.

To be honest, the first section of the book is probably the least interesting to me, which tells of Neil’s childhood and early memories of Doctor Who. In the book, as with the blog, it’s Sue who is the main attraction. She has a chapter to herself where she tells us how she met Neil, but it’s her interruptions throughout the rest of the book, and in the excerpts from the blog, that provide much of the humour and pleasure of the book.

Now, I know I’ll never watch the entire series from beginning to end (especially not the bloody recons!), but I certainly want to go back and re-read the blog from the start.

Book details

ISBN: 9780571298105
Publisher: Faber Faber
Year of publication: 2013

Nicholas Parsons: With Just a Touch of Hesitation, Repetition and Deviation: My Life in Comedy

By Nicholas Parsons

Rating: 3 stars

Nicholas Parsons has had a pretty varied career, which he discusses in this memoir, from his early work while working as an apprentice in an engineering company in Glasgow, right up to his recent shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It’s a fun memoir, and Parsons rarely has a bad word to say about any of the many personalities that he’s worked with over the years. The worst he usually says is that A wasn’t quite as imaginative or fun as B.

I mostly know Parsons from his work on Just a Minute and there’s a whole chapter devoted to that, how it came about and reminiscences about players, present and past. He’s also done a lot of theatre and television work and is at pains to stress the degree of variety in his career, presumably to people who only know him from Just a Minute or Sale of the Century.

An enjoyably light read, that makes me curious to try and catch his Edinburgh Fringe show, but not one if you’re looking for salacious showbiz gossip.

Book details

ISBN: 9781845967123
Publisher: Mainstream Publishing
Year of publication: 1994

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