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The Brave Mental Health Battle of Author James Herriot

Writing the warm-hearted All Creatures Great and Small book series helped James Herriot, real name Alf Wight, manage his depression.


Words by Pete Samson

 


The gentle ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ reboot is a surprise hit in the US, with ten million Americans watching the show, and the second series currently being broadcast on PBS to critical and popular acclaim.

The tender-hearted drama depicts the wholesome village life of 1930s vet James Herriot, based in the Yorkshire Dales in the heart of the British countryside, and is adapted from the series of warm and humorous books written by real-life vet Alf Wight under the Herriot pen name.

Some fans of the book series may be surprised to learn that the late author of these uplifting stories, which have sold 60 million copies around the world since the first novel was released 50 years ago, suffered from depression.

He even underwent electroconvulsive therapy in the 1960s. And according to his son, Jim Wight, writing his books helped him through the tough times.

As part of a broader interview for Britain’s Daily Telegraph about the continued American popularity of this very British franchise, Jim told me, “He had an extremely fulfilling life. He was happily married to my mother, our family life was great, and he loved his work as a vet. But he did have demons right until the end, occasionally he’d feel very melancholy.

“He had one severe nervous breakdown in 1960, when I was in sixth form. But after his breakdown, it was extra impetus for him to write. It was great therapy for him, the writing. And my mother was very supportive of him through those times, and encouraged him to write.

“I’ve always admired how he worked his way through it. He hardly had a day off work.”

Alf Wight (L) and son Jim in 1972

Such is the increased conversation around mental health issues, we can sometimes mistakenly think of it as a modern phenomenon.

That is not the case, of course, and Wight’s story is a reminder of how behind even one of the most successful, and jovial, authors in history can be a stoic, private battle with an extremely challenging condition.

To undergo ECT at a time when depression, and its treatment, was something only discussed in hushed tones must have taken great bravery.

And as his son said, his mental health battle did not prevent him from leading an otherwise happy, fulfilling life. Not only that, the writing that helped him also provided solace for so many others, from that first book published in 1970 to the latest TV series, which is also a ratings hit on Channel 5 in the UK, as well as in other countries around the world.

Jim, 78, said, “The good old Yorkshire depicted in his books were a lovely contrast to the high-speed technological world that was developing in the 1970s. The books were a source of great relaxation for people.

“I think the same applies now, 50 years later, with the success of the new series. It’s an escape for people in an uncertain world.”

Pete began his career on Fleet Street more than two decades ago, and has worked for some of the world’s biggest news, entertainment, and wellness companies as a writer, editor, and media executive. He co-founded Mr Feelgood to help demystify the world of personal development, and to encourage men to discuss and improve their mental health, by sharing the wisdom and lessons learned of inspiring leaders in their field.

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