As Peter O’Sullevan’s coffin was carried out of Chelsea’s Cranmer Court on Wednesday evening, the three hall porters each raised a glass of Rose with tears pouring down their faces. Peter would have like that, the Rose not the tears.
The porters knew what they would be missing but they also knew that he would want them to celebrate because there was an awful lot to celebrate about – most of all from how he dealt with people. When Peter spoke to you, whether you were in that beautiful art-lined flat, a royal palace, the most distant racecourse, a scruffy railway carriage, or just a listener on the airwaves, you knew he had taken trouble about it.
It was not an act. It was, and this is written absolutely as a compliment, it was a creation. In an extremely focussed, single-minded way, he built himself into the person he wanted to be. He was the nearest thing you will ever meet to a living work of art. He achieved this through a very rare mix of adjectives – a courteous, caring, driven, private, perfectionist, as elegant in his manners and eloquent in his speech as he was sharp in his ever-open eye for a bet and droll in his assessments of others. “He is nice” he would say of some mutual acquaintance, “but of course an absolute stranger to the truth.” Sure, Peter and his wife Pat had no children, they never extended beyond the Chelsea flat, there is not a single ‘next of kin’ and his activities were confined to a comparatively narrow field. Yet this only added definition to his identity and allowed him to make friends, and indeed readers and listeners, into family but on his own terms.
He would be generous, informative, witty and even mischievous, but communication would be conducted with words and sentences that had style and education. A card from him, all beautiful handwriting and fountain pen, would be something to treasure almost as much as the ansafone messages: refined, mellifluous and sometimes with just the tiniest hint of mockery. “I know you are terribly busy but could you spare a moment from your frenetic schedule to give ‘the old wreck’ a call?”
Journalism and broadcasting all too often search, to borrow just about the only two phrases recalled from O Level Maths, for the “lowest, common denominator. With O’Sullevan it was always the “highest common factor.” There was never any pretence that he was one of the people. He was an Irish born, French speaking, wine loving, Charterhouse educated aesthete, but he was also a committed journalist and broadcaster and so it was his duty to share what he knew and saw in the best manner possible to whoever was good enough to read or listen. He did indeed walk with kings – his 30 minute conversation with the Queen whilst walking round the royal paddocks remains the only recorded interview of our reigning monarch – but his words, and especially his tips, were for everyone.
People now remember him as “The Voice” but, without any comment on the present state of the paper, you might find it hard to believe that for a long time, Peter was better known for his column in the Daily Express than he was for calling the horses on the TV. It was obvious that he was on the closest terms with the highest players, indeed he was the closest confidant of the likes of Lester Piggott and Vincent O’Brien and was often the man who was actually getting the money on for Vincent, the greatest trainer in history. But it was also clear that he was looking for an edge for his readers and there would be times he would tell a trainer friend “we are going to need this one for ‘Bert At The Garage’ ” – “Bert” being one of the column’s best loved inventions.
As a broadcaster he never let his love for the language give him licence to duck the detailed preparation on which all good commentary has to be based. While he was anything but a hearty, “life and soul of the party” and was always very nervous before transmission, he had great physical authority at the microphone. In truth he went on a few years too long and we admirers had some anxious moments while he struggled with big fields and failing eyesight into his 80th year. But in the end he gathered himself for some memorable finales and, almost the most remarkable thing about him, there was yet another glorious chapter ahead.
Far from declining into Shakespeare’s sixth and seventh ages, Peter seemed to relish the freedom from the pressure of any impending performance and was even more open and generous and funny than he had ever been. His charity foundation raised over £4million for horse and animal welfare and his public opinions were as well chosen as they remained lucidly given. At the end his body had betrayed him to make this week a blessed release, but anyone who listened to his radio interview during Derby week but two months ago will have heard a perfect mind battling with a voice already beyond the grave.
Most splendidly, Peter always kept a bit of mischief in the mix. At a long and well lubricated lunch in April 2010 he insisted that he had good information for the French horse Makfi in the upcoming Two Thousand Guineas and castigated we faint hearts for not following his £50 at the local betting shop. Makfi won at 33-1, O’Sullevan was on at 50s. Four years ago this week, on the morning of Frankel’s famous “Duel on The Downs” at Goodwood, he confided that he and his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” Golf R had been round the local motor racing circuit. “How fast did you go?” I asked chirpily, “150?” The great man scoffed – “150? We were still on the bridle.” Back then Peter was only 93.
On Wednesday evening, at about the time the Cranmer Court hall porters were raising their glasses in tribute, I got a text from a producer friend. It read: “they say you should never meet your heroes but he was the wonderful exception.”