'I am reduced to water and that is a severe curtailment'
Alastair Down talks to the Voice of Racing
First published on November 9, 2014
On Monday morning a pilgrimage to the Tower of London to see the red ceramic sea. A day later a visit, not without a kindred degree of poignancy, to Sir Peter O'Sullevan, who was born in March 1918, a little over eight months before the guns, at last, fell silent.
At 96 O'Sullevan is ailing of body but pin-sharp of mind. He lies in bed surrounded by piles of paperwork and the patiently borne paraphernalia of being ill. And he rises above it all with a bright smile and that matchless voice – epoch-evoking to more than one generation – only a fraction flaked round the edges. The reassuring and glorious timbre remains intact.
It may be possible that next year, as the leaves wander into autumn, his long-time ally Alec Head will still have cause to reach once more for the phone to tell his old friend how Treve has worked early in Arc week. But you get the feeling from Sir Peter – punter and judge to his very marrow – that he would not recommend such an eventuality to his legion of followers as being the stuff of banker material.
The excuse for meeting up with O'Sullevan is that he has just published a revised edition of his autobiography Calling The Horses 25 years on from its launch; at a little shy of 500 pages it is both a chronicle of a racing life well lived but also a valuable document of a changing world.
O'Sullevan knew everybody and still does – Lester Piggott was one visitor this week – but if there are elements of Noel Coward's 'I went to a marvellous party' about Sir Peter's long life there have also been some dark struggles with which he had to engage in his early years. The fact that he makes light of them – he is after all from a generation averse to complaining – should not fool you into thinking they did not mark him.
He says: "I never had much of an education as my school career was constantly interrupted by illness. Asthma was the main culprit and bronchitis was an issue, particularly when it became pneumonia.
"I was a sickly child and spent a lot of time in the sanatorium. And that isolated me as your class and friends moved on leaving you behind and that could be dispiriting. I failed common entrance but got into Charterhouse thanks to a letter from my headmaster saying 'the poor kid is very delicate but he will get in the first XI football team and he's a sharp left-arm bowler'."
But with O'Sullevan, beneath the almost elaborate good manners, there has always been a strong hint of steel and he was clearly a fighter against his afflictions. When double pneumonia ended his stint at Charterhouse he was sent to Switzerland, where it was thought the mountain air would help. His housemaster wrote tellingly: "Peter's sustained and courageous battle against his delicacy has the admiration of us all."
If O'Sullevan ever went through the ring at Tattersalls he'd have been spun by the vet every time but he was never short of grit.
Just as well, because he was struck down by a hideous and exceptionally painful skin complaint – the chronic furunculosis that led to him failing the medical at the start of World War II – and he became a resident in the Middlesex Hosptal. He led a nocturnal life as he deemed his appearance unfit for others in the cold light of day until he made sorties into the sunshine "emboldened by the use of a medicated mask through which I could see and not be seen".
O'Sullevan says: "The skin complaint was the thing that truly isolated me. I became dreadfully shy and virtually reclusive."
It must have been a nightmare for a teenager but the intervening decades have allowed a little levity into his recollections, and he adds: "Part of my treatment was a series of weird and unpleasant diets. So at the very age I should have been chasing girls, my erotic dreams were of roast chickens running down the road rather than naked ladies." In time, as his skin relented its onslaught on his confidence, you may rest assured the chickens gave way to birds of a different feather.
Unable to serve in the military, O'Sullevan joined the Chelsea Civil Defence Rescue Service working 24 hours on/24 hours off until 1944 for the sum of £4 12s 6d – or £4.621/2p in modern shekels.
He says: "There were some traumatic experiences when an air-raid shelter was hit. The first body I had to pull out was on the corner of Beaufort Street and the King's Road. It was a young girl who had obviously been going on a date that night as she'd had time to paint three of her nails before the bomb dropped.
"Close by was a man who had been completely eviscerated. The man took your breath away – almost literally – but the girl . . . she took one's heart away."
And heart and compassion is very much what O'Sullevan is about. His civility masks the inner radical who has come more to the fore in recent years. As a young man the grand Jakie Astor affectionately nicknamed him Peter O'Socialist and he volunteered to distribute leaflets in Germany for the Labour Party before wartime travel restrictions intervened.
He says: "I was far left of socialism until I came to the realisation that we are all competitive. I remember my dear nanny inculcating into me that I had to finish everything on my plate because children elsewhere were starving and I was horrified at the fact. And I can remember seeing kids in Newcastle with rickets.
"And I do believe most strongly that the welfare of the soi-disant lesser race of animals is our responsibility.
"The abuse of animals in the third world is a result of ignorance and that is something we should be tackling. There are 600 million families in the third world supported by 100 million horses, mules and donkeys and we guess 50 per cent of them are in need of treatment.
"That is why I'm a committed supporter of the likes of the Brooke Hospital and World Horse Welfare and firebrands like Carrie Humble who took a little bit of channelling in her early days.
"And Compassion in World Farming has become an important cause for me as I am appalled by the idea of caged battery hens among a whole host of other practices we should long have left behind.
"Looking back, it appals me that when I first became half-successful and had made a few quid that I bought my wife, Pat, a mink coat which would be unthinkable now. I'm happy to say the coat went years ago and it just shows how attitudes can be changed– and relatively quickly.
"If I had my time again I would certainly be a vegetarian, which wouldn't be a big sacrifice. We grow all this food for animals that we should be growing for ourselves. Breeding animals for slaughter simply doesn't make sense and compassion in world farming is not merely a title, it is an aim.
"In racing we have begun to move with the times and the whole area of the use of the whip has improved hugely. As Jimmy FitzGerald once said to me, 'Peter, we used to be savages'. And there used to be at least one savage horse in every yard purely because of the way they were treated."
O'Sullevan continues: "There has been an endless number of improvements and innovations in my racing lifetime but I think that the camera patrol was the most significant of all. You used to interview jockeys when they came in from riding in the Derby and you'd think they had just finished the Grand national.
"The jockeys would be hauled in but they'd flatly deny there had been any rough tactics but, believe me, they were very rough and the camera patrol changed all that forever.
"Racing and its coverage have evolved greatly. It wasn't until 1958 that the BBC gave out starting prices and there was no betting show before a race.
"So Clive Graham and I found our little ways to get round that prohibition. In the paddock Clive would say 'and there's everybody's favourite' and a few minutes later I would intone 'and there's everybody's second favourite!'
"And we would let the racecourse PA give out the starting prices. As soon as we heard the beginning of the announcement Clive and I would shut up and I could hear them saying in my ear, 'Quick, Peter's mic has gone dead'. But it hadn't and it would soon start working again when the SPs had been given.
"With some honourable exceptions, such as Will Wyatt and Paul Fox among others, the BBC had no comprehension of the sport and, looking back, racing was not much more than a filler for them. It wasn't until 1960 that they covered the Derby which Lester won on St Paddy for Noel Murless.
"At the end of the afternoon Paul Fox, who was a genuine enthusiast, said, 'You have done a very good job today, see if you can get Lester up to Broadcasting House for an interview'. I advised him money might have to change hands and Paul said 'we'll give him 100 quid'.
"We were halfway to London in the car when Lester turned to me and said, 'I bet I'm getting more for this than you are!' and I replied, 'I know you wouldn't be sitting there if you weren't'."
Reflecting on where the sport stands, O'Sullevan says: "Racing during my time has always been in a state of reasonably affluent crisis and that is the situation now. We mistrust those in charge but we have always done that.
"Speaking as a viewer of the Breeders' Cup, I thought that in terms of appearances and demeanour the thoroughbred showed we humans up. The crowd were sloppy, unkempt and somehow appeared ill-at-ease. They looked like attendees at a suburban christening."
O'Sullevan has lived in his Chelsea flat for 66 years but even this haven gets disrupted by the demands of medicine and he says: "I shall struggle up tomorrow as I have to go to hospital for a blood transfusion. They have to match the blood each time, which makes for a tiring day. There is something strange about the intrusion of alien blood into your own system – it makes you fidgety and it's hard to sleep.
"I have a certain amount of discomfort but not a lot of pain. I have been very lucky and I'm carrying on. Though now, I am slightly running on empty."
SIR PETER ON
Wife Pat Our marriage was a complete understanding. And although we were married for 58 years, we had actually lived together for five years before that and back in those days such an arrangement was very much frowned upon.
That was even the case in France, would you believe, where we would get put in separate rooms, which always necessitated a certain amount of padding along corridors.
Pat’s Alzheimer’s was dreadful because you had those moments when you thought the fog was lifting but it was always illusory. Just the occasional fleeting time when I hoped my darling might be coming back, but it does not happen like that.
I seriously think that after a certain stage Alzheimer’s can be worse for the observer than the sufferer. You certainly hope the private world of the afflicted is less haunting than life on the outside.
Betting and money I have to confess to always being something of a prude when it comes to money. I have never had an overdraft, which sounds a bit pious and because I always bet with money that I could afford to lose I was never a gambler as such.
I only once borrowed money in my lifetime and that was £80 from my stepfather because I knew that the next day I could get £82 and ten shillings for a five-horsepower Fiat I could pass on straight away.
Jockeys Lester is a much valued friend and I was a great admirer of Sir Gordon Richards; it was a great honour to be asked to read the lesson at his memorial service.
But Rae Johnstone was my great chum. Quite apart from his talent as a jockey he loved the good things in life and I recall marvellous times sitting in Paris with him at one of the great restaurants as he was a real gourmet and an unforgettable character.
After the war the French won all the top races over here and I saw France as a place of opportunity for me. They had gone on racing through the occupation and Marcel Boussac was the emperor of the turf, although some branded him a collaborator. But it is hard to judge now what the right way to behave would have been under such circumstances. People made very difficult decisions and it is very easy to make glib judgements.
Drink I suppose I used to have a fairly high level of consumption but you have to remember that for most of my life people were allowed to drink and then drive.
But I am reduced to water these days and that is a severe curtailment of life. It is odd what that does to you. I had a liqueur chocolate the other day and woke up with the hangover of all time!
Sir Peter O'Sullevan died on July 29, 2015
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