BOOK OF THE WEEK; Great and small salute The Voice

Coming to the Last: Peter O'Sullevan By Sean Magee (Partridge Press, hardback, pounds 12.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Online
A book which is, by and large, little more than a collection of fan letters would not normally offer much hope of either enlightenment or entertainment. Peter O'Sullevan, however, is no ordinary hero, and he has an extraordinary assortment of fans.

From two heads of state to a Likely Lad, with every legend of the post- War European turf somewhere in between, Sean Magee's compendium of tributes shows how the man they call "The Voice" has touched lives at every level of British society. To three generations of children, he was the sound of Saturday afternoon and it is not simply the ones who grew up to be punters who will feel a sense of loss when O'Sullevan switches off his microphone for the last time in November, five months short of his 80th birthday.

His appeal disregards age and class. Jamie Reid, in a typically elegant contribution, is one of many who can recall hearing O'Sullevan, and instantly appreciating his smooth authority, in early childhood, but there is also a touching tribute from Marion Johnson, who came upon racing, and its famous voice, only as a pensioner. "With him calling the horses," she says, "you are there, in the crowd."

Many others who have seen him in action - who else could coax Vincent O'Brien, Katie Boyle and Albert Roux into one cover? - flesh out the man behind the voice. Journalist, owner, serious punter, ceaseless campaigner for the welfare of horses, lads and jockeys, bon viveur and art collector - it has been quite a life, and given his subject's famous reticence, Magee's format offers as useful a record as any, even if the praise is so incessant that at times you expect to turn the page and find the Pope declaring O'Sullevan a living saint.

There are those - including, you suspect, the man himself - who might question whether any broadcaster merits almost 200 pages of unbroken applause. The affection, though, is not just for O'Sullevan, but for the school of journalism and broadcasting he represents, the same one which gave us Arlott, Johnston and Maskell.

Inevitably, many of the contributions are almost identical, yet far from feeling repetitive, this serves to emphasise what we are about to lose. It is not that there will never be another O'Sullevan, rather that there could not be, since Sky's near-monopoly on major sport, combined with its meagre ratings, means that the chance no longer exists for a sports commentator to bond with a mass audience.

As Tom Taaffe, the son of Arkle's jockey, puts it: "Sometimes it seems as if all my good racing memories are accompanied by the O'Sullevan voice." Is it possible, then, to have good memories without it? Sadly, we are about to find out.