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08 July 2015

Gamblers and Murderers



The threat of Greek default hangs over the Euro like Damocles’ sword, the Shanghai equity market has discovered gravity and the metals are caught in the crossfire. But it’s summer, and, amongst the normal comment on this site, I and some of the other writers will be suggesting some holiday reading for traders taking a well-earned  break from the stresses of the market.… Today, we start with a look at a book about gambling and murder.


John Pearson begins his book, The Gamblers, with a quotation from ‘Gone with the Wind’: “A civilisation vanished overnight. Everything gone with the wind.” He could equally well have quoted F Scott Fitzgerald - “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me’ (which incidentally comes from a short story entitled ‘The Rich Boy’, not, as Hemingway claimed, from a conversation between himself and Fitzgerald). 

Amongst the things I remember from when I first started working in the City was how Jimmy Goldsmith’s Cavenham Foods conglomerate was avidly snapping up traditional businesses in the wake of the stock market collapse after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. I knew nothing of him beyond his name, but my new, experienced colleagues were in awe of how he had called the market drop and was then liquid enough to take the benefits. At the same time, I can remember the newspaper stories of the lurid murder of Lord Lucan’s children’s nanny and the excitement caused by his disappearance on the same night.

The Gamblers tells the story that brings the two characters together. It begins, as much as anything else, as a social history, a picture of a small segment of society during a period of great change, in the 1950s and 1960s. Great Britain over the years has had a mixed relationship with gambling; some things are legal, some aren’t and some change. Post second world war, as the country slowly pulled itself out of the grimness and austerity, the operation of casinos was freed up and a little of the atmosphere of the Regency period could be found in Mayfair and Belgravia. Having started his career as a gambling promoter earlier, by the time the law was changed, John Aspinall was poised to cement his position as the gambling-master to the higher echelons of society. The result was the Clermont Club, opened by Aspinall in 1962. Pearson runs us entertainingly through the early lives of those who became the central characters of the so-called Clermont Set. Aspinall, Goldsmith, Mark Birley (best known for opening Annabel’s in the cellars of the Clermont), Dominick Elwes and - last but not least - Lord Bingham, soon to become the seventh Earl of Lucan on his father’s death. That’s the first half of the book - that’s the civilisation he refers to as gone with the wind. Certainly from 2015 it’s difficult to recognise some of the attitudes of the protagonists, but I would rather argue that it was such a small sub-set that we are really talking more about the rich being different than we are about the end of a civilisation. A very, very small group (at least partly made up of landed aristocrats determined to gamble away their houses and estates) is not a picture of changing society; but Pearson is good on the impact of a gambling addiction on those who suffer it. Goldsmith took his touch from the chemin de fer table to the boardroom as a corporate raider - very high stakes gambling - but the rest of them largely fell by the wayside in one way or another. And watching over it all was the enigmatic, brooding, one would probably say malevolent, character of Aspinall. Pearson does a good job of analysing the characters of all the main protagonists, but Aspinall is the dominant figure.

In the second half, the book morphs from a picture of a segment of society into a who-done-it thriller. Or at least, a mystery of where-did-he-go-after-he-done-it, since there isn’t really much doubt about who done it. Pearson keeps a light touch in this, moving the story forward with interviews with several of the main and subsidiary characters. Of course, the murder of Sandra Rivett has been examined from all angles, in the press and a variety of books; Pearson has a ‘new’ theory, which I won’t spell out here, since, although it’s a factual book, there is an element of revelation. He certainly makes a plausible case for his view, but who knows? The only small point I’d make here is that, completely by chance and in a totally different field, I have recently got to know one of the detectives who worked the Lucan case. For what it’s worth, his opinion - and, by extension I believe that of the majority of his colleagues - is that Lucan did escape, and disappeared off into southern Africa. That’s not what Pearson thinks.

The book is worth a read. There’s the social history aspect, which is fascinating in its own right; there’s a sobering picture of the impact of obsessive gambling (and speculating on markets isn’t that different - so beware!) and the second half reads like a good thriller.

I recommend it, but in the end it’s quite a bleak book. For all the surface glamour, the wealth and the exoticsm, there is something deeply depressing about what can only be described as the waste, the way some of the players are stuck in a spiral that goes only downwards towards a murder which is really a sordid, squalid little affair, reflecting badly on those who may have been able to predict it and those who helped to cover it up. They may have seen a little bit of Regency England’s attitudes coming back to life, but it was never real; Annabel’s, the half of the house that embraced its time, has in the end proven the stronger.

Still, by all accounts, Lucan’s ancestor, the third Earl, wasn’t the sharpest sabre at the charge in 1854, either.


The Gamblers, by John Pearson, is published by Arrow and is also available as an ebook. 

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