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OH NO, NOT THE RITZ

Lesson 2

The first time Aspinall played chemmy he lost £300, but the poker experience gave him the idea of running a game himself.  Not so much a ‘classy’ game because it would not have occurred to him to run any other sort of game, as a game where a Greek shipping magnate or a Persian diplomat or the wife of a British company chairman could all come and feel secure and at ease, and take it on trust that they were not thanks to Aspinall’s loophole breaking the law Or attracting the notice of gossip columnists.

            One such person who did manage to get in was the novelist Simon Raven.  Oblivious of discretion, in the face of a juicy tale to tell, he spilled the beans in a column in The spectator, much to Aspinall’s annoyance.  ‘Lead me,’ Raven’s account began, ‘to an enormous green baize table.  Surround me withhold ladies who have piggy eyes and claws for fingers.  Fetch me a huge pile of counters of rare design.  And let the devil himself be there as croupier.

            Raven did not name Aspinall but no one acquainted with the London social scene had the slightest doubt as to the identity of the leading character hosting the party.  ‘When we arrived, about twelve other people were finishing an elaborate fork supper. Some of these were girls looking apprehensive and rather bored most of them were young men, looking far from bored and one of them at lest rather drunk and there were also two or three more mature-looking men, with soft voices, impeccable manners and very dark chins … Our host, who was to act as croupier, started distributing counters: his wife settled at a desk to note down the amount each online poker player received.  These amounts varied between £50 and £500.



;Play began.  All the time it went on we were served with snacks of foie gras and caviare, and liberally helped, though not plied or bullied, with champagne or brandy.  The play was high.  Some banks started at £10 to £20 , more at £50, a few, especially later in the evening, at £100 or £150… So the game went on.  Some got drunker, others merely poorer.  Some of the girls became compulsively nervous, others began to whine and had to be sent home in taxis.  People left and people arrived to take their places.  When anyone left he either paid his losses direct to our host or himself received his winnings direct.  The dark-chinned men showed no sign of ever leaving and never even went to the lavatory.  Out host remained cool, courteous and efficient until 4 a.m., when the final coup was played and the final gains and losses calculated.’
            Raven himself was a small winner. He estimated that the house, taking into account the accumulation of counters cut from winning banks, took about £2,000.  Lavish as the refreshments were that their host had laid on, they were hardly that expensive.

            There was the further risk of bad cheques.  The host was responsible for paying the poker winners and dealing with losses.  Did people’s checques ever bounce?  Raven inquired.  The host had very good backing, he was told.  He could always call on enough money to pay winners and his reputation was therefore excellent. Big gambling names sometimes came to play.  Greeks.  Good Money.  When they played the host made enough from the cagnotte in one evening to swallow any petty losses by default for the rest of the year.

            A week later Paul Johnson, in those days a polemical journalist of the left, wrote a spiky little piece in the New Statesman  contrasting the deprivations of car workers with the extravagance of upper class, the peg for the piece being a huge party Aspinall had thrown in Belgrave Square. Johnson titled his article ‘Aspers’ Little Shindig’.  ‘I remember him as a young man at Oxford, taking a prominent part at nightly gambling sessions… The stakes were high and some very peculiar cheques floated around also floating around was a young woman, who sat, as I recall, on the knee of whoever was currently winning.  Even in those days Aspinall was regarded as a successful plunger.  He now holds invitation only gambling parties, in an ever-changing succession of luxury flats, to escape the rigours of the law, and makes it is calculated £ 50,000 a year, tax-free.

            The ‘old nobility’, according to Johnson, tell over themselves in the competition to get invitation to Aspers’ little shindig.  The party, for which he had flown over an 18-piece orchestra from Monte Carlo, was reputed to have cost £ 10,000.  That very same day the Government had announced that National Assistance would be increased to 50 shillings a week, delayed to the autumn for administrative reasons.  Johnson consigned the whole social scrum to perdition, but felt that the danger was more pervasive, corruption was spreading downwards.  ‘The day is coming,’ he concluded prophetically, when everyone will want his invitation to Aspers’ Little Shindig.’

            Aspinall was furious with Raven for breaking faith but rather amused by Hohnson’s piece, especially his blast against the aristocracy as the last writhings of a lunatic octopus about to be swept into oblivion.  Nowadays, Johnson has made a complete U-turn, and according to Aspinall would never dream of writing such stuff.  He was right, though, in that most of the people in those old games have vanished, not because of the changes in the law, but so Aspinall believes because of the ‘destitution of the English’.  The ‘floating’ games ceased around 1960 with the new Act legalizing gaming.  When he opened the Clermont club in 1962, the clientele was still three-quarters English; today, after two changes of ownership, it’s only five per cent.  In the early days, the chemmy players who gambled their heads off at his parties were representative, as he saw it, of a confident ruling class, albeit the tail end of it.

            ‘It’s confidence really that makes people gamble.  The old magic ruling circle had its confidence still.  In my view, historically, gambling is done by a nation in a confident phase of its history.  It’s popular Puritan belief that gambling is the incandescent decay of a society.  The idea that the bright lights throw up a decomposing society in its death throes that gambling is an incandescence of decay is the exact opposite of the truth.  Which is that gaming is a sign of effervescence, the bubbles of a successful society.
            ‘So the highest gaming of the English, the Romans, was always when the nation was at its most confident.  And it’s the rulers of the moneyed classes who are the most confident.  Namely from 1740-1840.  In Rome at the time of Caesar, when the Republic was turning into an Empire.  I mean Caesar was a colossal gambler.  He conquered Gaul to pay his debts to Crassus that’s the only reason he went into Gaul, to pay his debts to Crassus.  People forget that fact.  They think of it as a great geo-political move, you know, “Let’s conquer Gaul”.  He needed money to pay his debts.  So often in history you see that.

            ‘Look at the Arabs today.  The Saudi and Gulf Arabs are very confident.  They are at the apogee of their history at the moment and now they gamble like crazy all over the place, and they don’t care.  So confidence has got a lot to do with it really.’
            Against this poker theory of re-writing history from the gambling point of view, Aspinall overlooks, to take one instance, the high confidence of the Victorians, who did not gamble much.  In our own times, he sees the decline of the English as dating from around 1969-1972.  He was out of the business for six years but when he came back in 1978, he expected a good proportion of gamblers would still be English.  But not they had all gone.  There was nothing left.

            So when he reopened, starting in Knightsbridge, then transferring  to his present club, Aspinall’s Curzon, on the site of a previous club in Curzon street, his name was meaningless to the new swatch of gamblers.  The way he describes the clientele, the establishment sounds like a mini-United Nationals.  “To the Arabs, the Saudis, the Gulf Arabs, the Jordanians, the Sindhis and the Punjabis (who are big gamblers), the Hong Kong Chinese, the Wet African Indians, who are mostly Murwaris and Sindhis, the big merchant families who gamble, the Nigerian chieftains who are another enclave of gamblers, my name meant nothing.  I might have been called Parkinson or Donaldson.  There was no question of being able to find any of the old business, or hardly any.’

            The old English clientele had evaporated, not because they had lost their money but because they had lost their confidence.  Aspinall is regretful  of the passing, as he sees it, of this class, his class.  ‘First of all I admire the English above all other peoples, being one myself.  Secondly, I’ve always tended to admire the leaders of the English in the 18th and early 19th centuries.  If one admires those people, as I do, and I think to a large extent a lot of people are brought up to admire Pitt and Canning and Chatham and Castlereagh and son on, then you tend to admire their descendants.  Because some of my clients were descendants of the great chieftains of early English history.

           ‘Unfortunately people who inherit the name and position don’t always live up in appearance and mannerisms to what one would expect of them.  But I’ve always been very impressed with Dukes who behave like Dukes.  With a Percy or a Cavendish or a Douglas or whoever it may be, who carry a great name and generations of English history.  It’s only a little disappointing sometimes when these people don’t actually live the part too well because of in breeding and other factors.  Disappointing.  But I have in my life met some noblemen who really act the part.  They are born with great aplomb and style and then I’m the first one to admire them.’

            One such noble scion Aspinall admired was Sim Feversham, the Earl of Feversham.  He was the epitome of an English grandee, in his confidence and his generosity.  He was also a big gambler.  He actually threw Aspinall a £ 5,000 tip across the table once.  (Which indicates the size of those games.) They didn’t accept tips at the private parties.  Aspinall’s mother took it and put it in her bag.  So he had to get it out of her afterwards and give it back.  Aspinall was mightily impressed by Feversham, his appearance, his manner.  He would have done rather well, he thinks, in Hollywood, in the Aubrey Smith style.  He also admired Lord Lucan (of whom more later), the peer whose vanishing act, after his children’s nanny was found battered to death, has remained an internationalmystery.

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