October 26, 2020

A Knave and an Earl

Recently it was the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The incidents outcome still reverberates in military circles. I even think it is discussed in the military history training that officers are taught at Sandhurst. My family have no connection with that battle.

A Knave and an Earl

A true story of mystery and intrigue

I said I would not write another personal piece. I lied

Two pictures of my grandfather one in his maroon Rolls Royce

The author and his mother reading as always

Recently it was the anniversary of the Charge of the Light Brigade. The incidents outcome still reverberates in military circles. I even think it is discussed in the military history training that officers are taught at Sandhurst. My family have no connection with that battle.

In a book by Norman Dixon called ‘On The Psychology of Military Incompetence’ the incident is cited as a piece of true military incompetence.

Our loose connection with that fateful charge is that my grandfather knew a relative of someone majorly involved with that historic event. And that person was John Bingham, 7th Earl of Lucan. Lord Lucan’s character was in many ways ‘heroic’. It is argued that ‘Lucky Lucan’ (his nickname) was an inspirational character in the creation of James Bond. Well he did drive an Aston Martin, was an ex military officer in The Coldstream Guards, and was very much a larger than life character. He was a man who spent most of his time gambling in the fashionable gaming clubs in Mayfair and the West End. So maybe he influenced the writer of the James Bond books, as Ian Fleming and Lucan were friends.

According to my sources, Lucan used to gamble when he was being schooled at Eton, and used to go horse racing. He was a pretty good poker player apparently. Sadly for him he got the gambling disease from an early age. If only he hadn't. Life may have been so much better for him and his friends and family. Especially poor Sandra?

Lucan led an extremely interesting life, and towards the end of his life he became obsessed with obtaining the custody of his children when his marriage started to break down. He took to spying on his wife (and more) after his marriage ended in 1972, and very very famously murdered his children's nanny Sandra Rivett. Bludgeoning her to death after mistaking her for his wife. Lucan infamously disappeared never to be seen again. I think my grandfather knew more than he ever told as to Lucan's disappearance. But he took that secret to the grave like so many others.

Above: M being enigmatic...

Another link to Lucan’s story is that a friend of our families, a bloke called ‘M’ used to date Sandra Rivett. ‘M’ was another member of of our families entourage. He used to tell everyone that he had met the Kray Twins. Well he did. Having tea at their house in Vallance Road with them. He delivered a large brown envelope full of money allegedly. Protection money to keep them out of the West End gambling scene. Poor ‘M’. No one ever believed his story. But he told the truth. My uncle Lawrence once said about ‘M’ that if he had a brain he would be dangerous. I liked him. He introduced our family to where I now live back in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Thank you ‘M’ I miss you.

So what more connects us with Lucan? Well a rather macabre connection is that the Ford Corsair that Lucan disappeared in used to belong to my grandfather, he sold it to a guy called Major Michael Stoupe. Stoupe was a character too. He was a guardsman at Buckingham Palace and apparently used to play hide and seek with Princess Elizabeth and used to hide in a cupboard with her. You couldn't make it up.

What was odder was that my grandfather and Lord Lucan knew each other. Even though they were social opposites. My grandfather was definitely not of the same background, but their bond was gambling. They had that illness that consumed them both. Lord Lucan’s nickname was a bit of extreme sarcasm as he was usually unlucky on the card tables towards the end of his life. Catastrophically so. Little did he know that then the cards might be rigged? Who knows the truth? Were they? But I can say that the cards and tables at the Windsor Clubhouse my grandfather ran with an unsavoury character called Billy Hill, the so called ‘boss of London’s underworld’, in a place called Virginia Water, were probably rigged. I don't think Lucan ever went there though. Perhaps he was ‘lucky’ not to.

My mother and father in the 1970s

Both my grandfather and Lucan gambled with the rich and famous. The celebrities of their day. Gambling knows no social barriers. Both rich and poor gamble and gamblers ultimately never win. However I remember vaguely my grandfather coming back from a night on the tables one morning and spilling out a huge pile of money onto a ‘fashionable’ 1970’s furniture item, the onyx coffee table. I had never seen so much money. Apparently my mother, who was given the task to count it said there was around £25,000 there. A fortune then. Around £330,000 in today's money. I remember being given a fiver and told not to spend it on sweets. That would be around seventy pounds today. My teacher from school confiscated it from me and sent a note to my grandfather. He read it and the next day gave me a tenner, again on the understanding that I didn't spend it on sweets. That incident could be a story in itself. I remember clearly what I did spend it on. I bought a copy of The Hobbit. I could read a newspaper from the age of five but couldn't add up figures. Still can't. So even though my grandfather and his brother Will tried to teach me to play cards. I could never be a gambler. Can't count. But I could observe.

I don't know if Lucan ever came to our house in Kensington and played cards. Maybe he did? I remember sneaking down to our huge garishly opulent reception room where nighttime games of cards were played, and watching the games. Eventually I got banned not because of it being late, and I should be in bed, but because I used to tell my grandfather what everyone's hand was. So that was it. I was banned from being part of the game. I was an observer of the scene. I am an observer of life still.

For instance. Games of Monopoly (perhaps the ultimate board game of chance) at Christmas, in our Kensington home took on absurd proportions as the rules went out of the window and labyrinthine deals were done. Everyone was under strict instructions not to touch the board until the game was over. Inevitably a row broke out and the board went up in the air. I often used to win. I ‘kept my head when all about me were losing theirs’. It was madness...

However evil a deed Lord Lucan did, he was, I think, on the road to destruction. All gamblers are. Strangely I often have a fantasy, a dream of me sitting in the corner of a Casino with my dinner jacket on. A cigar or cigarette in one hand and a brandy in the other like Rick in Casablanca. Watching others lose their money. To be part of the moment. In real life I saw it all. But was never tempted to participate in lunacy. To corrupt a famous line from the film never ‘play it Sam’.

I remember the scene in Casablanca where Claude Rains who played Captain Renault, is ordered to close the bar down, by the Nazis. Rick the bar owner says:

How can you close me up? On what grounds?’
Renault replies ‘I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’ A split second later a croupier says, ‘your winnings, sir.’ Renault replies, ‘oh, thank you very much’.

In many ways I often say life imitates art. Everyone was on the bandwagon. Bent coppers, spies, establishment figures. Everyone. The 1960’s and 1970’s were for our family a time that when we look back on events, the decades were like an enigma wrapped up in a conundrum. For me, looking back, I experienced a tumult of emotion, and I am glad that I am grounded now. Greatly caused by the town I live in. Yes, I hope my memory never fades and I will always remember my life in Kensington. Unlike Rick I will never have Paris.

Site of Crockfords in Curzon Street Attribution By Ham - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35446578

Site of Crockfords Casino in Curzon Street London

I can see why life in those clubs was so addictive, many of the clubs were seductive, almost exotic. One of the clubs where my grandfather used to gamble was a club called Crockfords. The club is now closed but is famous because in 1999 Kerry Packer apparently lost £11 million there. I think it is the biggest loss at a gambling club in England.

Attribution https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Clermont_Club,_44_Berkeley_Square.JPG#/media/File:Clermont_Club,_44_Berkeley_Square.JPG

Site of the Clermont Club 44 Berkeley Square

Another club where my grandfather used to gamble was the Clermont Club. Also closed down. According to Wikipedia the Clermont Club:

was founded in 1962 by John Aspinall and the original membership included five dukes, five marquesses, almost twenty earls and two cabinet ministers.

Society figures who frequented the club included Peter Sellers, Ian Fleming, David Stirling, Lucian Freud, Lord Lucan, Lord Derby, Lord Boothby, and the Duke of Devonshire.

Businessman members included James Goldsmith, Gianni Agnelli, Jim Slater, and Kerry Packer.

My grandfather probably gambled with them all and probably knew some of their secrets?

Another gambler was Omar Sharif. I was told that Sharif was a mean bridge player and he used to frequent the West End gambling scene often. I wish I could have met him as Dr. Zhivago is one of my favourite films. He played Yuri in the film. Prefer it to Lean’s other masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia. Dr. Zhivago, what a film. Again like the Third Man the music by Maurice Jarre helped make the film what it was. Jarre won an Oscar for writing the music. He also wrote the music to Lawrence of Arabia again winning an Oscar. I hope to see the 8k version of Lawrence of Arabia soon. Yes Lawrence of Arabia is a brilliant film but Zhivago gets me every time. Also my father is a T.E Lawrence buff. But I digress too much. Back to the plot.

Honestly I think gambling is a mugs game. But I see it's seductive secretive qualities. To be in the game so to speak. To belong, and I think that's what my grandfather wanted. To belong. Also I would argue that people who gamble are psychologically flawed, and I don't say that to belittle them at all it is a serious addiction. But often people's psychology plays a big part in people's life mistakes. Think of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Psychology played it's part. Hugely.

Being blunt I am not saying that my grandfather was a saint. He wasn't. He was ruthless. Much has been written about my grandfather. A lot of it is wrong. It is made way too salacious. He was a bad bad person. For instance he never owned a pink Rolls Royce, but a maroon one. But whatever the story was he was my grandfather. I am his grandson. You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. I have to say blood is thicker than water and there is so much yet to be told about these times. The truth will probably never be told, but the story above is true. I remember my lesson from all of this and it is simple. Never gamble kids.

I dedicate this piece to my mother and father, Terri and John, to Louise, and to my friends past and present. I know I am flawed so without you I would be nothing...

Below are two of my favourite pictures of me as a child, me mucking around. Not muck raking.