Casino capitalism

A purple flyer pops through our letter box: "It's time to play," it says, which, to a sensitive ear, sounds like a catchphrase for a Hollywood serial killer. The flyer advertises Aspers Casino at Westfield Stratford City, the giant mall sited at the entrance to the Olympic Park, so that visitors' lasting memories of London 2012 will be of a fabulous shopping experience - which is, after all, what the Olympics were designed to promote.

Overleaf, it explains that Aspers is London's first "super-casino" - "a great place to socialise", with "more choice and wider variety than anywhere else!": "With 92 electronic terminals and 40 gaming tables you will be spoilt for choice with classics such as blackjack and roulette or newer games such as Blackjack Switch and Casino War" - the blurb writer seems to have an anti-comma fetish - "Get the adrenalin pumping on 150 slot machines including the new Star Wars and Sex and the City games."

But that name - why is it familiar? Aha, there it is on the Aspers Group website: "Aspers is the nickname of John Aspinall, the legendary conservationist, animal park owner and founder of Aspinall's Club in Mayfair, London." The casino is a joint venture of the Aspinall family and the Australian leisure group Crown Limited: "A unique combination of British heritage and international experience."

Political animal

Seen from one angle, Aspinall, who died in 2000 at the age of 74, is an attractive figurehead for a casino. His name carries a whiff of aristocratic glamour; of the Swinging Sixties, when he founded the Clermont Club, a gambling house whose membership was limited to 600 and reportedly included five dukes, five marquesses and 20 earls (earls are so common). And his conservation work was impressive: at his two private zoos in Kent, Howletts and Port Lympne, he successfully bred endangered species, gorillas in particular.

Yet Aspinall's biography needs careful editing. It is only four years since a book and an accompanying Channel 4 documentary alleged that he had been in cahoots with the gangster Billy Hill, running a large-scale card-marking operation at the Clermont. Another of his claims to fame is that Lord Lucan was part of his circle and Aspinall was widely assumed to have been one of the principal movers behind the earl's disappearance after he murdered his children's nanny.

Then there were his political views, which went along with his enthusiasm for animals: he believed they were, on the whole, better than people, talked about the desirability of "culling" the human population and thought there was something to be said for Hitler's views on eugenics.

Would Aspers have enjoyed himself at Westfield Stratford City, watching the heaving masses of the lower orders setting out of a weekend to spend their money on designer brands and to ape the tastes of their betters at the champagne bar? Or might he have detested and despised it?

I'm not usually a betting man but I'd have a punt.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...