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Sunday 31 October 2004

Still lookin' for Lucan, the conspiracy wonks

ONE of the depressing aspects of the internet is that it provides so much aid and comfort to nutters - particularly conspiracy theorists.

There are innumerable websites dedicated to proving that John F Kennedy was murdered at the behest of the KGB, the Mafia, the CIA, Fidel Castro, right-wing Cuban emigres, those dedicated to de-greening the earth or Lyndon Johnson, that the twin towers were destroyed by the FBI or Zionists and that Lord Lucan is alive and well and living in Africa, Canada, Mexico or the Bahamas. The website lordlucan.com has a chatroom and a message board where sightings are recorded.

Lucan-spotters are in a frenzy at present, for not only is it 30 years since the earl disappeared after the murder of his children's nanny, but the police have made it known that the case is still open: they're interested in a Lucan lookalike calling himself John who's been spotted near a Mozambique holiday resort. The Daily Mail had three pages last week airing a whole new set of conspiracy theories, complete with an artist's impression of how Lucan would look today. An unnamed ex-MP, we are told, says that Lucan was spirited away by Sir James Goldsmith, who moved him around the world from hideout to hideout. He can say that now that Goldsmith is dead and can't sue.

'The whole thing is starting all over again,' wrote the Greek multimillionaire, Taki, in the Spectator. 'I suppose cops like to travel on expenses, and hacks like to invent things.'

Not being a proper hack, I favour stories for which there is evidence. Having shopped around the prevailing theories, here's the one I've bought. And I warn you now that it isn't the one that has him sharing a secret retreat on the moon with Princess Diana and Elvis.

Compared to his ancestor, the 3rd Earl of Lucan, who evicted thousands of tenants from his Castlebar lands during the Famine and whose distinguished army career was somewhat blighted by his role in the unfortunate little matter of the Charge of the Light Brigade, Richard John, the 7th Earl, was an amiable and harmless fellow. Every day, according to Taki, John Aspinall - gambling-club owner and zoo-keeper - Jimmy Goldsmith, Taki, Lucan and a couple of others would meet for lunch followed by backgammon and then for dinner and chemin de fer.

Lucan was a tall, good-looking old Etonian, ex-bobsleigher, powerboat racer and, according to Taki, a very charming and well-read man who liked to pretend to be an upper-class twit. That came in handy, as following a ruinous run of bad luck at chemin de fer in the Sixties - which earned him the nickname 'Lucky' - his main means of support apart from the ground rents in Castlebar, was acting as a house player for Aspinall and borrowing money from Taki. His marriage was on the rocks (see ladylucan.co.uk and you'll get some idea why), he was in a terrible state because he couldn't get custody of his children, was drinking heavily and had become quite deranged.

So one evening he set off to murder his wife, by mistake bludgeoned to death his children's unfortunate nanny, Sandra Rivett, attacked his wife but failed to kill her and then drove off to friends in Sussex, where he wrote letters claiming he had just happened on the scene of the murder, but since things looked bad, was intending to 'lie doggo' for a while. He then drove to Newhaven where he abandoned his blood-stained car, took off in the powerboat he had bought with Taki's money and scuttled it.

Lucan's friends believed that he had committed the murder and that, in Aspinall's words, he "killed himself out of shame for having botched it". His denials were written to protect his children from the slur of having a murderer for a father. Taki never bought for a moment the idea that Lucky would have become a fugitive. "He had often talked about the futility of living unless one lived well, or contented."

I cannot think of a single rational reason why there should have been much doubt about Lucan having committed suicide - he came from a world where a chap did the decent thing when handed a pearl-handled revolver.

But the press became fixated with the Lucan set and the notion that they were hiding him and the gullible and the greedy kept the story going. In 2001, for instance, the year after Aspinall died, an obscure peer claimed that Aspinall had helped Lucan go abroad and had subsequently had him killed because Lucan was blackmailing him by threatening to tell of his involvement.

The Lucan story is the tale of a gambler's downfall that ended in terrible tragedy. It's ironic that it should come back into the news in the same week as the British government has yielded to American lobbyists and is allowing super-casinos to be built anywhere a borough council will let them. The poor will now have innumerable opportunities to lose all their money just like poor old Lucky did.

I hope not too many of them will end up destroying their own and others' lives.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards