At a time when global brands dominate, it’s rather reassuring to visit a shop where the name over the door comes from the man who opens it for you-such is the case at William & Son on Mount Street. I encounter the shop’s eponym, William Asprey, debating whether to have mother-of-pearl or smoked-horn buttons on the brushed-cotton shirts he sells beside the collections of glass, silver, jewellery, leather, shotguns and shooting kit.
William is a scion of the founding family of Asprey, but, for clarity’s sake, I ought to mention that Asprey is no longer owned by the family. William has set up what is, in effect, a government in exile, a place where the customs, the merchandise and the method of selling of the old Asprey are maintained in miniature: the dignified sales associates seated at tables, the vitrines and shelves packed with merchandise-silver money clips, Bohemian crystal vases, fountain pens and, best of all, backgammon sets. Indeed, it’s in the backgammon set that I believe much of the genetic helix of the house is encoded.
A backgammon set from Asprey is a totemic object, possessed of a unique and curious charisma: part louche lounge lizard, part upstanding word-is-my-bond British gent. Backgammon recalls the jet-set days of the 1960s and 1970s, when a man could tour the globe with only his backgammon set and make a living with nothing but quick wits and good dice.
I suppose I got hooked on the game because of the paraphernalia. A great backgammon set is like a beautifully made watch or shotgun-it gives each game a sense of occasion and even when you lose, it’s some consolation to do so on a well-made board. Think of it as losing on Wimbledon Centre Court rather than at the local tennis club.
Looking more or less like an attaché case-the handle is built up using different layers of bridle leather just like a traditional briefcase-with a cedarwood frame covered in the leather of your choice, from pigskin to alligator, in any colour you like, from sober black to sunny tangerine (and yes, you should have a backgammon set that suits each season), a William & Son backgammon board is made by a craftsman in Suffolk (whose identity the company will not disclose), who does everything (except make the spun aluminium used in fast-moving lightweight pieces) himself. And if you don’t like wagering money on the outcome of a game and would rather play for dinner, there is a doubling cube that will take the gastronomically inclined gambler through the restaurants of Caprice holdings.
Of course, backgammon players aren’t always a lucky breed-Lord Lucan proved as much. Nevertheless, there is an aura about the game: more glamorous than bridge, faster-moving than chess. Backgammon players have more fun-just take Ian Fleming’s description of Count Lippe in Thunderball: ‘A tough maquereau from the Ritz bar in Paris, the Palace in St Moritz, the Carlton at Cannes-good at backgammon, polo, water-skiing.’ And, of the three sports, backgammon is by far the most stylish-after all, you might cause a bit of a stir if you turned up at the Ritz bar with a polo pony or a set of waterskis.
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