WAF 41: ‘Take a Letter……’ 22 Feb 2024

‘I’ve brought a crate of Christmas Cheer’ said the Murphy’s driver as he struggled through the door bringing three bottles of very fine brandy ‘for Mr Price’. I thanked him and thought no more of it until Cedric, upon returning to the office after a good lunch expressed his extreme displeasure.

After reprimanding me for accepting this delivery Cedric, in customary fashion, instructed his P.A. to ‘Take a letter….

Dear Mr Enright…’ began Cedric, to the clattering rat-a-tat-tat of the machine, ‘It is the policy of this office to refuse gifts of any kind from Clients, Contractors and Suppliers, past, present or future. Kindly arrange collection of the offending delivery at your earliest convenience’.

My goodness, Cedric had a way with words, and my, how things have changed since then both in terms of protocols and the very equipment through which we communicated….back in 1974 our office boasted one of the then state of the art IBM Selectric 1 electric typewriters. 

Distinguished by a sphere covered in the letters of the alphabet, the Selectric’s mechanism replaced the traditional ‘basket’ of individual type bars which, when manually struck, had swung up to strike a ribbon which in turn printed the individual letters upon the page. As well as speed, the ‘golf balls’ could be easily switched allowing multiple changes of font….all state of the art back then.  

….But I digress. I thought nothing more of this occurrence as we broke for Christmas, and indeed the matter had been long forgotten when, late in March, I heard a knock at the door followed by that same melodic Irish voice: ‘I’ve come to collect those bottles of Christmas Cheer’ said the driver with a wry smile. The contents of all three bottles had of course been long ago consumed so I was dispatched with some urgency to the Soho Wine Store in Percy Street to buy replacements, albeit at retail price.

I have many times used this story as an indication of the basic standards and integrity that are indispensable to trust. It goes to the heart of the very notion of professionalism and the importance of recognising its essential characteristics. A much-abused word today ‘profession’ is defined when ‘googled’ as ‘doing something as a paid job rather than as a hobby e.g. professional athletes, a professional golfer’. This is an appalling misrepresentation of the true meaning of this important word. 

What I learned through Cedric is that being a ‘professional’ involves the delivery of skill and knowledge that a client usually doesn’t have which, although for a fee, is provided with the client’s interest at the fore.

It is for precisely this reason that care and caution in relation to any gifts or inducements that might compromise the independence and appropriateness of our service is of such critical importance. Examples of the importance of this principle abound: you rely on the integrity of your dentist at check-up time: when told a filling is needed you trust the advice. This is of course why your doctor should never accept gifts from a drug company, for it is surely unthinkable that your prescription, in quantity or character, should be influenced by favour.

And its why we should all be pleased that, albeit late in the day, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) at long last, after a long period of mounting pressure and criticism, finally agreed back in 2016 to set up a code of practice in which its member companies would be obliged to disclose payments made to doctors and pharmacists. Back then, pharmaceutical companies were paying healthcare professionals a stonking £40 million per year in ‘gifts’.

I have never been offered any form of inducement to specify a product, or to recommend any particular construction company or sub-contractor and, although I occasionally hear of disciplinary action against architects in respect of such matters, my suspicion (and sincere hope) is that such failings are rare within our profession. Indeed, it is perhaps something of a surprise we must trawl way back to the days of Pontefract architect John Poulsen to find any really significant scale of corruption: he was jailed in 1973 at the Leeds County Court in a case that brought down the then Home Secretary Reginald Maudling.

All this I pondered when I received notification in early January that a bottle of wine had been delivered as a Christmas gift to me at the registered address of our company. On the recommended list of the Sunday Times Wine Club as well as the BBC Good Food Wine Club, this circa £18 Cabilié 2022 comes from one of the 100-year-old vineyards that Hervé Sabardeil recently purchased way up on a sparse, steeply terraced slope that forms part of the Agly Valley just north of the Spanish border. Little has changed there since Ceasar, probably sampling wine from the same vines, raced through the region en route to Spain some 2000 years earlier.

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The gift had been sent by a company of consultant engineers who I initially had no recollection of having ever heard of. But a little searching on their website, courtesy of technologies somewhat more advanced than Cedric’s IBM Selectric, reveals that they were involved with one of my past projects, completed some ten years ago.

Pondering upon whether I should accept this gift reminded me of President Nixon’s famous half-hour TV presentation back on 23 September 1952 in which he tried to answer charges regarding his alleged abuse of political expense funds.

Perhaps its most memorable part was when he stared into the camera, paused for a lengthy period, and then defiantly stated that he was going to keep one gift ‘no matter what happened’: 

‘……One other thing I probably should tell you because if we don’t they’ll probably be saying this about me too, we did get something—a gift—after the election. A man down in Texas heard Pat on the radio mention the fact that our two youngsters would like to have a dog. And, believe it or not, the day before we left on this campaign trip we got a message from Union Station in Baltimore saying they had a package for us. We went down to get it. You know what it was?

It was a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he’d sent all the way from Texas. Black and white spotted. And our little girl—Tricia, the 6-year-old—named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, love the dog and I just want to say this right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we’re gonna keep it.’ 

The ever-gullible American electorate of course bought his calculated and sentimental drivel, lock stock and barrel, enabling him to run as President Eisenhauer’s deputy and of course gain office as the Vice President. The rest is history…right through to Watergate some twenty years later. 

……Leopards and spots?

Chequers died in 1964 and is buried at Long Island’s Bide-A-Wee Pet Cemetery but the dog’s legacy rolls on: in 1999 the Nixon speech was placed sixth on a list of 100 Twentieth Century US speeches in terms of social and political impact and rhetorical artistry! Most of that kudos came courtesy of Chequers. Indeed, the USA celebrates ‘National Dogs in Politics Day’ on 23 September each year and the resident White House dog under each president holds the title: ‘First Dog of the United States (FDOTUS). You couldn’t make it up!So, I am going to keep my bottle of wine as well, and much look forward to enjoying its richness and the lovely velvety feel that the French call ‘gouleyant’. But Cedric’s story serves as a timeless reminder to us all of the importance, in terms of professional conduct, of restraint in these matters.