'Paul, can you take your wife away for a while, find a lonely hotel somewhere, we'll pay . . . .' This request, made some 20 years ago by a builder, was of course met with my bemused but firm refusal. He was distraught, but only later did I learn why, and in what danger I had also been. I'll change the names for obvious reasons, but essentially, the story goes like this:
Rexon Ltd, named after a greyhound racing dog that the company had once owned, had built its fortune as a 'labour-only' sub-contractor supplying unskilled men, very rough and ready, to main contractors for excavation, trench and foundation work.
Rexon subsequently established its own construction company and got 'respectable' by persuading an accountant to join the board. Vic introduced a semblance of order to Rexon's chaotic administration, some planning into its growth, and some purpose to its investments. It was Vic who, with typical foresight, telephoned and begged me to leave town. If I had known why, I would have surely gone, for I was the target of a gangland hit squad.
Donnelly, the company's founder, had always liked the drink and, despite being 'loyally' married, also the girls. Cruising home from a West End club into south-east London in the early hours of a Saturday morning, he had jumped a set of traffic lights. (He probably didn't even see them!)
His big Jaguar was in collision with a car driven by a well-heeled lady journeying home from the night club that she managed. Donnelly graduated that night into a hit-and-run driver - that much he vaguely remembered.
What he didn't know was that he had done it in supreme style: the woman that he left, seriously shaken but not stirred, was the moll of an underworld car dealer.
Radiator burst, blue paint streaked down the side of his green limousine, Donnelly struggled to his cousin's house where he habitually slept off his Friday night 'skinful' in the kitchen armchair. It took the gangster's boys just four days to track him down. Vic received the call: 'I want the guy with the green Jag . . . .'
Donnelly instantly took off overseas; Vic was made of sterner stuff and agreed to meet the gangster at one of Rexon's jobs. The confrontation was awesome. Six cars blocked the street to through traffic, and two minders escorted the gangster in, only to learn from Vic that the man he wanted had done a bunk. Unfortunately, my signboard was displayed at the site entrance.
That was when the threat against me was issued: 'I want that bastard, and if I don't get him, I'll have the names on your hoarding out there'. Paul Hyett Architects was, regrettably, on the top - there were few aspiring project managers in those days.
Vic came of age through that confrontation - he did a deal that involved a new car, and a substantial cash payment. I was dropped from the 'wanted' list (albeit that it was some months before I learned that I had even been on it) and, a nice touch this, the gangster subsequently gave Vic's firm some building work. No hard feelings.
The building industry is indeed a colourful world, mixing people of extraordinary backgrounds. I have met princes, politicians, the clever, the poor, the wealthy and the daft. Once, at a charity dinner near Grosvenor Square, a fellow guest bade me polite farewell. He had been appalled when I told him what trouble architects can have getting fees paid, and he was also wonderfully sympathetic when I explained the cost and delay involved in litigation.
'Who was he?' I later asked - he had been introduced as just Ernie.
'That', said my host, 'was Ernie Richardson.' For those of you too young to remember, he led one of the major rival gangs to the Krays in the 60s.
And a charming man he was too, despite his somewhat shady past - I was almost minded to ask him to help me collect some of my bad debts.