I’m a thinker, not a doer
WHY NOT tell one more obscure story about another legal legend? This time, we’ll take a peek into a little-known episode in the life of the great Ian McDonald Ramsay, QC, OJ, a prodigiously talented advocate with claims to being the best of his generation.
Nobody who saw Ramsay perform can ever forget him. I’ve often warned aspiring young law students that the law is really made up of two facets (the rest can always be found in some book or other), namely, language and logic. If you’re skilled in both, no matter your occupation, you’re a lawyer. Don’t care where you come from, as long as you’re a black man, you’re an African. No mind your nationality, you have got the identity of an African.
Ramsay’s command of the English language was exquisite and his logic unassailable and relentlessly pursued. Regrettably, for me, we practised different branches of advocacy. He was mostly a criminal-law advocate while I dabbled in civil law, so our paths rarely crossed. When they did, there was nothing to do but your best while watching in awe as he worked his magic.
Ramsay was a man of unshakeable professional integrity whose career was driven by principle. When the legally offensive Gun Court Act was passed, he returned his QC appointment in protest. Years later, after the court was pronounced partially unconstitutional and had fallen into disrepute, he was persuaded to reapply.
But how many people know Jamaica very nearly didn’t have the opportunity to appreciate Ian Ramsay’s acuity in law? After leaving school, where he excelled, Ramsay’s first job was at Shell. Those who knew him well won’t be surprised to learn he arrived for his first day at work in a taxi (very ‘stoosh’ for the times) dressed in a threepiece suit with bowler hat and carrying an umbrella (aka ‘brolly’ or ‘bumbershoot’). He was assigned to menial duties in the basement.
Ramsay endured the indignity of filing papers for a few hours before putting on his jacket and hat and exiting the basement. He went directly to the top floor and insisted on seeing the managing director.
“You don’t know me,” he began in a clipped British accent “but my name is Ramsay.”
“Yes,” replied a somewhat bemused managing director. “What can I do for you, Mr Ramsay?”
“Well,” said Ramsay, “your man sent me to the basement to file papers.”
“Yes?” the managing director was curious.
“You see,” Ramsay continued, “I’m more of a thinker than a doer. I’m sure I’d be more useful to the company in a role that suited my talents.”
“I see,” said the managing director politely. “I’ll definitely look into that, Mr Ramsay. In the meantime, may I suggest you return to the basement and try your hand at some more doing?”
Ramsay rose to his full height, re-placed his hat; bowed perfunctorily; left the office; reached as far as the ground floor; strode through the front door; hailed a taxi that carried him to the Palisadoes Airport from whence he flew to England and studied law. No mind your complexion. There is no rejection. You’re an African. ‘Cause if your ‘plexion high, high, high. If your complexion low, low, low. And if your ‘plexion in-between, you’re an African. Ian Ramsay led the legal team for the plaintiff in a very complicated civil-law trial involving insurance law, contract and negligence (and the overlap of those last two) in which I appeared for one of the defendants. During the trial, Ramsay had taken to calling me “Hastings”. Don’t ask me why. After a while, it was obvious he was pulling my chain, so, for the remainder of the trial, I called him “Poirot” (Oh, for Pete’s sake, look it up).
The trial lasted many months. He wasn’t always there, as he had very capable juniors but came into court one day during a lull while I was regaling my team with this very story. I asked him if the story was true. He thought about it briefly and replied “Close enough, Hastings.”
Peter Tosh was, to my mind, the most gifted of the Wailers but suffered from incurable indiscipline. He was held in the highest regard by many international stars, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. His African reminds us that, regardless of circumstance, we can never cover up who we really are. Ian McDonald Ramsay was a lawyer extraordinaire even while toiling in Shell’s basement for half a day.
Peace and love.