I’m a thinker, not a doer

Jamaica Gleaner - - OPINION&COMMENTARY - I Gordon Robin­son is an at­tor­ney-at-law. Email feed­back to col­umns@glean­erjm.com.

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.

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