The man who walked away
Karl Terrence Hudson-Phillips departed last week, just the way he had lived in his later years—quiet and remote.
Regrettably, long before his death, the former attorney general’s voice had gone almost silent. Worse, I felt it was not heard at the times when the country needed the intervention of a political elder, a voice of temperance, someone of impartial stature and pragmatic reasoning—but there was no Karl.
Many times, contemplating our political mess, I promised myself to ask his good friend Ferdie Ferreira, where was Karl, and the reasons for his silence. Last week, his former colleagues eulogised his public personae. They spoke of the cultured, cosmopolitan and didactic Karl; a person of dignified bearing, charm and wit, schooled in ethics, and possessing a formidable command of language and the law.
At the bar, Karl set the bar; he was the last of the great advocates of an earlier time such as Sir Courtenay Hannays; Sir Edgar Gaston Johnson; his father, Henry; Malcolm Butt; Tajmool Hosein; Algernon “Pope” Wharton, to name a few.
But to his regulars Herbie Atwell, Ferdie Ferreira, Harry Laughlin, Carlos John, and even former prime minister Patrick Manning, again to name a few, there was the other face of Karl—a true Trini.
He relished a good mauvais langue; he would eat with a spoon out of a pot; he enjoyed curry best when eaten with his fingers; he was a mas player, costume designer and he loved pan; and if pressed, he could cuss in the language of the old Charlotte Street tradition.
Karl was fortunate; he was tutored in two great traditions, the QRC of old, and Cambridge, which enabled him to be comfortable in the various levels of the social spectrum. I recall Lloyd Best recounting stories of Karl, Reggie Dumas and himself during their Cambridge years.
I recalled, too, my personal experiences with him. As a junior reporter at the Guardian I was sent by the news editor, George Harvey, to interview him in his capacity as an attorney.
He seemed to have been pleased with the story I produced and from then on we were in constant contact. I was the reporter he requested whenever he called the Guardian.
On the day of Dr Eric Williams’ announcement that Hudson-Phillips would be succeeding George Richards as attorney general I was in his office and he hinted to me: “Watch the news, tonight!”
I wanted more than just a hint, but he insisted: “All I will tell you for now, just watch the news, for something.” On the Friday night of the PNM convention in Tobago, Dr Williams made the announcement.
Later he was immortalised as “de new Baron of Maraval” in Chalkdust’s kaiso “Ah fraid Karl”, but I suspect it was Kitchener’s “Not a Damn Seat For Dem” that really got to him.
I still recall vividly Karl that election night in 1981, clad in a light, cherry-coloured suit, an outfit obviously selected in anticipation of victory—but instead he appeared almost suffocating as he conceded defeat to George Chambers’ PNM machine.
That, I guess, was Karl’s defining moment; I suspect he remained scarred for the rest of his life by that rejection.
I saw little of him in recent years but I do remember, in one chance meeting, Karl telling me, “Keith, they (the people) don’t understand. I am their logical leader.”
I reacted in spontaneous laughter thinking that Karl was joking, but to my embarrassment, I was confronted with the stern, dead serious aspect of a man, who was saying that he felt cheated by fate.
When the NAR took office in 1986, Karl did not accept a cabinet position, choosing instead the chairmanships of BWIA and Telco (the now-defunct telephone company), which allowed him to practise law up the islands.
It was as though, after the 1981 defeat of his Organisation for National Reconstruction, Karl picked up his marbles and walked away; he turned to family and career. The game was over.
I am pleased that he did not depart like former president Sir Ellis Clarke, who in July 2010 in his last brief for AG Anand Ramlogan, assured the country that there was no conflict of interest in Jack Warner, then a FIFA vice president, being appointed a cabinet minister.
But my lament was Karl’s silence as T&T entered the political maelstrom of May 2010 and beyond. Yes, he spoke out on matters concerning the legal profession. But I expected “the fearless elder” to scold the politicians on the games that have prevented T&T from fully joining the Caribbean Court of Justice. Karl was detached when the country faced the UNC Government’s Section 34 scam. Neither did he have anything to say on e-mailgate, and the continuing legal theatrics of his colleagues in silk.
Karl was, indeed, a luminary in something some lawyers call the law—but T&T needed more from him. I have always argued that the law, as practised, is divorced from our social reality. And those who excel in the law must take it to its laudable end—justice.
RIP, “Excellency”—the salutation the late Express editor, George John and I accorded him, always.
• Keith Subero, a former
Express news editor, has since followed a career in
communication and management