Saturday, May 07, 2011

My dear friend George Ross has passed away. I went to his funeral last Wednesday in Golder's Green.
George was summed up by the celebrant as 'A sensational individual', and that is exactly how I feel about him.
Enormously learned with a razor sharp mind, he came to England from his homeland Rumania in the early sixties, not speaking a word of English. He learned the language by reading the Times with a dictionary. There is, appropriately, a forthcoming obituary of him in the Times. He had read Physics and Mathematics in Bucharest, although he always said that his real love was Philosophy. This subject did not feature on the syllabus in those days in Rumania, only in the shape of Marxism etc. He made up for this later in life when he taught Philosophy of Science at the University of London.

George was huge fun. One of his biggest heroes was Goethe, and he mirrored his hero in that he seemed to inhabit a different plane from the rest of us somehow: where the horizons and the appetite for learning and for life were on a heroic scale.

George was a reader of this journal, and he would often write me emails commenting on my latest entries. A typical example from the 3rd of March 2007 when I had written:

'I am walling myself in with turrets in a make-believe country, which never the less is true. Or is it? Perhaps it is all in my imagination? Perhaps soon I will be mad as a hatter, or am I already? Perhaps soon it will become apparent that I have lost touch with reality and some kind friend who looks in on the blog will decide to send a rescue party.
In the meantime the full moon is illuminating the turrets of my kingdom in a cold light, Jupiter has risen and in the distance a moezzin is calling the faithful to prayer. This place is still as alien as ever to me and I revel and bathe in its strangeness which soothes my soul like balsam. The ochre dust of the Harmattan envelops my kingdom and on the distant horizon flames a lone potter's pyre'

George wrote:
Yes,of course,my rescue party has been on high alert,ready to depart,since the day you went to Mali! And yes,I do think that you are mad. Well,you must be mad! But then,I remember Bernard Shaw,who put it neatly:
'Progress is due to the unreasonable person. The reasonable person seeks to adjust to the world. The unreasonable person seeks to change it'. When you come in April (?)will you bring me a banana from one of your own trees?
Yes, you are like an Empress, inspecting your crenelated turrets. And,like your great ancestress, one day you will utter 'non mi bisognia e non mi basta' (or something like this)and retire to the Vatican!

George always wrote me these sorts of uplifting and flattering messages... I have spent the day reading through our correspondence through the years, and feeling sad, but glad that I knew him.

If there was sadness in George, he shook it off by sheer force of will and sense of humour. He helped his friends to do the same- when he knew that I was down he remedied this by taking me off to a performance of a Ukulele orchestra which made us laugh, since he rightly believed that laugther is always the best medicine.

George and I were to meet up now, like always when I am in London, but alas...

George was a staunch Atheist, but he left us with his own version of the 10 commandments:


1. Sapere aude - Dare to know. Take the risk of discovery, exercise the right of unfettered criticism, accept the loneliness of autonomy. Have the courage to use independently your own understanding, without recourse to anyone else's guidance. Always question, always examine critically your thoughts and deeds. Always ask 'why?' Try also to ask 'why not?' Be creative.

2. Know thyself. To thine own self be true. Remember that an unexamined life is not worth living.

3. Universalize your actions: never do anything which you would not want to say that anybody and everybody should be able to do in a similar situation. Treat your fellow human beings as you want them to treat you. Do not have double standards: apply to yourself the principles and laws that you yourself formulate. Never treat people as a means to an end: only as an end in itself.

4. Be kind and compassionate, and be involved: remember that the hottest place in hell is destined to those who adopt a neutral attitude in a moral conflict.

5. Take very seriously your duty towards others, but do not take yourself seriously. Always aim for the best result possible, not for the best possible result.

6. Remember that all human opinions, values, tenets and beliefs are of necessity subjective and relative. Always treat them as hypotheses or premises. Never bestow upon an opinion, doctrine, dogma or belief of any sort an absolute character: this is the cause of most heinous crimes against humanity. Beware of peddlers of absolutes, for people have been – and are – exterminated in the name of absolutes. Nobody has ever been killed for a hypothesis, so far at least.

7. Be regular and ordinary in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work. Do not make a virtue of banality, by calling it 'common sense'. Remember that the surest defence against evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality.

8. Tolerate any stance, except intolerance itself. To detest another man's opinions is one thing. To suppress them is quite another. This distinction is the essence of liberalism. Plan for freedom, and not only for security, if for no other reason than that only freedom can make security secure.

9. Treat with respect the planet on which we live. It is the only one we've got at present and we must bequeath it to our children – and our children's children.

10. Strive to live in such a way that the world you leave behind you is a better place, freer, wiser, more tolerant, than the world you found when you were born. Try to make a difference – however small.


Blogger David said...

Thanks for preserving the Commandments of George Ross. Carved on the heart. dxx

2:04 PM  
Blogger jm.herraiz said...

Dear Sophie,
First of all, my condolences for the loss of your friend. I found his Commandments very inspiring.
I went to Djenné back in 2004 and met a girl named Djeneba. She was albino, 17 years-old and had such personality that the short documentary I made then about her had a considerable success here in Spain, where I live. Given that you live in Djenné, I wonder if you have known her or heard about her. She must be 25 now. I would like to come back to Djenné to meet her. Thank you for your time. Best regards.

José Manuel Herraiz

4:43 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Dear Jose Manuel,
thank you for your message and condolences. I am glad you appreciate George's ten commandments.
I do not know Djenneba unfortuantely, and I think if she was still in Djenne I would know of her. I will however make enquiries and see if I can find out about her for you. Check this space for news.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Amarilis said...

I am Rodica, a Romanian women, a retired physicist, one year younger than George.
Many years have passed, but these days a sudden filing urged me to find out somehow a trace of George. I tried by first looking up in Google.
...It can’t be true I thought. And yet it was. ....Three weeks too late!

During all our studentship I was overwhelmed by George’s appearance, so different from the rest of us. Tall, always wearing a dark suit and a white shirt, the cuffs showing up a little from under his sleeves. A tie too, of course. A big black umbrella, strange for a student of those days, accompanied him often.
A real gentleman in a crowd of say poorly dressed students, as was usual in those dark years in Romania.
I was overwhelmed by George’s mature and elevated way of thinking and speaking, so different from what one usually heard in our student world. He seemed to belong to another world, a world I would never be able to reach, I thought.

Memories are overwhelming me now, when I thought to be so near to find him again.

The Romanian physicists have here a journal, Curierul de fizică. I think that at least now, after his passing away, George deserves to be reminded to his colleagues who have praised him and to the community of physicists here in Romania.

Could you help us? In any way you can. May be with some information about his activity in England, some photography, and by writing an article for the mentioned journal. May be by permitting us to publish also his 10 Commandments.

Is it too much if I ask you to put on his grave a flower from me too, next time you will be in London?

Have my deepest sympathy for the loss of your dear friend.

10:21 PM  
Blogger toubab said...

Dear Rodica,
I was most moved to read your comment. I hope you do not mind me putting it on the blog itself!I was quite amazed that George was so smart when he was young! I never saw him in suit and tie once I think...
I have put a link to the memorial website for George, and I give you permission to use anything from this blog for your magazine- you may have to ask permission from the Times for the obituary. I am sure that Michael, George's son would not mind if you use the ten commandments or pictures from the memorial website. But if you would like to ask his permission, please write to me on and I will give you Michael's email address.
Hope to hear from you.

11:29 AM  

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