Lights out, music off

George Kahn, 1948-2008

In late 1987, a group of 30 Australians traveled to Nicaragua to pick coffee in solidarity with the Sandinista revolution. On Christmas Day, as we waited at the airport in Mexico for our flight to Managua, we were joined by a tall, easy-going, laconic, 39-year old, who had already been in Latin America for some months, and for whom travel in rough and dangerous places was apparently second nature. He was more experienced and streetwise than most of us, but he had a twinkle in his eye and a natural kindness that quickly made him a friend to the marginal and helpless members of the group. In short, a kindly and dependable grown-up just the sort of person you want on a trip like that. He had brought two cartons of cigarettes, and was cheerfully giving them out three weeks later when everyone else had run out. And of course he could speak Spanish.

We became friends, and in the twenty years that followed, George, in chronological order: figured out how to compile the code for Gempak and thereby saved my life, put me up in his house for three months, taught me from scratch how to use a PC (pre-Windows), took me to Berlin on the original Unification Day, taught me Hungarian, helped me paint the flat in Budapest (he did all the tricky plaster work), ferried our wedding cake to the reception and organised games for the kids there, fixed the electric blender, house-hunted with me in Sydney, helped me put up all the wooden blinds, helped me build the cubby, assembled the IKEA bunk bed while I was at work, cut the legs off the bar stools we bought to make chairs for the boys, came to watch the boys’ performance after a drama workshop, and babysat some visiting friends’ children at a moments notice.

This small sample will be familiar to those who knew him — not in its details, but in the sheer quantity of other people’s projects he got involved in, and the breadth of his skills. Even with tasks that didnt require much talent or present a challenge, he managed to make them fun. Whether it was negotiating a passport control at the Honduran border, or operating power tools, George was the guy youd want to have with you. And though all these tasks needed doing, that wasnt the main point the joy was in sharing the projects with George, who could turn any chore into a hilarious adventure.

George was a highly skilled electrical and software engineer. But he divided his adult life roughly equally between work and leisure. The latter in turn was divided about equally between travel and spells of idleness at home. As far as the former is concerned: think of the best-traveled person you know, count the number of countries he’s visited, and multiply that by three to get an estimate of George’s tally. The friend who designed the funeral souvenir pamphlet (is there a name for those?) counted 112, but he probably missed some. And in general he criss-crossed those countries, learning as much as he could, engaging the locals in intense conversation on trains and buses, taking brilliant photos (of which the choice shots fill twenty albums) and writing entertaining missives to his friends, one of which I posted here on Troppo earlier this year.

As for the spells of idleness, these were devoted to self-education and friendships. He taught himself Spanish and French, and made some progress in Arabic. (Omitting the Arabic, that makes six languages. Having spent a third of his adult life in Germany, he was already as fluent in German as in English and Hungarian, his mother tongue. Apparently he also spoke fluent Hebrew around age 10.) In addition, early studies in the Berlin Free University fueled a life-long enthusiasm for philosophy, which he rekindled later in a WEA course, and further pursued as an active member of a philosophy discussion group that still meets fortnightly. There can’t have be too many engineers who are drawn to post-modernism (or ‘Continental Philosophy’ generally, as one of the eulogists put it), but George’s instinct for equality and distrust of authority — both political and intellectual — made it a natural fit.

If his epistemological preferences presented something of a paradox, so did his close relationships. He had four times as many substantial friendships as most of us accumulate, and he cultivated them energetically — as I illustrated above in my own case. A dozen or so households effectively regarded him as family member, and he had a genuine gift for relating to children. However, staying friends with George meant keeping a little at arm’s length. He wanted love, but those who were drawn in too close tended to founder on the jagged rocks of misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations. Therefore, despite a few attempts at domestic bliss, he was denied an enduring partnership and children of his own.

George died of a heart attack last week, after a strenuous workout in the gym. Ten weeks earlier we had celebrated his 60th birthday with a terrific party at his place in Rozelle, when that photo was taken — a picture of health and vitality.

Szia, Gyuri básci. Things will never be the same without you.

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15 years ago

A wonderful tribute, James.

James Farrell
James Farrell
15 years ago

Thanks, Amanda.

jack lee
jack lee
15 years ago

A great piece – but what was the dude’s fullname?

Incidentally the word for a funeral souvernir pamphlet is Todschrift, from the German – general term for any collection of writings made to commemorate a person’s death

Joshua Gans
15 years ago

Thanks for noticing the omission, jack. It was meant to go in the picture caption, and is there now.

Pavlov's Cat
15 years ago

What Amanda said.