A Hand Held Out

Memories of Graeme Kinross-Smith

(1936 – 2021)

Writing and tennis.

Politics and Paris. 

Climate change and jazz.

City and country.

History and movies.

Family and dogs.

It stands to reason that a single person must surely have a limit to the themes they can be so deeply passionate about. But the depths of Graeme Kinross-Smith – Australian poet, novelist, photographer, teacher, and writer of short fictions – seemed, like his generosity and friendship, to have no end.

‘ceres velvet green landscape’ by Graeme Kinross-Smith (emailed 12 June 2017)

Our many meetings in Geelong, Melbourne, and Port Campbell, often with his partner Judith, would see the topics and tangents of conversations only end due to the time getting away from us. Graeme’s pulsating memory of places and people was always matched by an ineffable modesty. He was a man whose years of wisdom punctuated every rendezvous, but he could still marvel with a child’s wide eyes at the latest technology could offer. Behind his wry, knowing smile was a man always willing, always eager, to learn new things.

Not a single meal shared would pass without Graeme inquiring if I’d heard of one cultural personality or another whom he had himself met, or interviewed, or taught. I seldom did know these names, though took it as a compliment he thought it was at least a possibility. The idea that I could launch one of his poetry collections with any credibility was equally laughable, but he had me do it anyway.

A Chance Encounter

Our friendship began in 2001 when I stayed back after a first-year literature seminar to participate in a writing workshop Graeme had organised. I was the only one who went along that day, yet unfazed, Graeme spoke with me for the full hour. So it had all started with Graeme holding out his hand. And he would continue to do so, to encourage and support me in my writing and media-making, for the next 20 years.

Graeme would read or watch whatever I and no doubt countless others sent him, offering feedback and motivation when the road most travelled seemed more appealing. Having mentored countless writers over the decades, Graeme continued to be productive across various genres, from his illustrated guide to the lives and works of Australia’s Writers (1980), to his novel Long Afternoon of the World (2007), to his powerful serialised work ‘The Barking of Dogs: Considering the Social Effects of Global Warming’ (2016), to various other sport-themed books and collections of carefully crafted poems. As the interviewer makes clear in this recorded conversation with Graeme, he was a ‘prolific, eclectic, and award-winning writer.’

Graeme had become the first Lecturer in Creative Writing in Australia at the Gordon Institute of Technology, before his path brought him to Deakin University. There his passion for the country and its cultures led him to initiate the ‘Australian Studies’ discipline, and his creative ideas and outputs contributed to interdisciplinary bridges between literary studies, art, and history. Many years after his retirement, Graeme would still roam the corridors of the Waurn Ponds campus as an Honorary Fellow, digitising precious photographs for the National Library of Australia and continuing to look for opportunities to help students and colleagues alike. More on Graeme’s dynamic career can be found here.

But that’s not what I knew Graeme as. I just knew him as the man who for one reason or another (and often for no reason at all) posted me scenic country photographs with a warm, handwritten message on the back, always signed GK-S; the fellow who selflessly made the long trip from Geelong to Melbourne to attend film screenings and all 3 days of a conference I organised; the friend who shared his life with me through stories; the thoroughly decent human being.

So Many Stories; So Many Directions…

Graeme continued to play tennis and swim in the ocean long after most others would have called a day on such pastimes. He had seemed to be defying the odds stacked medically against him for some years, though for him those stories held little interest in the telling when compared with other stories – those he told himself and those he was always keen to listen to. There were also those stories he would only too happily help you record, carrying his camera without request and always capturing moments in a higher quality than everyone else managed to.

With thanks to Graeme Kinross-Smith, gentleman photographer

Fittingly, one of Graeme’s epic projects was a family history that crossed generations, bringing together both painstaking research and his self-evident love of the written word. He wrote to me in one enthusiastic email in 2017: ‘I’m realising I have to tell a more complete story of my life from my birth to my father’s death for my brothers, kids, grandkids while I’m embroiled in the fossicking and selection and that I must not let wordage length hang over me until later, when it can be reduced for the outside reader! It leads in so many directions!’

Now that he is gone, Graeme deserves to have many stories told of him at a celebration packed wall to wall with mourners, but that will, alas, not be the case. Given it would have taken Kardinia Park Stadium to accommodate all those who would have wanted to be there, perhaps the present situation holds some mercy in its tragedy. In any case, Graeme would have been the first to say there will be plenty of other days to tell stories, and they don’t all need to be about him.

Au revoir, mon ami.

There is no prolonged suffering in this story. Unaware of what was to come to pass not so many hours later, Graeme was able to enjoy one last sunlit walk through his beloved Geelong.

Graeme is one of the very few friends I invited to read a poem I wrote for my son before he was born. One of the lines in this poem is ‘Breathe those moments in and let them linger.’ Living in the present but with an eternal fondness for the past, I now imagine Graeme did just that on his final, blissful, now bittersweet trek.

Breathing those moments in. Letting them linger.

Happily, I had the privilege of introducing my son to Graeme at our last meeting. I can still see my friend tapping his fingers across the table toward a hesitant 6-month-old, holding out his hand in friendship.

My son smiled.

And grabbed Graeme’s hand.

Featured image: ‘footsteps in sand 2 mile’ by Graeme Kinross-Smith (2017)

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