The end of the affair

By Vita Forest

What's wrong with a happy ending?

What’s wrong with a happy ending?

The truth is hard and tough as nails, that’s why we need fairy tales.

from Munchhausen by Hollander

While convalescing at home, awaiting the results of a whooping cough swab, with my voice deepened to a sultry level, but missing the resonance required to address twenty-three small children without it cracking into inconsistent seal yelps, I turned in consolation to literature.

As you may know, I have recently finished reading the delightful Brother of the more Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido.  Before being laid low, I had handily picked up a couple more of Trapido’s books from the library.

I have finished Juggling (not as lovely as BOTMFJ) and have launched into The Travelling Hornplayer.  Some of the characters began to feel familiar, then I realised there were favourites from the aforementioned novels, now years later, bumping into each other across the end pages of those other books.  This was not necessarily a cause for alarm.

But then it was.

“No!” I wanted to scream in my cracked voice, as my literary crush from BOTMFJ engaged in a seedy affair in a grimy flat in London while his wife pottered about in The Cotswolds.  “No, Barbara Trapido, I don’t want to know this!”

Some books do not need epilogues, do not need sequels.  I want to think back affectionately to the “closure”, to the satisfaction of everything ending how it should have.

I want Georgie giving Lu the kiss of life in the bottom of a boat after he has pulled her from a sinking plane, not reading that Tim Winton has written a play reusing these characters in which Georgie is grieving her lover who has been KILLED.

I want Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson  to live blissfully together after she throws over that cold fish Cecil, not the future mapped out in the epilogue of boredom, resentment and cheating.

I certainly don’t want to read about what happens to Darcy or anyone else after the perfect ending (particularly from someone who is not the original author…) but when it is the author – oh, they still need to be very careful.

Melina Marchetta has done it successfully (“Of course,” I hear you say, “Could you stop going on about her!”)  J. K. Rowling too.  And I didn’t mind meeting up again with Michael Ondaatje’s Caravaggio and Hana once more in The English Patient.  But I agree that A.S. Byatt didn’t need to add the epilogue to Possession and I think that Suzanne Collins could have stopped after The Hunger Games.  Don’t even get me started about Stephenie Meyer…

So I suppose I will continue reading The Travelling Hornblower but my hackles have been raised.  I do not want to fall out of love with Jonathon.

Have you ever wished an author had just stopped?


This week

By Vita Forest

Orange Grove Market

Orange Grove Market

This week I have been

  • READING Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn
  • MAKING a Hedwig owl soft toy to go with Pigwidgeon (for Lucy’s birthday).
  • VISITING Orange Grove Market, Leichhardt.
  • WATCHING The Principal on SBS.
  • SPOTTING pelicans off Tunks Park, Cammeray.

Beware of wand thieves and sunburn

By Vita Forest

On the way to Shelly Beach

On the way to Shelly Beach

Last weekend, Lucy and I met some of my old high school friends and some of their children for a day out.  Heather, Venetia, Gemma and I (the adults) were keen to do a big walk somewhere beautiful.  The children (Ava, Jasper, Bob and Lucy) were not so keen on the walking part, but came anyway with the promise of icecream.  We settled on the Manly to North Head walk and met at Circular Quay to catch the Manly ferry.

When we arrived, we walked through Manly to the surf beach.  It was a beautiful Spring day and the beach was busy.  Before walking to Shelly Beach, we checked the sunscreen situation.  Bob was prevailed upon to apply some more (he hates it so much that he has been known to wear long sleeves in Summer just to avoid it).  The females admired the ocean waves, the surfers and the clear blue sky, while Jasper and Bob turned away from the beach and admired the real estate.  I pointed out to Lucy the small child-height statues dotted along the rocky wall that she used to toddle between as a two-year old.

Sculpture of a snorkeler, Shelly Beach

Sculpture of a snorkeler, Shelly Beach

We climbed higher and looked out over the ocean (making a slight detour when a water dragon appeared in our path, cocking its head and waiting to see whether it had to run.  It did not).  There was some confusion as to whether we could walk through the bush, Venetia’s instructions were via the streets, so through the streets we went.  (Apparently you can walk through the bush, but it was not well sign-posted). Up the hills we went and  entered the Sydney Harbour National Park at North Head.  We didn’t see any bandicoots but we did see this sign.

We didn't see any bandicoots, they are nocturnal after all.

We didn’t see any bandicoots, they are nocturnal after all.

The bush there is thick, dense scrub.  You can’t see far into the distance on the track, but all at once you feel a cool breeze, and the vegetation suddenly breaks open and you are standing looking along the cliff line.  There are some old military sites to explore, including observation posts cliffs facing out to sea.

Ava collected a good solid stick that she swished about as a wand (she had just watched Harry Potter).  At one lookout, another child came over.  She held it out to him to inspect and to her astonishment, he snatched it and ran off!  Luckily there were plenty more wands to be had.  After that, we were on the lookout for wand thieves.

The view North

The view North

Signs indicating the distant existence of a café pricked the interest of the girls, who were deflated to learn we had brought our own lunch.  They chewed on snacks as we stepped along the mesh path over the Hanging Swamp.  The spring flowers were putting on a fine display – flannel flowers, grevilleas and bottlebrush.  Ava wanted some spells for her new wand, preferably one that would help us fly and so avoid the walk in the hot sun.  She asked Lucy if she knew any.  (“Not Avada kedavra,” I instructed. “Or Sectumsempra!”)  The girls settled on Wingardium levisoa and Obliviate.  Ava tested this last one by giving her Mum a small punch and then using the Obliviate spell to see if Gemma would forget her naughtiness.  Unfortunately for Ava it did not work…


The Path through the Hanging Swamp

After stopping for lunch (outside the cafe), we visited the Quarantine station cemetery.  It was was brimming with wild flowers which dwarfed the crumbling monuments that stood on the hill looking back towards the city.  Heather even found one grave for a Edward Kelly (a not so famous one we presume).  We continued past  the Quarantine Station (“Ghost tours!” said Jasper) and on to the lovely Collins Beach, into penguin territory.  After a brief paddle it was back to the ferry wharf where we were herded on to a ferry back to Circular Quay.

Wildflowers in the cemetery

Wildflowers in the cemetery

Lucy and Ava waved to the passengers on passing boats, and Gemma reminisced about doing the same with her sister on car trips when they were children.  If anyone waved back, they were “allowed” to come to their birthday parties!  Gemma always collected more waves than her sister.  Jasper closed his eyes but opened them a crack when Ava gleefully announced that her brother was asleep.  By this point, we were all grateful to be sitting down.

At Circular Quay, we all indulged in the long-awaited reward of gelato before Lucy and I had to say farewell and rush off to try and make the kids’ 5pm handover.

We all slept well that night.


This week

By Vita Forest

Green Square

Central Park

This week I have been

  • READING The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (it was the school holidays after all – extra time for reading).
  • MAKING Hedwig and Pidwidgeon (see last week’s This week… hand sewing takes a long time).
  • VISITING The Goods Line, The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building designed by Frank Gehry, the Central Park precinct and McKell Park.
  • WATCHING The Good Wife Season 1.
  • SPOTTING a seal! from Sawmiller’s Reserve at Berry’s Bay.


Where did my literacy come from?

By Vita Forest


I come from a family of readers.  My mother was a midwife and my father was a cabinet-maker.  Neither of them went to university.  Nevertheless, our home life was one in which books and reading were important.

My sisters and I grew up in a house full of reading materials – novels, children’s books, encyclopaedias, newspapers and letters.  When we were young, we were read picture books everyday.  My parents still have some of those treasured books – Madeline, The Big Orange Splot and Mr Rabbit and the Lovely Present.  As we grew older, we read chapter books to ourselves.  My father built bookshelves in our bedrooms to house our personal libraries and we were provided with our own bedside lamps.  In this way, books formed part of our private havens.  My late night habit of “just one more chapter and then I’ll turn off the light” began here.

In our family, reading was for pleasure.  My father often read literary fiction and favoured Australian writers such as Peter Carey and David Malouf.  My mother enjoyed humorous poetry and taught us many poems and rhymes.  There was a particular poem called The Friendly Cow, which we would all say in unison every time we passed a dairy farm.  Sharing stories and poems aloud and often knowing them by heart, was part of the discourse of our family.  Books also provided storylines and ideas for games.  We played at finding a “Secret Garden” and took turns being Mistress Mary, Martha and “the robin”.  This was especially effective in my grandmother’s long shady garden.

My mother also suggested novels to us that she had enjoyed as a child.  Accordingly, I read the Billabong series, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.  These last two series, which focused on young girls who harboured ambitions of teaching and writing, perhaps affected me more than I realised at the time.  I also read the Swallows and Amazon series about the adventures of a group of children sailing boats in the Lakes District in England.  One day, as I borrowed one of these from the library, I was startled by a comment made by a classmate.  He did not believe I really read such “thick books.”  I had never been intimidated by the length of a book and was surprised to consider that others might be.  To me, reading was not just something you did at school and was definitely not done only because you had to.  It was the key into other worlds, other people’s heads and experiences I had never come across in my own life.

I attended the local catholic primary school which I do not remember with a lot of kindness.  Although I did well, school seemed tedious.  Moreover, I don’t remember learning to read or any story books I read while at school.  I do recall writing drills; copying the same letter endlessly on specially ruled paper.  We were also drilled on our spelling using a program called “Morphographic spelling.” This was full of long convoluted words which I never reused and whose meaning we didn’t learn.  The memory trick of remembering the order of the letters was more important than tying it to our own experience.  School was not like books, there was no magic.

The library was a central institution in my life.  From a young age, we attended Storytime and borrowed books.  My sisters and I keenly and successfully participated in Book week competitions at the library and at school.  Inspired by C.S. Lewis, I was “The Witch” (in white with a silver crown), my friend Katherine was “The Wardrobe” (inside a large cardboard box with handles) and her soft toy rode on top as “The Lion.”

After careful coaching from my mother, I was accepted into a selective public high school.  I was the only one from my primary school who took up a place there, which was very daunting initially.  I have a number of distinct memories from this period.  One of these is of a Year 8 English assignment, where we had to write our own poem inspired by Ted Hughes’ Wind.  We became very enthusiastic about the task and invested much thought and time into our efforts.  This is my first memory of really having the motivation and interest to revise and fine-tune a piece of writing.  Moreover, the results were spectacular!

I also remember having a terrific English teacher in Year 11 called Mr B.  Looking back, I realise we became so engaged because he got us thinking deeply by asking questions that took us beyond the texts themselves.  English was not where I gained a lasting knowledge of Grammar however; instead it came from studying other languages.  As a consequence of learning French, I was suddenly able to recognise the different parts of the English language.  I had a great French teacher called Mrs P.  She really taught me that language is about communication and making meaning.

After school, I completed a Bachelor of Arts at university.  This included two Creative writing courses where I tried my hand at poetry, playwriting and fiction.  Writing workshops were highly anticipated and exciting, often inspiring awe at classmates’ efforts.  These courses also cemented the idea of writing as a serious profession which we could all consider.

After completing my degree, I drifted into a career in I.T. as so many people did during the Dot com boom.  Work in this area was readily available and offered many travel opportunities.  This was attractive after struggling to find work during the recession of the 1990s.  I still wrote every day, however now the texts were informational – user guides, test cases, test plans.  The aim was to be very clear, accurate and concise.  I had to write to a deadline and for particular audiences.  Looking back, it was a good discipline to write within such constraints.

I am now the mother of two avid readers.  Some of the traditions from my own childhood continue in theirs – frequent trips to the library, bedtime stories and discussions about events and characters from favourite books.  One of the highlights of recent years was discovering Harry Potter alongside my children – all as first-time visitors to the world of Hogwarts.  We read the first three books aloud together, my children sitting wide-eyed beside me.  (I continued the journey into the later, darker books alone.)  My fascination with the way my son learnt to read at school was one reason I decided to retrain as a primary teacher.

When my children were born, a large box arrived on the doorstep filled with books, kernels of foam clinging to their sides.  They were a present from my family’s American friend Mardi.  She had also sent books to my sisters and me when we were young.  Looking back, this tradition of books as presents was significant.  It gave us a sense that books were special, that stories were gifts and giving books was a way of showing someone that you cared about them.  Mardi had been a primary school teacher and had also set up a program to raise literacy levels in children, a passionate concern of hers.  Echoes of her aims and philosophies come to me when I read with my children and also in my studies in Education.  For instance, reading as a way for children to bond with important adults in their lives.  Mardi was someone I really admired, and I now see that she too, influenced me in my decision to become a teacher.

Looking over the history of my own literacy, I can now conclude that my family life had a greater influence over my literacy than that of my schooling.  I can see that I was fortunate in having parents that supported and encouraged the habits of reading for enjoyment.  This was particularly important as my early schooling was not very inspiring.  I was luckier at high school and university, but the urge to read and create stories can really be traced back to my early family life.  As a teacher I hope to instil a love of literature in my students – not only are reading and writing necessary skills for participation in general life, they can be the departure point into the rich world of the imagination.

*This is an edited piece written a few years ago as part of my Education studies at university.  You might be interested to know that Lucy, now aged ten, is currently devouring Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by herself.