When I first met the enchanting Johanna Featherstone I was amused to discover that she was responsible for the ‘Spit or Swallow’ advice column in that esteemed satirical publication The Chaser. I’d known that she was a writer and had worked in book shops, but was most impressed to discover that she is also the Artistic Director of The Red Room Company, an entity devised, she says, in order to “create, produce and distribute” all manner of projects inspired by poetry, utilising the talents of “the most unusual, talented people” that she can find in the process. The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition, mounted as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, is one of those projects. It seemed a worthy topic of conversation, and and so an interview ensued. During the course of it, I discovered that I was responsible – somehow – for introducing Johanna to her partner, composer Elliott Wheeler. But that’s a whole other story. He figures in this story, however, as providing the sonic landscape of songs that will feature at the launch, as does Timothy Brunero, who collaborated on the satirical room notes with Johanna. The interview that follows was broadcast Saturday 15 May.

Soundbite: ‘Bicycle’ – David Malouf, from the album David Malouf reads from Poems 1959-89

Demetrius Romeo: Johanna, tell me a bit about this ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition which is part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: The ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition is a collection of ten hand-written poems by Australian poets – a variety of very new poets who haven’t published anything before, such as a ten year-old poet who is coming down from Tamworth, who has written a fantastic bush ballad about a wolf, and then, from esteemed poets we all know about, such as Dimitris Tsaloumas and David Malouf.

They were asked to submit me on an A4 sheet of paper a hand-written poem. I gave them a few ideas of my favourite poems which they had written, and then they turned up to me – the most amazing experience and one of the most beautiful was Dimitris Tsaloumas’s submission, which is this divine calligraphy with a little note attached, saying,

You asked me to submit something on an A4 piece of paper, but I have no idea what an A4 piece of paper is, so I have just taken the closest piece of paper at hand and hope that fits.

And of course, it did.

Demetrius Romeo: In addition to the exhibition of the hand-written poems, you have an exhibition of art, as well as readings on the day.

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: That’s right. Tonee Messiah is a student at Sydney College of the Arts and she was asked to create ‘a civilization of poets’, in terms of the visual interpretation of poets’ heads. This has luckily been supported by NAVA, which is the National Association of Visual Arts, and there are nine separate little heads that hang in between the poems to emphasise the idea of the poet as a person – just like the handwriting – rather than the poet being something only on a computer screen now.

Demetrius Romeo: Have we lost touch with poets in the modern age?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I don’t think we’ve lost touch with them, but I think perhaps we forget how powerful and exciting poetry can be, in that a poem doesn’t just have to be something that you can read, although a great poem gives you everything in just that experience. Poems can bring about an entire cultural community; they can take people from the school halls into professional careers.

Demetrius Romeo: Who are the poets represented in the ‘Fingerprints’ exhibition?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: Well, there are ten all up, but to give you an example of a few, there’s a girl called Lucy Holt from Melbourne and another girl called Mia Dyson who’s an Australian blues singer who recently won an ARIA award. She’s submitted a blues lyric for us to decide whether it’s a poem or not.

Soundbite: ‘Roll On’ – Mia Dyson, from the album Cold Water

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: John Clarke contributed a fabulous satirical poem called ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’, that’s a satire on one of Lewis Carroll’s poems. John Clarke is really appropriate for another aspect of the exhibition – a series of room notes that I have written, that talk about, in a fun way, the idea of how poetry is valued and financed in our society. On the back of these room notes are some absurdist price tags which actually stand, because if someone can produce the price that we say on these absurdist price tags, they can take away the poem. But I do warn the listeners that they range from a vial of imagination, to a cornfield of Cypriot corn.

Demetrius Romeo: So if I wanted the John Clarke poem, for example, what would that cost me?

JOHANNA FEATHERSTONE: I think something like John Howard’s fiscal policy on a plate.

Soundbite: ‘The Hunting of the Smirk’ – John Clarke, listed as the track ‘Carol Lewis’ on the album The CD of The Even More Complete Book of Australian Verse

Charles & Amanda

Another Saturday, another wedding. This one was scary: out the front were sunglassed and besuited ‘men in black’ types, handing out copies of the ‘Order of Service’; on the way upstairs a sign insisted that there be ‘No Paparazzi’. Dubbed (by its perpetrators) The Society Wedding of the Millennium™ this marriage involved a current batch of talented individuals and their extended network of friends – a bunch of people I have, for the most part, known for a decade, most of whom I haven’t seen for the better part of it. Indeed, many constitute my own unreliable memoir (for that must be the collective term) of expats, ever-so-briefly repatriated for the sake of this event. All the blokes scrubbed up well. It was the women – (sigh; as Allen Ginsberg never said, “I saw the best minds of my generation on Manning Bar balcony, in skimpy tops”) – who I hadn’t seen for ages that I most regret having to scarper from.

But scarper I had to: there was a dancefloor ticket to Radiohead with my name on it. Indeed, I even received a round of applause from my table when I got up to leave. One of the re-pats insisted that I must stay while another deeply regretted the fact that he couldn’t join me. And in fact, when I first received the invitation to this wedding, I confessed to the happy couple, Charles Firth and Amanda Tattersall that I’d be leaving early. “C’mon Charles,” I insisted, “I’d leave my own wedding for a Radiohead concert.” He laughed and said “I might want to go to the concert, too.” I had to offer the last word: “that’s quite ironic, because I might want to stay to consummate the…”

This vulgar attempt at humour was politely tolerated, and understandibly so. Charles Firth may not be a comic genius, but he is the sort of talented humorist who may well be described as one by future generations – as long as he doesn’t make the mistake of believing his own hype, such as pronouncements by people like me that while he is not exactly a comic genius, he may well be described as one some time in the future. So Amanda Tattersall, his then-wife-to-be, was used to such politically incorrect statements being made. The beauty is that Amanda works in politics; she is the Special Projects Officer of the Labor Council. She couldn’t possibly have a sense of humour that was well-informed and tolerant at the same time. And yet she’s marrying Charles Firth – so she must.

The ceremony itself was spectacular – a comedy extravaganza to which I will fail to do justice in attempting to describe. For starters, the Wedding March, composed by Elliott Wheeler, contained the requesite cadence point that said to the bride ‘wait here and be admired by everyone’, and then, ‘get ready to walk down the aisle’, at which point she tearily embraced her parents. Then, I swear, the music was composed so thoroughly and excellently that it ably communicated the message, ‘hang on, I know you're ready to go, but there’s just a bit more extemporising on this theme’. And then, ‘okay, ready? Well I’m not. A bit more fanfare and development.’ The dearly beloved that had gathered were laughing in all the right places. Finally, the music enabled the bride to take that walk. Who on earth understands music and comedy well enough to compose music soliciting perfectly timed laughter? Elliott Wheeler, evidently.

The wedding party consisted of two camps described, in the ‘Order of Service’, as ‘The Bride’s Supporting Cast’ and ‘The Groom’s Supporting Cast’. The former, listed ‘in no particular order’, included such personages as a Chief Whip/Patron Feminist, a Bridemaster, a Ring Master, an Eyewitness to Nuptials (apparently “The person legally required to declare, ‘Officer, I saw the whole thing’”) and a Reader of Engels. The latter, listed as ‘from Best to Worst’ included the Best Man, the WeddingCorp™ CEO, the Middle Man, the Lord of the Ring and the Worst Man. There was a Civil Celebrant, but more importantly, there was also an Uncivil Celebrant, played by Toma Dim.

The ceremony, commencing with the directive that “during the first part of the service, the Guests should mill awkwardly and not sit down”, began at 3:45 pm with The Panic of the Groom, followed twenty minutes later with The Sheepish Re-admission of the Groom. Then The Triumphant, Unflappable Arrival of the Non-Panicking Bride took place, to that fantastic Elliott Wheeler soundtrack. More entrances of pageboy and bridal party until The Bride’s Parents Bless Her Self-Propelled Decision to Wed, followed by ‘the first unscheduled piece of silliness’. The first unscheduled piece of silliness turned out to be the Ceremonial Signing of the Pre-Nuptual Agreement. (This was humorous; it had to be. Pre-nuptual agreements aren’t recognised in Australian law.)

The first, and only, reading was taken from the Book of Engels (Chapter 4, Verse 2), which spoke of the role of the woman in marriage, and is taken from the chapter entitled ‘Origins of the Family’. The marriage vows were especially funny; Charles vowing to agree with Amanda after a long argument, but only when he knows that she was right; Amanda promising to honour and respect Charles's media empire, trifling though it still may be (see here and here); and Charles, raising the biggest laugh, by acknowledging how important Amanda is to his life, even though he thought he was pretty damn cool before he met her; but I’m not going to do anyone justice paraphrasing and misquoting the gags. Suffice it to say that there were plenty of media-types and their loved ones looking at each other, absolutely cacking, agreeing that Charles and Amanda ‘had raised the bar’. I don’t know whether I should campaign for a DVD release with commentary, or just steal the tapes and bootleg it myself. I really regret having to leave before the speeches. But then again, I don’t, for the simple reason that I had a dancefloor ticket to Radiohead.

Unlike last week’s wedding, at which champagne flowed after the ceremony and not before, this time I stood in the wrong place, refused to put my glass down and failed to turn down refills, all the while snapping shots with my other hand. Thus, I don’t have many photos of the evening. Certainly, few that I am proud of.

Okay, just the one.

Andrew Hansen and Sholto Macpherson pose while some woman unwittinglly gives us a bit of cleavage action.


I was very pleased to catch up with an old friend, Gregor Stronach, whose partner I couldn’t help but inadvertantly assault. When we were having cigarettes on the balcony, I ashed in just the right spot where the wind could catch it and blow it straight into her eye. Later, as the first course was being served, I managed to splatter her with chicken gravy as I failed to hold the serving dish horizontally (too much champagne). It’s a good thing I got away when I did.

Googling Gregor a little later, I discovered Gregor’s Semi-Automatic Live Journal Updater™. Perfect for the lazy blogger.