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Riddley’s last trek: Russell Hoban, 86

By Bob Hicks

Someone called Singlet, responding online to the obituary in The Guardian for the novelist and children’s writer Russell Hoban, had this to say: “A few comments that Hoban’s other novels don’t come close to Riddley Walker make me think of what Joseph Heller reportedly said when asked, ‘Why have you never written anything else like Catch-22?’ — ‘Well, nobody else has either.'”

Russell Hoban in November 2010. Photo: Richard Cooper, Wikimedia CommonsExactly.

Hoban, the American-born writer who died in his adopted England on Tuesday at age 86, was far from a one-hit wonder. But Riddley Walker, his 1980 novel set in the crude countryside of Kent a couple of millennia after a nuclear apocalypse, is undoubtedly his Catch-22, the novel of astonishing accomplishment and originality that stands as the peak of a fertile and often brilliantly surprising career.

Young Riddley lives in an age of rubble: partly Mad Max free-for-all, partly pre-Roman Celtic drudgery, partly tightly controlled medieval theocracy. What quickens the book, and distinguishes it from the standard run of post-apocalyptic lit, is its language, a wildly inventive yet carefully considered deconstruction and reassembly of contemporary English as it might have devolved and reinvented itself in the centuries after a global disaster. The writing is constantly involving and often hilarious, and once you get the hang of it (reading a couple of pages out loud helps immensely) it makes extraordinary sense. A lot of other writers have made hay by taking liberties with the language and its tangled roots: James Joyce poetically and esoterically; J.R.R. Tolkein allusively and academically. Hoban did it with a literary everyman’s gusto and sly wit.

Continue reading Riddley’s last trek: Russell Hoban, 86

OSF beats the curse of the Scottish play

"Love's Labor's Lost" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2011. Photo: T. Charles Erickson/OSFT. Charles Erickson/OSF

By Bob Hicks

Mr. Noah, will this downpour never end?

The Scatters have disembarked in Ashland, Oregon, hometown of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Ashland is in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, a prodigious distance from Mount Ararat, and also a fair trot from the creeping trees of Birnam Wood. Yet the festival must be wondering just whose curse has descended on it this summer, and when that wandering dove is going to return with the olive branch in its beak. As the puckish Marty Hughley commented, somebody down here must have actually uttered the title of The Scottish Play.

At about 7:15 on Friday evening, the lights went out in the little pink rental house where the Scatters are staying on the south end of town. Lights, clocks, fans, air-conditioner. Mr. Scatter ambled next door to see if anyone knew what was up.

“Excuse me,” he said. “Are your lights out?”

He was speaking to a smiling woman relaxing on a porch chair with her legs tucked beneath her. “Yeah,” she said. “The whole neighborhood’s hit.” She paused and gazed southwest. “Storm coming in from the coast,” she said. “Better just sit back and enjoy the show.”

By “show,” she didn’t mean The Imaginary Invalid. She meant the fireworks she hoped would soon be visible in the sky.

A little later the Scatters hopped into the Scattermobile and motored downtown toward the festival grounds. All the traffic lights were out. All the lights in all the houses and shops were out. The word “neighborhood” was beginning to take on a larger than usual meaning.

They approached the big white tent where they were going to see Moliere’s Invalid. Curtain time was approaching. Still no power. The Scatters began to get nervous. Had the Ashland curse bitten again?

Continue reading OSF beats the curse of the Scottish play

Pardon the interruption, s’il vous plait

Confessionals, Church Gesu Nuovo, Naples. Photo: Heinz-Josef Lücking/Wikimedia Commons.

By Bob Hicks

Bless us, Father, for we have sinned. It’s been six days since we entered our last post here at Art Scatter, which is just … embarrassant. Pardon, if you please. It’s not that we haven’t been busy. In fact, that’s the point. We’ve been so busy we haven’t had time to keep the faith and commit good bloggery. We’ll try to do better.

pandercatalogSo let’s play catch-up.


On Friday, having survived the Great February Blizzard of 2011, which dropped all of a third of an inch of snow on the Chez Scatter front lawn but managed to snarl the city and shut down its schools, Mr. Scatter took a tour down the valley to the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem to catch Memory and Modern Life, an expansive retrospective of the oils, watercolors and drawings of Henk Pander, the Dutch-born Portland artist.

Continue reading Pardon the interruption, s’il vous plait

Most assuredly, a vote for entertainment

By Bob Hicks

The late lamented Charlie Snowden, Mr. Scatter’s boss at the old Oregon Journal (a newspaper that died when the industry was healthy), was a man who appreciated a good joke but also had unyielding standards.

Simon Russell Beale as Sir Harcourt Courtly in the National Theatre's filmed version of "London Assurance."  Photo: Catherine AshmoreAt his perch on the news desk, Charlie was known to lightly mock certain passages of flowery writing as he slashed through copy with his big black pencil. Sometimes he’d sigh or giggle and choose to overlook a phrase that not so privately drove him crazy: He knew which writers had permission to roam and which did not. But that didn’t stop him from pulling out his inkpad and his favorite stamp and branding the hard copy with his own gleeful judgment. The type was in a florid, immediately post-Gutenberg, barely readable old gothic. “WRETCHED EXCESS,” it said.

Ah, but what if the excess isn’t wretched?

That’s the sort of excess that courses through Dion Boucicault‘s ramshackle 1841 comedy London Assurance, which recently enjoyed a sold-out revival at the National Theatre. That production was filmed live in London on June 28, before the show closed, and it was screened for Portland audiences twice on Saturday by Third Rail Repertory, which has an agreement with the National to show its filmed productions.

Mr. Scatter will argue that it is precisely the excesses in this calculated crowd-pleaser that make London Assurance work — and the firm command of excess on the part of the performers that steers it clear of wretchedness.

Continue reading Most assuredly, a vote for entertainment

Blogging by the seat of our pants: Part Two

Gas station in Pie-Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Photo: Russell Lee via Library of Congress. Wikimedia Commons

In honor of the guerrilla tactics of people climbing onto MAX trains without wearing pants, we’ll pretend we have an important news angle and tell this tale:

My brother* showed up at my house wearing pajama pants.

We hugged. He hauled his suitcase into the guest room. He was casual for a while and then felt compelled to come clean. He looked away, paused a long time, then said, “Ummm … I hate to tell you this …”

Slowly, he started to tell how a short way into his long drive he had stopped to fill the gas tank. He was in a certain state to the north of Oregon** where people have to fill their own tanks. He didn’t want to get his hands dirty and smell like gasoline for the whole trip so he used a paper napkin to grip the pump.

The gas tank filled. As he removed the pump the napkin started blowing around so he grabbed it, accidentally engaged the pump and spilled gas all over his pickup truck and pants.

Scrunched in the cab, he opened his suitcase and got out his pajama bottoms.

Wikimedia CommonsAs he was taking off his pants they started to vibrate. His phone was ringing.*** It was his daughter.

“Where are you, Dad?”

“I’m, uh, at a gas station.”

Of course, he was neglecting to provide a key piece of information. One tiny prepositional phrase would have made that statement completely truthful. So let’s try it again. What he really should have said was:

“I’m, uh, at a gas station … IN MY UNDERWEAR!”

He finished the call and changed his pants. He stuffed the gas-soaked pants into a large, black plastic garbage bag.

He continued on his way. The cab smelled like gas. He pulled over.

He put the black plastic bag in the back of the pickup.

He continued on his way. The black plastic bag started blowing around. He pulled over.

To anchor the black plastic bag, he wedged (wedgied?) it in the side of the tailgate and shut it. He complained how putting up the tailgate produced extra drag and lowered his gas mileage. (Did he miss the irony of producing extra drag?)

Then he came to why he was telling me all this (as if he could keep quiet and not give me blackmail fodder for the rest of his life): “I’m not sure what to do with my pants.”

I stopped laughing long enough (not really) and went to the Google and typed in “How to get gas out of pants.”****

Of course I was being goofy, and was slightly disappointed Large Smelly Boys didn’t pop up on top, but the first item was titled, no kidding, “How to get gas out of pants.”*****

Tip No. 1 suggested laying the pants out in the sun. Like that’s going to happen in January in Oregon.******

We looked out the window at the rain. We considered how attractive a pair of smelly jeans would look splayed out on the front porch. We decided to hang them in the garage.

After a brief discussion about spontaneous combustion, I got the key, opened the industrial-strength lock on the garage and my brother hung the pants over a handcart.

Afterward, he settled in at the dining table with his pajama pants and a warm drink. Like he really needed to say it, but he did anyway, thankfully giving me a great quote: “You know the whole irony of it? I was trying to keep my hands clean.”

Epilogue: He left yesterday. As he was packing up, he asked – you can’t make this stuff up –” “Do you have the key to my pants?”*******


* Yes, Art Scatter regulars will know him as the same brother who has sprayed cold water on me with a garden hose while I was in a second-story shower and cleaned puked pasta out of my sink.
** Geography points if you can name the state above Oregon.
*** Imagine the headline: “Cell Phone Ignites Pants.”
**** For journalistic integrity, I really typed in “How to get gasoline out of pants,” but who cares?
***** For journalistic integrity, it was really titled “How to get gasoline out of clothing,” but who cares?
****** Geography points if you can name why it’s nearly impossible to lay out gasoline-soaked pants in the sun in January in Oregon.
******* Extra credit if anyone has the key to his pants.


My brother was worried about telling me all this because he didn’t want a big public ordeal. I promised I would only tell his story, show his picture, and give his name, phone number and e-mail.

I was kidding him, but here’s a picture of him anyway:

Laura was the adoring kid sister even back then.

I was kidding him, but here are his initials anyway (props to the Large Smelly Boys and Mr. Scatter):

Tough Rat Gonads
Two Rowdy Gerbils
Twin Reproductive Glands
Terminate Religious Guppies
Tranquilizer Reaches Gut
Testosterone Rattles Girlfriend
Totally Real Gore
Teacher’s Really Gruesome
Toss Rocks at Goliath
Teeth Get Rotten
Totally Rad, Girl
The Robust Girls
That Rascally Gal
Tch! Really, Guys?
Timberwolves Rally Gazillions
Tiny Rectal Glitch
Tonic Rattles Gizzards

— Laura Grimes


PHOTOS, from top:

  • This is not the station where Laura’s brother stopped to gas up. Nor is this his pickup, although he might prefer it. And the men hanging around did not help him change pants. But the photo was taken in Pie Town, New Mexico, in 1940, and we don’t get many chances to type “Pie Town.” Photo: Russell Lee via Library of Commerce. Wikimedia Commons.
  • These are not the pants that got soaked with gasoline when Laura’s brother was trying to be all Felix Unger. But we think it’s nice that the parts are labeled. Wikimedia Commons.
  • Laura and her brother. She was the adoring kid sister even back then.

Winter’s tales: Halldor Laxness on love and ice – and fire

“Not much ever happened to him but weather.”
— Willa Cather, A Lost Lady

I think of love stories in winter weather. Perhaps it’s my own small town South Dakota youth calling, remembering my own 60s romance with the love of my life, cold winter nights parking at a turn-out on the gravel road out past the airfield, burning gas, fogging the windows — all manner of heat, and dreaming a life not far different from the one we’ve had. So I can relish without regret cold love stories that are tragic, like William Dean Howells’ A Modern Instance, which begins with a winter sleigh ride, or a poignant tale like Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, with its blue shadows of the winter season and its intimations of the longer blue shadows of human behavior. Even thinking of it brings one of those who-can-tell-what-is-in-a-human-heart shivers.

But here is a cold-storage love story, one that pushes beyond what’s between a woman and a man, beyond the temperament of a season, striking at the ice or fire dilemma of creation itself.

“Where does creation end and destruction begin?” Here’s the preacher’s answer, in the form of a parable about a horse swept over a waterfall:

“He was washed ashore, alive, onto the rocks below. The beast stood there motionless, hanging his head, for more than twenty-four hours below this awful cascade of water that had swept him down. Perhaps he was trying to remember what life was called. Or he was wondering why the world had been created. He showed no signs of ever wanting to graze again. In the end, however, he heaved himself onto the riverbank and started to nibble.”

This derelict minister, Pastor Jon, has himself fallen from grace in Halldor Laxness’ novel Under the Glacier. His parish church stands at the foot of the glacier, its broken windowpanes boarded over, its door nailed shut, and its pews and altar stolen and used for firewood during “the spring of the great snows” several years past. Pastor Jon is now more tinker and local repairman than preacher to his flock. And into this strange world –- the center of creation or the end of the world, depending on who is consulted –- steps the narrator, who calls himself “Embi,” short for Emissary of the Bishop of Iceland. This young prelate has been sent to make inquiries and gather facts regarding rumors of strange goings on at the glacier parish.
Continue reading Winter’s tales: Halldor Laxness on love and ice – and fire

Scatter, the new generation: On the right-brain revolution

The thing about pep rallies is, sometimes there really is something to cheer about. So it was Thursday night inside the Dolores Winningstad Theatre in downtown Portland, where a group no longer called Arts Partners gathered much of the local arts mob for a rebranding celebration — from now on, thanks to the Portland firm North, Arts Partners is The Right Brain Initiative.

What’s that mean?

For one thing, you’re going to have to finally get that right brain/left brain thing straight in your mind: left brain analytical, right brain intuitive. You can color-code it if that helps.

More importantly, it means that after many years of America’s public schools being pushed further and further into a “back to the basics” position that all too often amounts to deadening drudgery, creative thinking is pushing back. And considering the economic, cultural and environmental challenges of the 21st century, it’s pushing back just in time.

The RBI, which has been spearheaded by the Regional Arts & Cultural Council but has had lots of vital input from many other organizations and individuals (including some local government grants), has set itself a noble if daunting task — to incorporate arts programs “into the education of every K-8 student in the Portland metropolitan region’s school districts.” And the goal has a good kick-start. Beginning this winter, 20 schools will give the idea a test drive — two in the Gresham-Barlow district, six in North Clackamas, four in Hillsboro and eight in the Portland district. Programs will be put in place by Young Audiences of Oregon and Southwest Washington, which has many years’ experience bringing arts events into public schools.

Some good old-fashioned left-brain questions remain to be asked, and a lot of tough left-brain work needs to be done to bring this thing on-line. The point, after all, isn’t to kick analytical thinking out of the schools and substitute it with daydreams, but to teach kids how to fuse their thinking and use their whole brains: analysis and imagination working together. How do we learn? What is the purpose of learning? How do we engage our students in the excitement of discovery? How do we teach them to survive and thrive in a 21st century that demands adaptability and suppleness of thought?

Continue reading Scatter, the new generation: On the right-brain revolution

Thursday scatter: cool nicknames, a new guy at the Met

One of our favorite Portland writers, Fred Leeson, has a sweet cover story in the inPortland section of today’s Oregonian on Sweet Baby James Benton, the smooth-singing jazz guy who is one of the last links to the great old days of the city’s North Williams Avenue jazz scene.

That scene was pretty much wiped out, along with the thriving black neighborhood that nourished it, by the midcentury sweep of urban renewal that also obliterated the bustling working and ethnic neighborhoods of south downtown, which at least led to the terrific Lawrence Halprin fountains that will be celebrated this weekend.

But enough of the heavy stuff. What we’re thinking about now is cool nicknames (Benton was being called Sweet Baby James at least a decade before James Taylor wrote that unavoidable song).

Jazz and blues and pop music have ’em. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. King Oliver. (Do we detect a pattern here?) Big Mama Thornton. Wild Bill Haley. Doctor John.

Football has ’em. Crazy Legs Hirsch. Whizzer White (who whizzed all the way to the United States Supreme Court bench). Night Train Lane (who gets honorary musical billing, too: He was married to the great Dinah Washington).

Baseball has ’em. Three Finger Brown. Big Poison Waner. Little Poison Waner. Stan the Man Musial. Moose Skowron. Catfish Hunter. Blue Moon Odom. Nuke Laloosh. (We don’t count sportswriter inventions such as the execrable “Splendid Splinter” for Ted Williams, or even “The Bambino” for George Herman Ruth: “Babe” was quite enough.)

We confess to a longstanding if not deeply felt regret for our own un-nicknamedness. A few people in our youth called us Hopalong: Although it’s true we once created a whole Hopalong Cassidy comic book with a fresh storyline by carefully cutting apart several old Hoppy comics and rearranging the panels in a way that fit our desires, the monicker was tied more directly to our unorthodox running style, which included a couple of hops and a jump. And a few people, knowing both our middle name and our family roots in the rural South, refer to us as “Bobby Wayne.” But those aren’t real nicknames. They don’t stick.

So, the big question: How about you? Got a favorite nickname for a public or semi-public figure? (Arianna Huffington, it seems, has annointed Sarah Palin with “The Trojan Moose,” but we have a feeling the honoree should actually be willing to accept the honor.) Something you were tagged as a kid that has sadly (or not so sadly) drifted away? A name you’d really like to be known by, if only someone else would get the ball rolling? Hit that comment button. All of Art Scatter really, really wants to know.



Big news at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which some of us consider one of the coolest spots on Earth. Thomas P. Campbell, a late horse in the running, has been selected to replace the venerable Philippe de Montebello as director and chief executive. Campbell is 46 and widely respected by those who know him; his specialty is European tapestries. Montebello is 72 and has run the Met, extremely well, for 31 years; he retires next year. With Campbell, the Met went in-house and chose someone with impeccable professional credentials — no sure thing in the go-go museum world, where directors, like college presidents, are often chosen more for their ability to haul in the bucks than for their artistic or academic chops. Of course, Campbell’s going to have to raise tons of money, too. Good luck! Carol Vogel has the story in the New York Times. Plus, a compelling analysis from the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Alexei Ratmansky, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, is leaving Moscow for New York to become artist in residence at American Ballet Theater: The internationalization of the ballet world continues apace. Again, The Times has the report.

And up the freeway in Seattle, Gerard Schwarz has announced he’ll retire as music director of the Seattle Symphony in 2011. He’s 61 now and will have been at the helm in Seattle for 26 years , guiding the orchestra, among other achievements, into its splendid home at Benaroya Hall. His leavetaking will not exactly be met with wailing and gnashing of teeth by a number of orchestra members, who have chafed under his autocratic leadership. But others at the symphony are stout defenders, and he’s put this orchestra on the map. A lot of potential replacements are going to consider this a plum job. Reports from the Seattle Times and the New York Times.

Ashland times 2: A Q&A about the festival’s new direction

It’s been around since 1935, when, legend has it, a young college prof named Angus Bowmer persuaded the town fathers of Ashland, Oregon, to let him produce two performances of “Twelfth Night” and one of “The Merchant of Venice” on an old Chautauqua stage for the town’s Fourth of July celebrations. They gave him $400 and one stipulation: He’d also have to stage some boxing matches to cover the expected deficit from the Shakespearean shows. The boxing matches lost money. The Shakespeare did boffo business and covered the prize-ring losses. And with that, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was off and running.

A lot’s changed in the intervening 73 years. The festival is by most measures the biggest regional theater company in the United States, producing 11 plays annually — usually four or five of them by Shakespeare — in a season that runs from late February through October, and which uses three theaters: the 1,200-seat, open-air Elizabethan Stage (actually an outdoor Elizabethan-style stage attached to Greek-style amphitheater seating with a wraparound porch like a vintage 1930 baseball park’s); the exquisitely adaptable, 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre; and the sophisticated black box known as the New Theatre, which averages about 300 seats. To these shows the festival sells more than 400,000 tickets every season, making Ashland a particularly upscale sort of tourist town, with an Elizabethan purse, sweet Victorian buildings and, underneath both, the practical bones of a modern Western working town.

As the festival goes, in many ways, so goes Ashland: The commercial success of the two are intricately linked. Both have benefited from the festival’s astonishing stability. After Bowmer, it’s had just four artistic directors: Jerry Turner, Henry Woronicz, Libby Appel and, beginning this season, Bill Rauch.
Continue reading Ashland times 2: A Q&A about the festival’s new direction

Ashland report: Words fail (and rescue) the festival

I walked into the open-air circle of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival‘s Elizabethan Stage last night a disgruntled man, and three hours later walked out, finally, with what I’d come to Ashland looking for: the emotional, intellectual and aesthetic transformation that fine theater can achieve. Thank goodness for Our Town.

The trip’s been fine: that glorious drive south of Eugene, where the climate changes and the road becomes a curving slice through the mountains. (Why is Rice Hill at the bottom of the hill and the Rice Valley exit at the top?) An overnight stop, with two good meals, at the Wolf Creek Inn, where Jack London stayed in a tiny room for a few weeks in 1911 and wrote a story called The End of the Story. (I’m going to have to look it up: I’ve never read it.)

A quick stop at the nearby gold-mining ghost town of Golden, where volunteers are working to stabilize the remaining wood-frame buildings (the church has new glass in the windows) of a little boom town that was always different: Built by preaching miners, it had two congregations and no saloons. Two or three genuine markers lie in the little cemetery, but most of the headstones are fakes, set there many years ago for filming of an episode of Gunsmoke: So the not-so-wild West reinvents itself. And bless the volunteers, who have split new rails for the fence along the little road and are slowly reclaiming the natural state of the gouged-out mined areas below the town. May they outfox the woodpecker who was tap-tap-tapping away at the old church spire.

But in Ashland, aesthetically, it hadn’t been a good beginning. On Saturday afternoon, indoors at the Angus Bowmer Theatre, a gauche and vulgar version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that deserves far, far better. Dream is a wonder of the Western World, one of the most nearly perfect plays ever devised, and I’ve often thought it close to foolproof. Turns out it’s not. It can be defeated by a director and designers determined to overwhelm the magic of its language with insipid pop-cultural winks, incessant visual distractions, head-scratching hand gestures that appear to be choreographed but have no apparent link to the emotional lives of the characters or the plotting demands of the story, and a general busy-ness that makes it almost impossible for the actors to settle into the quiet glowing heart of the story. It was the Roman circus, not the magical wood. My congratulations to Ray Porter, who managed a fine low-comedy focus as Bottom, and Kevin Kenerly, who kept his dignity intact as Oberon while all around him were being engulfed in foolishness.

Continue reading Ashland report: Words fail (and rescue) the festival