The '60s that began in Mosman


Hippie Hippie Shake: The Dreams, the Trips, the Trials, the Love-ins, the Screw-ups ... the Sixties
By Richard Neville
William Heinemann, 1995. 376 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Capitalist society's high and mighty had every reason to hate the '60s. They lost control of the youth, whilst every cultural, economic and political pillar that shored up the moneybags' rule got a fit of the shakes. An alternative, underground magazine called Oz was there doing its wild best to help turn the world upside down.

Richard Neville was one of the principal editors of Oz. His history of the six years of Oz in Sydney until 1969, and Oz's famous 47 issues in London until 1973, is an energetic, anecdotal jaunt through those rebellious years of radical change.

As an apprentice accountant, the young Neville looked out at the world from the Sydney suburb of Mosman in the '50s, to where the Sydney Morning Herald headlines rang with alarms about Castro and "Mob Terror in Cuba", where Aboriginals were "outcasts in their own land, barred from swimming pools, shops, cinemas and suffrage", where abortion could land a woman in the clink for 10 years.

Neville's university (NSW) was "a sea of crewcuts and thick spectacles, Pelaco shirts and grey slacks, surging to classes in wool technology and food processing". Religion, patriotism, censorship and moral conventions all contributed to Neville's feeling of "cultural suffocation" and a mounting need for dissent.

Neville launched an alternative magazine. Oz hit the Sydney streets in 1963, its large "ABORTION" headline earning him his first of many summonses from the fuzz. By issue number 6, Oz was reaching 40,000 people, "a symbol of social ferment", and leading the way in challenging social taboos.

War, racism, poverty and other staple issues of the established left vied with hippie extravaganzas on LSD, sexual liberation and wacky mysticism. Oz, now, like Neville, in London, would in one issue ignore the bloodbath in Vietnam and concern itself with flying saucers (Oz 9) and the next (Oz 10) run with the famous photo of the shooting of a Vietnamese NLF suspect in the head, captioned as "The Great Society Blows Another Mind".

Oz went on its merry, irreverent way, though frequently raided by the cops and often struggling to find printers prepared to handle social and legal dynamite. Oz was slow to move on women's liberation. One critic accused Oz of "drowning in its own sperm", whilst one of its "fabulous freaks" featured on one cover turned out to be a rapist. Rape was rape whether committed by the square-jawed men of sexist society or the phallic tyrants of the peace, love and harmony set.

Oz did, however, take up gay liberation with relish, running a cover with a naked white and black gay couple embracing, explaining that "the press is full of male pin-ups who communicate with knives and guns. We want to show bodies who communicate with love."

The issue which really made Oz's name, however, was Oz 28, which was handed over to schoolkids to produce in a brave experiment with children's liberation. Black lesbians, masturbating teachers and outsize genitalia on Rupert the Bear provided the pretext for the authorities to attempt to purge the menace of Oz from their midst.

The six-week trial which followed, in 1971, on charges of publishing an obscene magazine and conspiring to corrupt the morals of British youth, was a benchmark of political persecution. The trial was held in front of everyone's worst nightmare of a judge (Judge Argyle, who retired in 1988 and now heads the campaign to restore the death penalty in England).

With the Oz defendants' lawyer, John Mortimer, doing a real life Rumpole, the trial was marked by farce and humour. Political controversy erupted when the sentences (later quashed on appeal) were handed down — 15 months and deportation for Neville, 12 and nine months for the other editors.

The trial was, in hindsight, a tactical blunder by the panic-stricken forces of '50s orthodoxy. It inflamed political passions and further undermined the legitimacy of the old order. The hypocrisy of the law and order brigade was exposed immediately afterwards, when the vice squad which had brought the charges against Oz was found to be accepting back-handers and pay-offs from the commercial hard porn merchants and partying to videos that made Oz appear tame.

Without a firm political grounding, however, Oz eventually folded in 1973, once its work of cultural revolution had been done. Oz expressed, with an angry insolence, radicalised youth's dislike of authoritarianism, state violence and the sheer boredom of bourgeois society. It reflected their longing for sexual joy and personal freedom. Its radicalism, however, was intuitive and frequently naive rather than analytic and political.

Oz's roller-coaster affair with Karl Marx caused both parties as much pain as pleasure. The relationship, which had always been largely platonic, was never consummated because Oz found the demands of discipline, and the orientation to patient work in the trade unions, too demanding. Dropping acid and seeing salvation in the Hell's Angels rather than the organised working class was easier, if totally deluded.

Neville's "perpetual ambivalence" about the counter-culture helps him to put the politics of Oz in perspective, though he is more concerned with storytelling than analysis.

His critical portraits of a number of '60s icons imply a nascent political awareness. The Yippies' guru, Jerry Rubin, showed signs of becoming a "hip capitalist" well before he embraced the Wall Street yuppies. Bob Dylan's answer to the turbulent times blew hot and cold, as he wavered between Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash. Mick Jagger flirted with the left but at his marriage to Bianca de Macias, "the French resort flowed with champagne, while the Street Fighting Man found Satisfaction with a 75-foot yacht, a trousseau and all the frills of La Dolce Capitalism".

Never politically minded enough to know how to turn its vision into reality, Oz and the hippie spirit, wonderfully preserved in Neville's book, nevertheless left their positive mark on the struggle for human freedom.