Book review / When bad boys grow up
OUT OF MY MIND by Richard Neville, Bloomsbury pounds 9.99
Sunday 16 June 1996
Nonetheless, it was hard to ignore the prominence Neville gave to his class and intellectual insecurities - the implication being that it was chance that made him famous, and that any dissenting figure could have been in his shoes (and maybe made more of it) if only they'd had his knack of stirring up controversy. He seemed obsessed with describing how he was caught up in the shallow dilemmas of a middle-class rebel and how vague and confused his notions of alternatives to the "dominant paradigm" remained. The memoir ended in 1972, with the trial won and Neville, aged 30, writing to a friend in Sydney: "Please don't confuse the media image of me as a sex-crazed freak with the real me. Underneath it all I'm conventionally minded, a bit of a headline junky and a spotty, immature boy dancing on Bandstand."
So what has changed for Neville in the intervening 24 years? He has moved back to Australia, become a father, carried on in the media and, by breaking into the corporate lecture circuit, struck it moderately lucky. His aura as a Sixties celebrity hasn't quite worn off, but nor has he been much in the headlines - and this is the main reason, one suspects, why Out of My Mind is not a further memoir but a ragbag of occasional journalism.
Otherwise things seem pretty much the same. He still feels the urge to comment on liberalism. At times he gets carried away - "Until recently, I believed I was the only member of the human race who felt this way" - and implies that the Gulf War, Murdoch and the multinationals' colonisation of the Third World would all have gone unchallenged if he had not protested.
His thought, however, has not developed in the slightest. Whether denouncing the avant-garde and subversion for its own sake, or pleading for a "life affirming vision", "a complete revolution of corporate culture", his rhetoric has only the flimsiest of ecological and holistic trappings to disguise its lack of any political, aesthetic or intellectual foundation. He even wheels in the Millennium. "Humanity is gearing up for the party of a lifetime - New Year's Eve, 1999 ... After the morning hangover, the task ahead will be amazing - to reinvent the conditions of a civilised life for a new period of history." Why think now, when you can do it in the next century?
Underneath it all, he's still the partygoer looking for approval. In an excruciating epilogue, his inner voices - Norman Normal, the Romantic Poet, the Inner Father and Mother - toss around the same questions that have been nagging him since the Sixties: Am I a hypocrite? Should I sell out? Should I grow up? The results of so much inertia, inevitably, are extremely mediocre. Neville is still eager to point out his own failings, either directly - "I have always been handicapped by a copywriting mentality" - or by just letting them all hang out. Hippie paternalism, diatribes on the effects of TV while he produces and appears on it and, neatest of all, lamenting "the tyranny of brand names" in the same year as delivering the opening address on consumer trends to a national convention of franchisors. He admits this is ironic but thinks that, hey, it can't be all bad: "A snowballing franchise with a feel-good agenda can be an agent of change."
If Neville seriously resents not having changed the world, then Fritz Stern's The Politics of Cultural Despair or Todd Haynes' film Safe would be reminders of where such cultural criticism can lead. Equally, if he seriously wants to promote good ideas, wouldn't it be an idea, like Theodore Zeldin, to include a bibliography of more substantial works? But it seems that he's happiest hanging out with his family in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, which does indeed sound a good thing to be able to do.
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