Psychedelic flags of freedom

Michael Horovitz on free speech, free love and the wizardry of Oz; HIPPIE, HIPPIE SHAKE Richard Neville Bloomsbury £18.99
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The Independent Culture
This memoir racily recalls Richard Neville's life and times from January 1959 in Sydney to his 30th birthday in London at the end of 1971 - "the end of my youth". In 1963 with his best mate, the prolific artist- cartoonist Martin Sharp, he founded Oz, juxtaposing iconoclastic student contemporaries with their heroes Lenny Bruce and Bertrand Russell. In Australia, as elsewhere, the times were a-changing. But in 1966, having achieved a circulation of 40,000 for the magazine and survived several obscenity trials, Neville and Sharp headed for Britain.

The new poetry, songs, music, anti-war movement, communal use of drugs and the spending power of the young were drawing together a less competitive, more humane and consciously global tribe. Swinging London turned out to be even wider open than the duo had imagined for the "feverish grab-bag of rebel attitudes and breathless trend-spotting" to which Neville likens his editorial brain. For the first UK Oz he swiftly commissioned "In bed with the English" by Germaine Greer, Colin MacInnes on the growth of black activism, and Alex Cockburn and David Widgery to lambast Paul Johnson and Private Eye for cosy revisionism.

Sharp contributed, among other items, a gatefold caricature of Lyndon Johnson, his head rayed with rifles, cradling the puppet Saigon General Ky as a baby in Nazi uniform, calling it "The Madonna of the Napalm." The blazing visual opportunism of each successive issue (there were 47 in all) projected the wildly unbuttoned and subversive content perfectly. Oz gradually surpassed International Times (IT) to become the most popular organ of the emergent counter-culture - as well as the magazine most hated and hounded by the authoritarian establishment.

Hippie Hippie Shake comes emblazoned with Martin Sharp graphics, colour covers, collages and nostalgic photographs, and is, as much of Oz was, extremely funny. Neville brings back particularly well the broad humour of culture clash, as when his sweetheart from Down Under is buttonholed by John Mortimer at a publishing party: "As the famous silk chatted about the bizarre sexual proclivities of Melbourne, it took Louise a while to realise that his subject was a Victorian Prime Minister, not the capital of Victoria."

Neville also excels, where many a more sophisticated writer has failed, at conveying his first experiences of marijuana and hallucinogens: "Suddenly, my teeth felt itchy. Sharp read, 'No matter how many arrests the police make, there can be no final bust, because the revolution has taken place in the minds of the young.' 'Wow.' Why was I saying wow? His hair shimmered in the sunlight, he was Moses reading from the tablets. . . Giggles floated from the bed. . . Why did he look like a chimp? I felt a chump. Sharp handed me IT, pointing to a para, the words springing to life as a singing telegram: 'The new thing is people just coming together and grooving.' My heart was racing. I muttered, 'Strawberry Fields Forever.' The walls of the studio started to breathe, inflate, shrink, along with the pop-surrealist artworks. Everything roared."

Neville's unstoned, wilfully naive, tabloid-pulpy, summer-of-love manifesto is less convincing: "no money, no clocks, no Wimpyburgers, where the grey skies are strobe-lit, Nirvana is up for grabs, and the wizardry of Oz fuels the engine of Utopia."

But his weakness for such PR guff gets jettisoned, for most of the chronicle, in favour of the erratic bumps and grinds of his sex life, poignant and hilarious by turns; of the more exacting challenges of the London and worldwide intelligentsia who provided the best of his copy ("In the alternative future who's going to build the hospitals?" - Ken Tynan); of having to engage with the harsher realities that ensued in Paris, Berlin, Chicago, Kent State University, South East Asia, et al, and, eventually, with the bullish agencies of law and old-world order for whom Oz's psychedelic flags of freedom flashing were red rags from hell.

Early in 1970, with the new age in mind, Oz advertised for schoolkids interested in guest-editing and producing a special issue reflecting their lives, provoking a dozen or so to straggle into Richard and Louise's Notting Hill basement: "Eddie said that the only way to run a society was by a process of non-pyramidal mutual co-operation. 'Nonsense' said Trudi: 'without a boss, people aren't capable of organising a raffle.' 'What about the international postal service?' put in Chris. 'That's an example of all countries, of all sizes, co-operating for mutual benefit'. . .'' Neville's reconstruction of the way these teenagers talked and worked together makes current Parliamentary debate and operations seem retarded. Charles Shaar Murray, then a sixth former, said later, "I was fumbling around in a darkened room trying to find a light switch: Oz was it." More's the pity that this enlightenment seems to have serviced only the brave new nothing-very- much-thank-you of Mrs Thatcher's legacy. Murray now languishes atop the consumerist pyramid, babbling indistinguishably narcissistic Torygraph Spectatorese alongside such similarly fossilised ex-punky pets as Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill.

That the generously conceived anti-paternalistic schoolkids Oz led to the mag's demise and not to a Duke of Edinburgh Award is something hippie- bashers could do a lot worse than ponder in depth. Enabling the issue represented Neville's true coming of age. As he said, defending it at the Old Bailey in 1971 against the hypocritical charge of depraving and corrupting public morals: "The alternative society has become more practical and political. Sometimes we're so busy trying to survive as comfortably as possible in a frenzied and confusing world, we find it difficult to care about people we cannot see or hear. You don't have to be black to understand the evils of racial discrimination, but it does require an involvement. When you see longhairs or black people or women marching in demonstrations, they don't want to destroy everything you believe in; they want to rebuild and redistribute it so that everyone receives a fair share. . . That is what Oz, or the community of which Oz is a part, tries to do. To redefine love, to broaden it, extend it, revitalise it.''

There's no doubt that Oz "helped free things up,'' as Neville suggests at the close of this admirably forthright, self-critical and clear-eyed retrospect; nor, to my mind, that our whole planet has as much or more need today of that courageous and caring spirit.

A signal Underground episode not recorded in this book concerns the gaggle of German beatniks whose car went phut in the middle of Hyde Park Corner at rush hour. Fortunately a police car pulled up behind, whose astonished occupants the relieved German driver leapt out to embrace with great joy, shouting: "Halloo! Ve are on a Trip, und ve haff run out off LSD: please help us." There it all woz - as every good schoolchild knows, international times need mutual co-operation.