The case of Schoolkids Oz

Richard Neville, Oz and the underground in Britain

As I have suggested, the counter-culture in the UK during the late 1960s was rather different from its manifestations across the Atlantic. The authorities’ punitive response to the growth of drug-taking may have politicized some, but the lack of a cause like the war in Vietnam or the civil rights movement meant that young people in the UK were without an obvious focus for political opposition. By comparison with the US, the counter-culture in the UK appeared more inwardly directed, and more concerned with providing cultural alternatives than confronting established political authority. Meanwhile, Britain’s new left radicals were still much more interested in ‘old fashioned’ forms of class politics than their counterparts in the US.

More obviously, the counter-cultural scene in the UK was much smaller and more localized. It was also perceived by many potential recruits as quite elitist and hierarchical. As Jonathon Green’s oral history of the period shows, there was a kind of ‘star system’ in the underground, which overlapped with that of the mainstream cultural elite. This was a small, largely metropolitan world, focused particularly on the West End and on declining areas of west London (Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill) that have since been reclaimed by the wealthy upper classes. While the underground spawned its own alternative economy of bookshops, venues and publications, the numbers of people who earned their living in this alternative world were relatively few in number. As Jenny Diski points out in her memoir, the majority of young people in Britain remained largely untouched by it.

Richard Neville was one of a small contingent of Australians who arrived in the UK in the mid-sixties and quickly came to occupy key roles in this alternative aristocracy. While still a student, Neville had established the magazine Oz in his native Sydney in 1963: it was a scurrilous, satirical publication, whose provocative approach had already resulted in a prosecution for obscenity. Neville began producing a British version of Oz shortly after arriving in London. While the first issues were still primarily satirical, Oz quickly aligned itself with the hippy counter-culture. It was rather less serious and less overtly political than its rival IT (International Times), and it became notorious for its psychedelic approach to the use of colour and design (even its producers would accept that it was sometimes unreadable): if IT was the community newspaper, Oz was like the irreverent colour supplement of the underground press.

Neville was undoubtedly charismatic and charming, but he was also ambitious and self-seeking. He was a skilled ‘delegator’, who would generate ideas and then leave others to follow them through – as indeed was the case with Schoolkids Oz, which was largely edited by Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis while Neville took a holiday in Ibiza. Critics saw him as an entrepreneur, who regarded the underground largely as a kind of business opportunity, or at least a route to fame. According to David Widgery, a socialist activist who acted as an adviser at the Oz Trial, Neville was ‘much less radical’ than many others on the scene: he was merely ‘an adept social climber’ whose primary interest was in attending dinner parties with the fashionable cultural elite. Others quoted in Jonathon Green’s oral history of the time are equally sceptical: Neville’s book Play Power is dismissed as ‘a brazen attempt to become a “leader”’, and as a book that pandered to the fascinated middle classes outside the underground.

These impressions are largely reinforced by Neville’s autobiography Hippie Hippie Shake, published in 1995. Neville comes across as dynamic and creative, but also as arrogant, opportunistic and almost unprincipled. Although he occasionally strikes a political pose, his primary focus (as Play Power also attests) is on a kind of hedonistic individualism. Far from being warm and egalitarian, he appears competitive and egotistical. His strategy with Oz of ‘seeing how far you could go’ seems much less like a tactic to provoke political change than a means of attention seeking.

From a contemporary perspective, the sexism of Neville and his male cohorts is also quite jaw-dropping, yet he barely seems to acknowledge it, even in retrospect. Women are consistently referred to as ‘girls’ or ‘chicks’, and even as ‘dolly birds’, and are mostly described in terms of their appearance and sex appeal. With the exception of the Amazonian fellow-Australian Germaine Greer (who apparently refused to read the book), they remain in the background, rolling the joints and making the tea, doing the typing and running the office, but rarely acting as writers or editors. On this account, it is hardly surprising that several of the women involved in Oz (such as Marsha Rowe and Louise Ferrier) went on to form the collective that produced the militantly feminist magazine Spare Rib.


Reading Schoolkids Oz

Unlike many radical publications, Oz lacked a strong editorial ‘line’. At least on the face of it, the editors were keen to create a dialogue between the writers and the readership: the columns were often full of critical letters from readers, condemning the magazine for being insufficiently revolutionary. The magazine typically paid its contributors little if anything, but one of the editors’ familiar strategies was to invite outsiders to generate material for themed issues. Oz 28, the schoolkids’ issue, was one of these. Perhaps aware that many of the ideologues of the counter-culture were far from youthful, and claiming that they themselves were getting rather long in the tooth, the editors decided to hand over the issue to a group of schoolchildren. As they put it in the advertisement soliciting contributions, they wished to encourage some ‘injections of youthful vigour in our ageing veins’.

The young people who responded were, by and large, older teenagers: most were between sixteen and eighteen, and hardly ‘kids’ or ‘children’. In the short profiles on the ‘contributors’ page of Oz 28, several describe themselves as ‘anarchists’, although most of them also provide their astrological star signs, and several say they are interested in ‘mysticism’, as well as various forms of drugs. However, many of these descriptions are quite ironic and self-deprecating; and many of the pictures show them dressed (presumably ironically) in school uniform. (It’s notable that, here too, most of the young women are described – or describe themselves – in terms of their physical appearance, while none of the young men do so.) Of course, this was not intended to be a representative group: it was a self-selecting sample of junior Oz readers who already knew the kinds of things they might be expected to say and do. As one of them, Charles Shaar Murray, later recalled (in Jonathon Green’s interviews), the whole experience felt ‘terribly glamorous’; and the editors themselves seemed ‘sophisticated and bohemian’, not to mention quite intimidating.

In the issue’s editorial, the editors suggest that these young people were rather less radical than the ‘crowd of revolutionary high-school bomb throwers’ they had hoped for: disappointingly, some of them even seemed to enjoy school, and many were keen to avoid ‘upsetting’ their teachers. As if to compensate, the editors included an extract from The High School Revolutionaries by Tom Lindsay, an account of the more confrontational strategies of the High School Student Union in the United States – claiming (with not much evidence) that this reflected ‘to a greater or lesser extent exactly what most of the school children we worked with were thinking about’. According to Neville’s autobiography, most of the teenage contributors had said at the start that they did not want to write about politics or sex – and it was evidence to this effect that later enabled the prosecutor to put the blame on the adult editors.

 The first two pages of the magazine are a large image of the contributors and the editors, posed like a parody of a school class photograph. Several are wearing uniform, and one sports a dunce’s cap. Neville is front and centre, with his legs wide apart, wielding a cane and making a clenched-fist salute – despite the fact that, as I have noted, he was barely involved in the actual editing. The editorial presents the editing process as a matter of collective anarchy: ‘we all had a fantastic month doing it, milling around weekend after weekend in true communal style…’ It was apparently ‘the sort of fun school can be and only too rarely is’. In fact, several key decisions were taken by the editors, Anderson and Dennis – most notably the wraparound cover, which attracted considerable attention at the trial. This used (apparently without permission) an illustration by the French artist Raymond Bertrand, featuring a group of identical naked black lesbians gyrating and fondling each other: one appears to be inserting a dildo, while another may have a rat’s tail protruding from her vagina – although a photograph of one of the contributors is strategically placed over what is probably an image of cunnilingus. (In his autobiography, Neville says that he questioned the wisdom of the other editors’ last-minute decision to use this cover image, but it was too late.)

In fact, about one third of the content of the issue’s 48 pages – including some of the material that attracted most attention at the trial – was not produced by the ‘schoolkids’ at all. Given that the magazine was assembled by Anderson and Dennis, it is doubtful whether the teenagers even saw the complete text before it was published. Aside from the cover, there are several pages of readers’ letters, reviews of books and albums, and a page of sensible advice on drugs and sex by Oz’s regular correspondent on these matters, ‘Dr. Hippocrates’. There is also a two-page advertisement for a ‘Back Issue Bonanza’, and numerous ‘small ads’, including ads for the sex magazine Suck (featuring a graphic description of fellatio) and for various sex aids, as well as numerous ‘contact’ ads, several from gay readers. At a time when homosexuality was still stigmatized (despite having been legalized, at least for ‘consenting adults’ over 21, a couple of years previously), the contact ads provided an important service, as well as being a key part of the business model of the underground press.

Most of those I have spoken to who recall the Oz Trial can remember only one particular set of images. Alongside the text on pages 13 and 14, there is a cartoon strip produced by one of the schoolkids, Vivian Berger (who was later called as a prosecution witness at the trial, where he was described as an ‘accomplice’). Berger had taken six frames from a much longer cartoon, ‘Eggs Ackley Among the Vulture Demonesses’, by the famous American underground comics artist R. Crumb, which had been published earlier that year. Onto the head of the main character, he has cut-and-pasted the head of Rupert Bear, a long-established British cartoon character; and underneath he has inserted some lines of text from a Rupert book. In this form, the cartoon shows Rupert attempting to have sex with Crumb’s character Gipsy Granny: finding that her hymen is blocking the way for his massively oversized penis, he eventually manages to gain entry by taking a long run-and-jump. According to Berger’s testimony at the trial, his aim was partly to shock the older generation, but he also enjoyed the cartoon because it ‘made fun of sex’: it was, he said, a portrayal of obscenity, rather than being obscene in itself – a view that was backed up by the artist Feliks Topolski, who appeared as an expert witness. The shock and the humour clearly derive from his incongruous and subversive use of the image of the innocent Rupert – a sentimental icon of childhood that, for some older members of the trial jury, must have seemed almost sacred.

Yet beyond Rupert Bear, there was a great deal of other content that is now largely forgotten, and was certainly never discussed at the trial. On pages 6, 8 and 9 is a long story headed ‘The Return of King Kong: Guerrilla Babes Wipeout’. It describes the authors’ attempts to stage a series of ‘guerrilla theatre’ performances in several London schools, or at least in their playgrounds – some of which seem to have been invited, although most were not. The performance aims to raise questions about issues such as school discipline and the failures of the examination system, but it frequently provokes an aggressive response from teachers and (in several instances) from the police. In one case, there is a near-riot, and the ‘guerrillas’ are taken to a remand centre. The story is accompanied by a cartoon of students hurling abuse at their headteacher, who is attempting to expel the intruders.

Subsequent pages cover ‘School Atrocities’, especially relating to the arbitrary use of punishment. Corporal punishment (the use of the cane) was still legal at the time, and there are several horror stories about teachers’ vindictive and sadistic behaviour. These accounts are illustrated with cartoons, of which one features a teacher masturbating as he fondles the backside of a vomiting student, while another shows three teachers apparently caning each other (one seemingly inserting the cane into another’s anus). One contributor describes how his headteacher prevented him from establishing an ‘arts lab’ in his city; another argues that the disciplinary response to cannabis is leading students to take more dangerous drugs that can be obtained in chemists’ shops; others call for proper sex education, and for greater sexual freedom in general. Meanwhile, ‘Xam blues’ provides a cogent critique of school examinations. As well as claiming that the system is arbitrary and unfair, the author argues that examinations provide an inadequate measure of understanding, and are a poor predictor of future success.

However, not all of this material is negative. One contributor writes positively about how his school has allowed him more freedom of choice (for example, in constructing his own timetable) in the sixth form. One article entitled ‘Babes in Arms’ provides a critique of the Combined Cadet Force, a form of military training (or, as the writer puts it, ‘playing soldiers’) that was effectively compulsory in some schools; although another, despite the title ‘British Hitler Jugens’ [sic], claims that the cadets are really ‘good fun’.

Much of this material would not have seemed out of place in the ‘alternative’ magazines produced by school students at the time, mentioned above. The stories clearly relate to the concerns of the Schools Action Union – although interestingly one Oz contributor describes how she became disillusioned with the SAU when none of her friends were prepared to pursue their grievances to the point of directly confronting the school authorities. While some of the material might be described as juvenile – a cartoon of a person on a toilet suffering from diarrhea while complaining about school meals – much of it is cogently written and thoughtful. A fair amount of the writing is ironic or parodic in tone; and to some extent it is self-parodic as well. There is a sense that these young people are performing as ‘schoolkids’, an identity that most of them will shortly be leaving behind.

Alongside this material focused on schools, there is some additional political and cultural content that appears to have been produced by the ‘schoolkid’ contributors. One double page spread describes the impending environmental apocalypse; another superimposes a quotation from Richard Nixon over images of the four students massacred by the US National Guard at Kent State University. While some of the reviews are written by regular Oz contributors, they also feature some extended pieces by the ‘schoolkids’ – including a couple of music reviews by Peter Popham, who went on to become a journalist on The Independent, and an insightful critique of the growing commercialism and conformism of the ‘progressive’ rock music scene by Charles Shaar Murray, who later became one of Britain’s leading music journalists.

Despite all this, it’s hard to dispel a suspicion that these young people have to some extent been manipulated. As I have noted, it was the adult editors who seem to have made the final decisions; and in some respects, they are holding up these ‘schoolkids’ almost as specimens for their adult readers. In some cases, this is somewhat disturbing. For instance, in the midst of the ‘King Kong’ story is a full-page image of one of the contributors, a fifteen-year-old girl called Berti. She poses on her knees, in a mini-skirt, smiling at the camera; and the image is headed ‘Jail Bait of the Month’. On one level, this might be seen as a kind of parody of soft pornography, yet it also raises difficult questions about who it is for. ‘Jail bait’ clearly implies older men having sex with girls below the age of consent, and being prosecuted for doing so. With what we know today about the prevalence of paedophiles in the popular culture during this period, this is certainly troubling; although it might be more reasonable to see it as merely another instance of the unthinking sexism of the male-dominated counter-culture of the time. Yet either way, the idea that Oz’s view of sex was about ‘liberation’ is profoundly questionable.

Like the magazine more broadly, Schoolkids Oz does not speak with a singular voice. There are different viewpoints and experiences represented, and some of the material does seem to reflect the authentic concerns of schoolchildren. Yet ultimately, this is an adult text, produced for an adult readership: it is almost as if the children’s contributions are in quotation marks. It might be going too far, but one could argue that in some ways Schoolkids Oz acts as a kind of ventriloquist, conscripting young people’s voices for a rather ill-defined political project. Both in the magazine, and especially in the trial that followed, ideas of childhood and childishness are being invoked for a wide range of purposes – to promote subversion and rebellion, but also to sanction forms of sexism and elitism that were characteristic of the counter-culture more broadly.


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