Obituary: Richard Neville
'Oz' co-founder and leading light of the counterculture who brought an ex-pat's view to 'swinging London'
Published 11/09/2016 | 02:30
Richard Neville, the co-founder and editor of the magazine Oz, who died last Sunday aged 74, remains unassailably linked to the late 1960s and early 1970s movement known variously as the "underground", the "alternative society" or, most realistically, the "counterculture".
For all its vaunted equality and disdain for "straight" hierarchy, the counterculture produced notable leaders, and Neville, at least within Britain, was perhaps the most outstanding. That he had come from Australia proved no bar; of the movement's leading lights, a good number were born beyond the UK.
Youngest of three children, Richard Clive Neville was born in Sydney on December 15, 1941, into a comfortably off family - his ex-soldier father, also Clive, was managing director of Country Life - and educated at the elite Knox Grammar School, which he hated, and the University of New South Wales.
Here he worked as a student journalist and in 1963, inspired by the gagging of the visiting American comedian Lenny Bruce, and with the artist Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh of the University of Sydney, he launched a satirical magazine: Oz, named for two countries, real-life Australia and L Frank Baum's fictional wonderworld.
When in February 1964 the trio had themselves photographed mock-urinating into a Sydney fountain, the authorities cracked down and the courts convicted the trio of breaching the Obscene Publications Act. The convictions were overturned on appeal, but in 1966 Neville and Sharp, lured by tales of "swinging London", set off for the UK.
Thanks to his sister Jill, a friend of such expatriate Australian luminaries as Clive James and Murray Sayle, Neville had a pass to media London. Here, in an interview, he casually proposed a London Oz, not as the psychedelic funhouse that it would become but simply as satire - a rival to the still relatively youthful Private Eye (Peter Cook would burn the launch issue in the Coach and Horses).
He launched the magazine in early 1967, along with Sharp and Jim Anderson, a fellow Australian and former lawyer. In time they would be joined by the former rock drummer Felix Dennis.
Neville wrote for the magazine - often his contribution would be some form of libertarian manifesto - but his true skills were editorial. If much of the "underground press" gazed too hard at its navel, Neville, with an ex-pat's perspective and an entitled rejection of old country shibboleths, looked wider.
He commissioned writers such as Clive James, Alexander Cockburn, Stan Gebler Davies and Colin MacInnes. He promoted untapped talent: notably the political analyst David Widgery and, most prescient of all his commissions, Germaine Greer, who wrote "In Bed with the English", and an elegy to groupiedom. She also edited an obscenely titled feminist special: "C*** Power Oz".
He noted the ongoing cultural furore, and special issues - on revolution, "flower power", drugs, black power - showcased them all. At the same time Oz, which soon encountered LSD (although Neville himself stopped at cannabis and focused his energies on that other 1960s indulgence, "free love"), became a riot of unprecedented design experimentation.
In 1970 came Oz 28, "Schoolkids Oz". The editors, proclaiming themselves to be ageing, called on young talent to guest-edit. They came, and with help from the "oldies", duly created an issue. It proved a step too far. Oz was selling too many copies, and treading on too many toes, to be ignored.
The front cover was quite possibly obscene, the text a rebellious school magazine run well beyond wild, and the illustrations Oz's usual mix of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll - with images from the scabrous underground cartoonist Robert Crumb.
The establishment was not amused. The police raided the offices and Neville, Anderson and Dennis were charged under the Obscene Publications Act and Conspiracy to Corrupt Public Morals.
The Oz trial, then the longest obscenity trial in British legal history, provided Neville with an unrivalled stage. While his co-defendants called upon the QC John Mortimer and his junior Geoffrey Robertson, Neville defended himself in a bravura exhibition of skill, social commentary and wit.
The judge, Michael Argyle, was as crustily reactionary as the keenest revolutionary might desire; the witnesses a media-delighting parade of the liberal great and good. Outside the Old Bailey placards called for hellfire to rain upon the defendants.
The verdict: guilty. Neville was jailed for 15 months. Again all sentences would be overturned on appeal (the editors turned up in schoolgirl costumes) but not before the trio were "banged up", shorn of hair and banned from running Oz for a further year.
Neville turned freelance and continued to push for libertarian, green and what he would in time term "futurist" concerns. Like many countercultural figureheads, he had produced a book: Play Power (1970), an activist hippie's take on Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens.
It had its moment; more than 40 years on, some sections can make for painful reading, but it remains a classic of its era. An attempt at a "proper" alternative newspaper, Ink, foundered, not least through the widely believed sabotage of its first issue by a hard-Left entryist.
Oz continued until 1974, but without Neville, who had returned to Australia, where he became a cultural commentator, in both press and television, on which he presented his own show, Extra Dimensions.
In 1980 he married Julie Clarke, a journalist. Together they wrote The Life and Crimes of Charles Sobhraj (1980), an account of a serial killer of young adventurers on the hippie trail. Neville published a memoir in 1995, Hippie Hippie Shake - a film was made but left undistributed - and in 2003 Footprints of the Future, a "handbook for the third millennium". A novel, Playing Around, offered an unflattering portrait of Felix Dennis, who was by then a media mogul.
Neville spent his last years in Australia's Blue Mountains, devoting himself to ecological and spiritual issues. He remained, if not a hippie, then a true believer, worried by modernity's problems, but ultimately and indefatigably optimistic.
The 1960s, for all its absurdities, still counted. As he put it in 1988, "I think there was a cultural explosion of some sort which of course was popularised, it was perhaps commercialised, it was marketed, it can be ridiculed, but at the same time at its core it had a genuine spirit of hope for humankind. It was predicated on the idea of making the world a better place."
His wife survives him with their two daughters.