Oz Magazine – The Agitators from Oz

December 22, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: Oyster, #79, December 2008/January 2009.

Having survived one of the most significant obscenity trials in modern history, the defiant, staunchly progressive legacy of Oz magazine lives on over nearly four decades since last going to print, writes Dan Rule.

There is a deception to any political or cultural epoch; a recurrent, reinforced narrative. It is the building block of the status quo; the way in which power is established, nurtured and maintained. It is the job of the era’s artists, writers and other culture-makers, you might suggest, to bring forward new ideas, to offer counter-narratives, to – as an all but defunct Australian political party once flaunted as their slogan – keep the bastards honest.

Today it may seem like a given, but there’s an amnesia to cultural norms. As Richard Neville – co-founder and chief editor of legendary Sydney-born counterculture magazine Oz – recounts, at the dawn of the 60s and the twilight of the Menzies era, the notion of an alternative voice didn’t exactly wash in Australia.

“The idea of being critical of authority just had become latent by the late 50s,” says the now 67-year-old. “You couldn’t do it at school, you couldn’t do it at your job and it was considered treacherous.”

Founded in 1963 by Neville (then the editor of the University of New South Wales student newspaper), Richard Walsh (his Sydney University equivalent) and cartoonist and artist Martin Sharp – and now the focus of an upcoming feature film Hippie Hippie Shake, based on Neville’s memoir of the same name – Oz rose from the Sydney art and libertarian movements to create a firestorm in the mainstream. By the time it eventually shut its doors in 1973, the magazine had helped catalyse monumental shifts in censorship laws and freedom of speech, as well as becoming one of the key voices in articulating the anti-war movement and leftist politics

“There was this emerging sense amongst students of the early 60s that we were kind of being defrauded, that actually, all wasn’t as it seemed,” says Neville. “Our fathers were marching on ANZAC Day and going on and on about freedom, but the reality of situation was that there were a lot of books that you couldn’t buy – they were considered obscene – there were the French movies you couldn’t see, the treatment of Aboriginals was starting to drift into the consciousness.”

“There were lots of rivulets challenging that – I don’t want to say that it was the Oz trio that discovered all this – but we floated through this atmosphere and actually had an instrument for pontificating, which was the magazine. Somehow the spirit of the time chose Oz to be that vehicle and we were almost like unwitting pawns in that.”

Oz’s pages spilled over with progressive art, risqué comics, nudity and highly politicised editorial, breaking new ground with investigative coverage of controversial issues such as police corruption and brutality, gay and Aboriginal rights, abortion and censorship. Both the first issue and the sixth saw the editors facing court on obscenity charges – the later for a cover photograph that showed Neville and his mates pretending to use an inner city building façade as a urinal.

After pleading guilty to the first charge and escaping with a slap on the wrist, they pleaded not guilty on the second charge, eventually winning the case on appeal. “I guess there was a sense of shame after pleading guilty the first time,” recalls Neville. “It wasn’t that we were born defiant, but we soon realised that the compromise wasn’t the way to go.”

It set an audacious precedent for the magazine’s move to London in 1967, where – with the help of contributors including Germaine Greer, cartoonist Michael Leunig, photographer Robert Whitaker, journalist Lillian Roxon and artist Phillipe Mora – Oz became an iconoclastic voice of dissent and satire within a cultural landscape entrenched in conservatism. It also, in 1971, became the subject of the longest and most high profile obscenity trial in British history, when the then editors Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson were charged with conspiring “to corrupt public morals” with their infamous School Kids issue.

The trio were found guilty and sentenced to prison with hard labour, sparking massive demonstrations, before eventually being acquitted on appeal. Suffice to say, it was a pivotal moment for culture at large. “It was epoch-changing,” recounts celebrated experimental filmmaker and Oz contributor Albie Thoms. “It focussed people’s attention on what was obscene and what was not and made them realise that the conservative values they had been pushing were terribly outdated. It opened up far more freedom within publishing.”

“It was the overreaction of a declining establishment,” reflects Neville. “If the judge had have been liberal, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. We would have got a really fair trial and been given a light sentence and soon been forgotten, many would say deservedly so,” he laughs.

But the magazine’s legacy stretches far and wide. “It was just a wonderful vehicle for Australians and non-Australians, and it still is,” says Louise Ferrier, Neville’s girlfriend throughout the Oz era. “It’s like a train that goes around a circular line an every four or five years it stops at a station and someone rings you up and wants to talk about it. So its had a real life beyond.”

While Neville is distinctly proud of Oz’s achievements in helping trigger change, as Australia rises from another extended period of conservatism, he is also realistic about the ongoing challenges. “There’s still a sense that citizens aren’t getting the whole story and I think you have to keep trying to break through that miasma of misinformation,” he says. “Maybe it’s just an eternal struggle.”

And that goes for the new film as well – the script of which has attracted its share of criticism from many of the Oz community. “I have absolutely no idea what it will be like to tell you the truth,” he offers. “I completely understand why people are sensitive about it, but I think the director should be given a chance to direct it and I think she’s really well-meaning in what she’s aiming to do.”

“Anything to do with Oz just seems to stir people up,” he pauses. “And I live with that.”


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