THE BUMPY RIDE OF EXPOSING SHIT-HEADS: Verity La interviews Richard Neville

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns

There are stories that have threaded themselves in and around my blood and bones, making through-lines, defining me as they go.  The dismissal of Gough Whitlam is one, Picnic and Hanging Rock is another (I’m being serious: was that story based on fact or not? yeah, I know the answer, but this yarn has always been there, in the background, haunting), and the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger just won’t leave me alone.  One through-line, however, has had the tightest of grips, and that is the tale of three Sydney university students who started a magazine called Oz and went on to London only to be given prison sentences.  And it all happened before I snuck into the world.
Perhaps I was struck by the anti-authority attitude of the Oz operatives (despite being the biggest WASP in the history of the universe, born and bred on the North Shore of Sydney, I do have Irish ancestry).  Or perhaps I was fascinated by how three boys from my own city could cause such an international cultural ruckus.  Maybe I was just doing it to piss of my parents.  Who knows.  What’s important is that it has been a great pleasure to interview Richard Neville, one of the evil Oz three, for Verity La.
Paraphrasing generously from WikiLeaks Wikipedia, Richard was born in 1941 (the guts of the war, I realise) and is an Australian author and self-described futurist.  He co-edited Oz from 1963 to 1973.  After that time, Richard broadcast regularly on ABC Radio and wrote for newspapers and magazines.  In the 1980s, he returned to Australia and joined the Nine Network’s Midday Show where he reported on popular culture and wild ideas; I used to watch with eyes like dinner-plates.  These segments evolved into the Network Ten series Extra Dimensions, delving into sustainability and human potential.
In the nineties, Richard explored the new role for business in the 21st century. This led to his essay collection, Out of My Mind: from flower power to the third millennium – the seventies, eighties and nineties (1996). He also published his memoir, Hippie Hippie Shake: the dreams, the trips, the trials, the love-ins, the screw-ups – the sixties (1995), which has been adapted into a feature film.  Richard is the co-founder of the Australian Futures Foundation, which aims to bring ‘futures thinking’ into the mainstream.

Nigel Featherstone: Together with Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh, you established the infamous Sydney Oz magazine in 1963.  Twice the three of you were successfully tried for obscenity, the second time for pretending to urinate into a Tom Bass sculptural fountain, set into the wall of the new P&O office in Sydney, which had recently been opened by the then prime minister Robert Menzies.  What was the motivation for starting the magazine?  And what kept you going despite the public furore and jail sentences?

Richard Neville: The three of us had enjoyed mucking around with student newspapers prior to producing Oz, so part of our motivation was to extend our youth.  As the sixties unrolled, we also realised our generation was ill served by the mainstream media.  Censorship was rife, aboriginals were locked out, pomposity reigned.  In the Sydney Morning Herald photo library I found pictures of Vietnamese villagers (‘gooks’) being tortured by US Marines.  I printed them in Oz, as such images were not seen in Australian newspapers. (The same could be said today about the 2004 destruction of the city of Fulluja by US Marines, supervised by Australian General Jim Molan).  Meanwhile, the Sydney establishment remained hostile to Oz, and the notorious mock scene of ‘pissing in the fountain’, offered a trigger.  Fortunately for us, they were oblivious to the shift of community values and the rise of a determined youth cohort.  Well, not only youth.  Even the creator of the desecrated fountain, Tom Bass, supported our right to make fun of his work.  What kept us going?  A belief in what we were doing, exposing shitheads and extending our education.
NF: I love that idea of getting into radical publishing to extend youth.  You say the key motivation with Oz was exposing shitheads.  What made a shithead then, and what do you think makes one now?

RN: On reflection, perhaps that term is a little harsh when viewed through the lens of sympathy for all beings.  A massive proportion of young people who poured out of schools from the early sixties onwards had a different mindset from their parents, who seemed hidebound, shell-shocked and prudish. They clung to the past and tried to crush creativity with bullying and censorship. I started out as an office boy at Farmers, a department store modelled on Macy’s, slap in the heart of Sydney. The store’s senior managers stayed trapped in the fifties, pushing Bing Crosby records, corsets and pin-striped suits, when Boomers wanted Bob Dylan, bikini pants, and cool jackets. Along came TV, rock-n-roll, drive-in movies… It was the first time I saw a cultural shift de-stabilise the Old Guard and change the rules, and I’ve seen it several times since. Farmers department store disappeared without a trace.

NF: It seems that there’s a new ‘old guard’ in place, and it’s on both sides of politics, and it’s deeply embedded in our national psyche.  What’s your response to Australia since Howard came to power in 1996?  And how do think creativity is responding to what surely must be a powerfully conservative couple of decades?

RN: These dingbats didn’t learn anything from the Vietnamese quagmire. Howard couldn’t wait to send our troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, not even bothering to allow a debate in the House. Both the Liberal and Labor parties lapped up the propaganda fed to them by Uncle Sam and welcomed George Bush into Parliament – a war criminal who can no longer travel abroad for fear of arrest.  As I write this, I check for the latest estimate of Iraqi deaths due to coalition’s invasion: 1,421,933 (source:  On top of this are the 4 million Iraqis displaced (both in Iraq and abroad) plus a growing number of orphans living on the street.  Who today in Parliament expresses shame?  A single digger who dies in Afghanistan evokes patriotic speeches and dignitaries jostle to be seen at the funeral.  But who in the hell has a clue why we’re killing the locals?  I could go on, but I can already hear the snores of the readers. On the whole I think Aussies are “good blokes”, as has been apparent during the recent spate of natural disasters, but when it comes to the reasons for invading other countries, they are far too trusting of our leaders.
Yes, it has been a conservative couple of decades, yet shocking and lawless in its own way, which is why I respect the incredible ingenuity of today’s tech heads in freeing up the possibilities for discourse, truth telling, whistle-blowing and having fun.  The moment WikiLeaks posted the video of  US helicopter pilots slaughtering civilians in Baghdad marked the end of innocence for a new generation.  How come they hadn’t been aware of this crap? Because mainstream media had let them down.

Popular Resistance, van-thanh rudd, paper collage on cardboard, 2000

NF: If the mainstream media is letting us down, what about the artists – are they up to scratch?  And is it possible to be ‘up to scratch’ in this political/cultural environment?

RN: That’s a huge question.  In the shock/awe Baghdad invasion years, high-profile artists such as John Olsen and Tim Storrier transformed into Howard groupies, lavishing praise on the PM, extolling his steely resolve.  In a vomitous Good Weekend profile, Tim Storrier cited George Bush as his personal hero, and he wasn’t joking.  Bush has a fetish for torture and Storrier has a fetish for painting ropes – what a team.  Luckily the arts provides numerous bolt holes for edgy dissenters who can stretch their vision beyond patriotic claptrap, such as George Gittoes, van-thanh rudd, Leunig, Jim Anderson and many more.  In a broader context, the contribution of arts to our culture is immense and often subversive, even when it looks odd, like John Wolseley’s intricate mapping of the outback and the portraits of Bill Henson.  While the media focus is pretty much on sport, domestic politics, crimes and disasters, the most biting revelations into the human condition are often found in the theatre, and, speaking as a Sydney-sider, I usually feel well served.
NF: You’re a futurist these days (or perhaps that’s what you always were).  How do you see the arts evolving in the next couple of decades?  And how do you imagine artists and the broader community will engage more closely?
My sense of the future is that we’re on the cusp of paradigm shift.  It’s happened before – the Italian Renaissance inspired a flowering of the arts, innovation and commerce (including the invention of double entry book-keeping.)  In its own druggy hedonistic way, the sixties also triggered a social upheaval.  The oncoming paradigm shift will be global.  It may not be pleasant and will certainly be inconvenient, but it could have its upside.
Intimations of this shift have been around for ages, initially focusing on threats to the eco-system, as popularly expounded in1962 by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. Even earlier, cranky situationist Guy Deboard proclaimed that the ‘project of capitalism is the annihilation of nature’.  In that regard, the world has reached the brink, while a range of other threats continue to multiply: peak oil, food, water, etc, exacerbated by military industrial madness and the ever widening gap of wealth inequality.  The good news is that an increasing number of citizens are aware of the issues, thanks partly to the blogosphere, and are rolling up their sleeves. Perhaps we are finally done with the endless shopping, splurging, waste creation, ‘bargains’, and brand crap.  There’s a trend for this rising sense of consumer ennui: Enoughism. US artist Chris Jordan creates astonishing images of waste, gluttony and stupidity, which are as radical as a convention of anarchists, though more colourful.

Cell phone #2, Chris Jordan, Atlanta, 2005

NF: It’s been wonderful talking with you – thanks very much for your time.  If we can finish on a more personal note: having had such a high-profile life over such a long period of time, what are the achievements that you value the most?

RN: My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal.  I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind.  It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech.  It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests, which is why Julian Assange has been threatened with assassination by US politicians.  Some contend we are heading for the end-game, a descent into chaos, despair and the collapse of capitalism.  I’m more optimistic, though capitalism does need a heavy dose of lithium. The future is likely to be a bumpy ride, and the arts could play a more vital role than politicians in shaping and creating the next decades.